Social science research during COVID-19 #2

I have been reading a few papers on conspiracy theories in relation to COVID-19 (primarily because I was asked to read a study on this topic for a journal). In parallel, I have been following the debates taking place between scientists on the origin of COVID-19. In this post, I will argue that there are some interesting discprecancies in how different researchers look at and talk about the origin of COVID-19.

More specifically, consider the lab leak theory on the origin of COVID-19. There are several social science studies that treat this as a conspiracy theory. A few examples are in place. More than a year ago, a study published in June 2020 mapped “retweets that attribute COVID-19 to a bioweapon or a lab in China” to examine the “geography behind a metonymic conspiracy theory”. Another study from September 2020, examined “a conspiracy theory that it [COVID-19] was human-engineered and leaked, deliberately or accidentally, from a research laboratory in Wuhan, China.” A third study from December 2020 looked at “popular conspiracy theories around a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan”. And a fourth study from June 2021 considered “the Wuhan laboratory and 5G theories as classic conspiracy theories”. Of course, this is not a comprehensive review but just to illustrate that there are multiple studies on conspiracy theories within the social sciences that treat the lab leak theory as a conspiracy (similar to that of the 5G conspiracy).

What is interesting about the study of the lab leak theory as a conspiracy theory? The fact that people outside the social sciences do not talk about the lab leak theory as a conspiracy theory. In May, a group of researchers wrote in Science that “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.” For a good overview of the timeline and why a lot of people were quick to call the lab leak theory a conspiracy, see this feature published in BMJ. There is also a good explainer in Nature on what we know, including arguments for and against the lab leak theory. The head of the WHO has said that it was premature to rule out the lab leak theory. This is definitely not to say that the lab leak theory is the most promising theory, especially as there is more support for the theory that COVID-19 is the result of a natural spillover from humans to animals (see also this recent article).

I am not an epidemiologist. I know next to nothing about the outbreak of diseases. Well, for the sake of the argument I am about to make, let us say that I know nothing about the outbreak of diseases. The world is a complicated place, especially when we are faced with a new virus like COVID-19. I cannot say anything about what is true or false with any level of authority. I believe we know a lot about the virus (and by “we” I primarily mean the scientific community which I am by no means a part of), and there is still a lot we do not know.

However, in general, I believe it is limited what social science research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic can say beyond what we can already infer from research into previous crises (including previous research on conspiracy theories). In other words, we do not need to begin from scratch if we are to understand human behaviour in relation to COVID-19. In fact, I believe it is deadly dangerous when social scientists prioritise speed over science when they want to act on an opportunity promptly. In my previous post on the topic, I wrote about how I found it problematic and unethical when a group of economists tried to convince Americans to worry less about COVID-19 in the beginning of 2020!

To give the researchers the benefits of the doubt, I am willing to assume that they are incompetent rather than malicious. We did not know a lot about COVID-19 in the beginning, and it is only fair to expect that we should not even consider the possibility of a lab leak as anything but a conspiracy theory promoted by Donald J. Trump and the like.

That being said, the problem is that such research is damaging. If people who are prone to believe in conspiracy theories can see that social scientists are treating theories like the lab leak theory as a conspiracy, why not expect the same for the real conspiracy theories like 5G? This is why it is paramount that researchers should be careful with how they categorise conspiracy theories, especially if they want to publish on such theories in the midst of a global pandemic.