June 25, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

Covid, consensus and conspiracy: Mapping a change in narrative

I have written about the concept of consensus before, in the context of climate change. Now it’s time to write a few words on how consensus is used as a concept in the context of covid, or more precisely, in the debate about the origins of the coronavirus.

The emerging literature surrounding this origin story is vast and I have only a very shallow understanding of it. So, bear with me. What I can do, a little bit, is follow some traces left by words around ‘consensus’ to see how the co-text and the context in which the word is used has changed over time in the news. Here again I leave it to colleagues in corpus linguistics to carry out much deeper and more rigorous studies. This post just follows a few superficial cues.

When consensus was uncontroversial

The post came about because I was reading an article in the journal Science Communication entitled “Framing the origins of COVID-19” published in 2020, while at the same time observing the origins controversy unfolding on Twitter.

The 2020 article makes a clear-cut distinction between a natural origin explanation and an explanation based on a conspiracy theory (that the virus lead from a Chinese lab – the so-called lab-leak hypothesis): “In this article, we report the results from a survey experiment designed to evaluate the impact of exposure to framed messages about the origins of COVID-19. We focus on two explanations that have received considerable attention: (1) its origins are ‘zoonotic,’ and the virus was transmitted ‘naturally’ from bats to humans, possibly from a food market in Wuhan, China; and (2) a conspiracy theory that it was human-engineered and leaked, deliberately or accidentally, from a research laboratory in Wuhan, China.”

As we shall see, making such a distinction between an explanation and a conspiracy theory was, at time the article was written, a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Now things have become, it seems, more complicated, with the two positions, namely that the virus’s origins are natural vs that the virus’s origins are ‘man-made’, reaching equal status in some circles, even overturning the conspiracy theory theory in some others.

I wanted to see when the balance began to tip. I therefore looked as usual at the news database Nexis. I searched for “lab-leak” AND “consensus” and got 528 results which I scanned very superficially (as I said, somebody will have to do the real work). Of these results 136 were newspaper articles and of these the majority, 47, appeared in the MailOnline. That was already interesting. Back to the 528 results.

Footnote 1: The Washington Post was quite active in this debate. However, Nexis no longer has a contract with it; so I could not access their articles, which is a real shame.

Footnote 2: I did not closely look at the words surrounding ‘lab-leak’, such as, for example ‘trumped-up’, ‘unproven’,  on the one hand and ‘equally credible’, ‘acceptable’ etc. on the other….

The early consensus

As early as February 2020 27 scientists published a statement in The Lancet arguing against a lab-leak theory.

The first article on my list talking about lab-leak and consensus and referencing the Lancet statement was published on 6 April 2020 and comes from CNN. It talks about an international consensus about a natural origin, but also points out that scientists are cautious and open-minded about it, something that is framed in some paragraphs as ‘scientists are divided’… As readers will probably know, the lab-leak story was favoured by the then Trump administration, which probably made scientists even more cautious.

Despite this or because of this, almost all articles I scanned for 2020 talked about a scientific consensus, a wide scientific consensus, a wide-spread scientific consensus, a major consensus, an intelligence community consensus, an important consensus of many scientists, a consensus among the experts, a general consensus within the scientific community and evena public scientific consensus. But shortly after Biden took over from Trump the semantic associates of ‘consensus’ began to change.

A change in narrative

On 6 February 2021 Matt Ridley (who is writing a book on the origins of the pandemic) published an article in The Telegraph together with Alina Chan. It said: “Members of the Trump administration claimed that SARS-CoV-2 may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. Scientists are waiting to see if supporting intelligence will be declassified or if we will hear more from the new administration. However, the public scientific consensus has been shifting slowly. In a significant change from a year ago, a growing number of top experts […names deleted, BN] have stated publicly (several in early 2020) that a lab leak remains a plausible scientific hypothesis to be investigated, regardless of how likely or unlikely.”

A few days later, the World Health Organisation held a press conference about their findings of a mission to China to investigate the origins of the virus, which prompted a lot of discussion – a discussion that would deserve further research. It was at this time that discourse surrounding ‘consensus’ began to change.

On 19 March, the MailOnline began to put the word consensus into quotation marks and on 10 April Ridley and Chan published another article, this time for The Australian, in which they talk again about a ‘shifting consensus’: “The lack of transparency surrounding the bat-virus projects is one reason the consensus on the origin of the virus has been slowly shifting. Today, a growing number of experts agreed when we put it to them that a lab leak remained a plausible hypothesis to be investigated. Another reason for this shift is that the [wet] market no longer appears to be the site where the pandemic began.”

A month later, on 23 May, Judith Curry published a blog post on her blog Climate Etc entitled “Collapse of the fake consensus on Covid-19 origins”, which made its way into my Nexis sample through being republished on 24 May on the climate contrarian blog Watts Up With That? which is covered by Nexis. Here too the word consensus appears in quotation marks: “The concerning saga of the creation, enforcement and collapse of a ‘consensus’ on Covid-19 origins.”

The main argument put forward in support of the man-made covid hypothesis is quite similar to climate contrarian arguments supporting the non-man-made climate change hypothesis, namely that the consensus is manufactured and based on greed: “A key element of knowledge monopolies and research cartels is stifling of skepticism, premature canonization of preferred hypotheses and consensus enforcement, in the interests of financial or political objectives. With the help of uncritical mass media, this effectively results in near censorship of minority views. Since corporate and government scientific organizations also control the funding of research, by denying funds for unorthodox work they function as research cartels as well as knowledge monopolies.” It is interesting to see the word ‘canonised’ here. I’ll come back that.

Following this salvo, on 24 May, Fox News talks about a “fake and forced consensus”. On 25 May, The Sun notes that a “new consensus” was emerging and the Mail asserts that it “has consistently questioned the consensus that COVID-19 was naturally transmitted to humans from animals”. There is also talk of a cover-up.

On 26 May, The Times mentions a ‘growing consensus’, “among experts that the laboratory leak theory should be looked at”. The same day Politico has the headline: “Facebook no longer rating ‘man-made’ Covid as a crack pot idea” and says: “A YouTube spokesperson confirmed in a statement Thursday that claims that the virus was man-made or originated in a lab accident do not violate the platform’s policies because ‘there has not been consensus’ on its origins.” There is hence no longer a consensus, it seems.

A new type of consensus

On 27 May, an article in the Tampa Bay Times states that “a remarkable consensus had emerged” around the ‘man-made’ origins of the virus. The same day, 27 May, The New York Times talks about a “bubble of fake consensus” and Biden is reported as saying that there is ‘no clear consensus’ etc.

There are some exception to this emerging and spreading narrative of one consensus vanishing and another seemingly emerging. On 27 May, The Guardian states that “a broad consensus among scientific experts remains”….. However, even The Guardian conceded on 1 June that “these days the consensus doesn’t consense quite as well as it used to. […]. You can feel the moral convulsions beginning as the question sets in: What if science itself is in some way culpable for all this?” Doubts about consensus turn into doubts about science.

When it comes to science, many people associate this enterprise with some sort of ‘elite’ and this is what happened to consensus. It’s framed as not only fake but elite – a word that has taken on negative connotations over the last few years, especially with regard to ‘experts’.

On 1 June Florida Politics says this about the consensus: “’Beware of ‘expert’ consensus. The COVID-19 lab leak theory shows why.’ via Megan McArdle of The Washington Post — People who believe the coronavirus was manufactured in a lab haven’t been allowed to say so on Facebook since February until Wednesday, that is, when Facebook announced it was lifting the ban. Presumably, this has something to do with the wavering elite consensus on lab leaks. This consensus was never as monolithic as proponents claimed, nor as stifling as opponents now aver. The illusion of near-infallibility among experts promised certainty at a time when the world had turned out to be much less predictable than we’d thought.”

On 3 June, Vanity Fair published an article by Katherine Eban on “the fight to uncover COVID-19’s origins”, which popped up in a series of blog posts covered by Nexis on June 3. Here we find the following statement (relating to famous letter to the Lancet by a group of scientists): “The Lancet statement effectively ended the debate over COVID-19’s origins before it began. To Gilles Demaneuf, following along from the sidelines, it was as if it had been ‘nailed to the church doors,’ establishing the natural origin theory as orthodoxy. ‘Everyone had to follow it. Everyone was intimidated. That set the tone.’” Again, the consensus is framed as enforced rather than emergent.

More interesting perhaps was the reference to the church and orthodoxy. As we have seen, one blog talks about ‘canonization’; an article uses the word ‘near-infallibility’ and now ‘orthodoxy’. This echoes the framing of science as religion by climate contrarians in the past in an effort to question the scientific consensus which was framed as orthodoxy, collectivism, Godism, dogmatism and thus a false consensus. The words ‘canon’ and ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ were used at that time, around 2009. Incidentally, the beginning of June was also the time that some emails to Anthony Fauci were released, but that is another story…

On 19 June, the last day I looked at Nexis, an article in The Age promoting the lab-leak theory inevitably used the phrase “an inconvenient truth” in the title and asks: “What if Trump was right and they [the fashionable set] are wrong? And what if the journalists who have been touting epidemiological consensus science are wrong as well? The extrapolations don’t bear contemplating, which is why you must not mention the lab theory.”

There is so much more one could write about this topic and the framing and reframing of ‘consensus’, about in-groups and out-groups, consensus and polarisation, science and politics, balance and bias, analogies between climate change debates and covid debates and the arguments and metaphors used there – but I must stop.

I leave you with this sequence of snippets which are the breadcrumbs that one could follow to map out more fully the way that the debate about the origins of the coronavirus developed and changed over time: from talking about an overwhelming scientific consensus of the natural origins of covid to talking about a fake consensus, indeed possibly a conspiracy; and from turning what was once regarded as a conspiracy into a new consensus of the ‘man-made’ origins of covid. To do this topic justice one would have to write a book though….

Something to think about

While writing this post, I was thinking: What is more plausible? Evolution tinkering with the virus and successfully producing a pandemic version or humans engaging in intelligent design and successfully producing a pandemic version of a virus? Both types of ‘virus change’, if they were to happen, would happen against the backdrop of man-made climate change, where man-made climate change makes the zoonotic or natural origins of covid hypothesis more plausible, but interestingly it doesn’t make the man-made origins of covid hypothesis more plausible….

A discussion of the natural or man-made origins of the new coronavirus is something that should be encouraged but it’s important to watch out for how we frame it and what stories we tell about that discussion.


PS Added 19 August. For more info, see: Holmes, E.C., Goldstein, S.A., Rasmussen, A.L., Robertson, D.L., CritsChristoph, A., Wertheim, J.O., Anthony, S.J., Barclay, W.S., Boni, M.F., Doherty, P.C., Farrar, J., Geoghegan, J.L., Jiang, X., Leibowitz, J.L., Neil, S.J.D., Skern, T., Weiss, S.R., Worobey, M., Andersen, K.G., Garry, R.F., Rambaut, A., The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review, Cell (2021), doi: https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2021.08.017.

Their conclusion:

“We contend that although the animal reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 has not been identified and the key species may not have been tested, in contrast to other scenarios there is substantial body of scientific evidence supporting a zoonotic origin. While the possibility of a laboratory accident cannot be entirely dismissed, and may be near impossible to falsify, this conduit for emergence is highly unlikely relative to the numerous and repeated human-animal contacts that occur routinely in the wildlife trade. Failure to comprehensively investigate the zoonotic origin through collaborative and carefully coordinated studies would leave the world vulnerable to future pandemics arising from the same human activities that have repeatedly put us on a collision course with novel viruses.”

Image: Consensus by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Pix4free

Posted in Climate Changeinfectious diseases