Wednesday 25 August 2021 6:00 am

Science has been overrun with politics - it's time to take it back

Paul Ormerod is an economist at Volterra Partners LLP, a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at UCL, and author of Against the Grain: Insights of an Economic Contrarian, published by the IEA in conjunction with City A.M.

At the onset of the Covid pandemic in February 2020, the pages of the Lancet, a very prestigious medical journal, carried a statement eulogising China and the efforts it had already made to deal with the virus.

For the luminaries who signed the statement, no praise could be too high for the Chinese.  They had worked “diligently”, “rapidly” and “effectively”.  Without a trace of irony, the scientists praised Beijing’s “transparency”. 

The letter was a key foundation of the worldwide campaign to discredit suggestions that the virus had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. Former US President Donald Trump propounded theories about Covid being manufactured in China or it leaking from the lab. Instantly, the scientific establishment gathered forces to denounce the idea and failed to even consider the possibility. 

Politics has become the currency of science. 

The escape theory has now gathered mainstream momentum, thanks to the efforts of a handful of persistent scientists, who were vilified for challenging the consensus. Investigators from the World Health Organisation were denied access to the lab at the centre of the controversy, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to the dismay of global commentators. 

In February last year, I was visiting the Centre for Complex Systems at the University of Sydney, headed by scientific polymath Mikhail Prokopenko.

As news of the seemingly deadly virus began to emerge from China, Mikhail showed me a paper published in Nature Medicine, one of the two top scientific journals in the world.

The paper, published in 2015, was titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence”.

The article had a variety of authors mostly from the US. Two stood out – both from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Evidence was easily available about WIV’s research into Covid-type viruses. 

At the same time, a daily chart of new cases of Covid reported in Wuhan. Given the underlying maths of how viruses spread, the data point which changed before our eyes was literally incredible. The time evolution of cases of any virus would not generate that observation.

The idea that human error or inefficiency had enabled it to escape ought not to have been dismissed in the way it was. Lab escapes are not uncommon. 

But it was, because political lines decreed it to be so. 

The scientific method is about examining the evidence to test hypotheses.  If hypotheses are rejected on the basis of prior beliefs, science itself is in danger of being discredited.

The science around Covid is at risk of being seen merely as a politicised arm of the global liberal elite. The traditional values of openness and objectivity must be restored as a matter of urgency.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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