Jon Stewart gets pushback for dissing science and insisting on a lab-leak origin for Covid-19

June 23, 2021 • 11:00 am

On the first live Stephen Colbert show, he hosted his predecessor Jon Stewart, who went on a rant that partly dissed science (Stewart said, for instance, that the pandemic was more than likely caused by science”.)  More important, though was Stewart’s unwavering contention that the coronavirus, WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, came from the Wuhan Virology lab rather than transmission from an unknown host to humans. (Let me add that Stewart has worked for good causes: his testimony before Congress about getting more help from those exposed to toxins in the 9/11 incident was eloquent and moving.)

People have interpreted this rant, as I do, as Stewart’s being very serious about both science and the origins of the coronavirus. I remain agnostic about the latter, but do disagree with Stewart’s take that science itself has some inherently bad aspects to it. (I would argue that the scientific toolkit is amoral, but that the tools of science, since they’re used by humans, can be used to do bad things.)

Watch the piece below where it self starts (2:47) until it ends at 8:38 and listen for yourself.

The exchange is funny, as it would have to be given the participants (Stewart’s “chocolate” analogy is a chuckle), but several people, including two editorial writers from the Washington Post as well as journalist Dan Rather, have taken out after Stewart for a.) dissing science and arguing that science is inherently unreliable, and b.) making no bones about where the coronavirus came from.  Now the second question isn’t so important except for historical interest, but having Stewart, a role model from whom many young folk get their real news, make such unsubstantiated assertions about science and the virus has angered the writers (see below).

Here are three articles (the first two from WaPo, the other from Dan Rather’s Substack site) going after Stewart for his monologue above. I’ll give one quote from each (click on screenshots to read):

Quote:

The segment was practically tailor-made to blow up in the current debate over the lab leak. It’s funny and good viewing and features a guy who often lampooned conservatives promoting a theory they have warmed to more than the other side. Even Jon Stewart is saying the theory Donald Trump once (briefly) espoused but was dismissed by scientists and the media was right about the lab leak!

The conventional wisdom on the validity of the lab leak has changed in recent weeks, but Stewart goes even beyond that new conventional wisdom that holds the theory is suddenly more valid. Scientists still generally regard the theory that the virus emerged naturally as more plausible than a lab leak, although that thinking is definitely evolving.

But if there’s one thing Stewart was often criticized for — especially by conservatives — it’s in oversimplifying complex issues to land a joke. (He often shrugged off that criticism by saying he was a comedian, not a newsman. But his show was the news to many young people, and it clearly had a political bent to it.)

And his summation of the argument for the lab leak theory suffers from some of that. Stewart pitches it as an irreconcilably massive coincidence that that virus emerged from a place with a high-level virology lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that worked on novel coronaviruses.

Well, that’s not such a biting critique, but the next one is a bit more critical, concentrating on why we shouldn’t trust celebrities’ opinions on Covid-19 (or, for that matter, the opinions of politicians. Remember Trump and his “bleach our insides” theory of cures?). This piece, and the article by Dan Rather below it, emphasize that science is not a one-way street to the truth, and opinions about what’s true or best to do can change as the data change, as they did during the pandemic. The alterations about how we should behave changed over time, leading some people to reject the science altogether.

Some excerpts:

But these days, [Stewart] is retired and only emerges from time to time, and because he always delighted more in skewering Republicans, it was a bit shocking to see him go on an extended rant on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” about the coronavirus lab leak theory.

This theory has become associated with conservatives trying to prove that former president Donald Trump was right about everything. Yet Stewart apparently thinks it’s the only plausible explanation for the source of the virus.

This provides an important lesson about celebrities: You shouldn’t get your political opinions from them, or your scientific opinions either

. . .Even though Trump briefly claimed in 2020 (a claim he quickly dropped) that he had lots of evidence that the lab leak theory was true, what did it change? Had we had definitive proof from the get-go that it came from a lab, would Trump’s response to the pandemic, and the resulting death toll, have been less disastrous? Once the pandemic was here, it was here.

But set that aside for the moment, and consider Stewart.

Yes, he has every right to go on as many talk shows as he wants and explain his coronavirus theories. But his attack on expertise reminds us why expertise is so important.

The world is full of amateurs who think they’ve stumbled across some piece of information or logical connection that the people who know a lot more about the subject at hand have missed. There are a thousand unpublished manuscripts titled “Einstein Was Wrong About Relativity” stored on the home computers of people with no formal training in physics.

That’s not to say that experts don’t often have biases or blind spots, because they do. Sometimes, they can be catastrophic. But it’s not because experts can’t be trusted, it’s because something kept them from seeing what they should have, or — perhaps more often — they just didn’t have enough information to arrive at the best judgment.

. . .As long as they’re “raising awareness,” no one gets upset; it’s when they take stances on controversial issues that people decide that if that athlete or singer doesn’t agree with them, then he should shut up and stick to the thing that got him famous in the first place.

. . . But they’re not experts, and the reason we listen to experts is that they know more than we do. And if they know more about some things than others, then we have to understand where we shouldn’t listen to them and where the limits of their knowledge are.

That’s why it’s problematic when liberals say “I believe in science” as though science always shows you exactly which political decisions to make. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it has gaps that can lead you in the wrong direction. That’s why we need elected leaders who’ll listen to scientists, then make judgments built on a broad range of considerations.

The nature of human existence is that we have to outsource much of what we learn about the world to people we trust. But if a celebrity agrees with you today about one thing, it doesn’t make them any more trustworthy than they will be tomorrow when they disagree with you about something else.

Well, I’m not sure how many people will now adhere to the lab-leak theory just because of Stewart’s rant. After all, the truth or falsity of that theory isn’t all that important. What is important is the point that Dan Rather makes in the next article: science is our best (and, in this case, only) weapon to defeat such a deadly pandemic. And yet science is a set of tools, and must be wielded by fallible humans.

In many important ways Rather’s commentary is the most trenchant, as it defends the enterprise of science against those who think that it is either inherently unreliable or contains some elements that motivate people to do bad things. No, bad people do bad things. As I’ve said before, blaming science for the spread of the coronavirus is like blaming architecture for the Nazis’ gas chambers.

Here are a few excerpts from Rather’s piece:

All this underscores a simple truth: science, nature, the universe, is complicated. What we have seen in this pandemic is the public witnessing scientific research in real time. Scientists will be the first to tell you that a lot of what they initially think, their hypotheses, turn out to be wrong. That is what experimentation is for. That is what data is for. We learn from our failures as well as our successes. At first we got guidance that COVID was spread largely on surfaces, even as some scientists were warning early on about it being aerosolized. We eventually got mask mandates. Many researchers felt that that came too late. This is not a sign of good faith or bad faith. Science isn’t faith. It’s about teasing out what we know, and pivoting our thinking when we learn something new. Scientists, especially in the early stages of examining a phenomenon (like a deadly virus they haven’t seen before), often disagree.

. . .On The Late Show, Stewart didn’t leave his criticism of science and scientists at COVID and lab leaks. He extrapolated. “Can I say this about scientists?” he added. “I love them and they do such good work but they are going to kill us all.” Let that sink in. Scientists are going to “kill us all?” And he finished up by predicting how the world would end. “The last words man utters are somewhere in a lab a guy goes, ‘Huhuh! It worked.’”

I cannot overemphasize how dangerous this line of thinking is. It is true that some scientists have done some bad things in the name of research — such as the Tuskegee experiments. Scientists have been wrong. Science and technology have been tools that supported colonialism and oppression. Science does not release us from our moral responsibilities. All of this is the case because science is a human endeavor and scientists are human, subject to the same frailties and base instincts as any member of our species. But science is also a way of thinking, where we challenge our own dogmas and beliefs, whe

. . .I am old enough to remember when childhood was plagued by horrible diseases that have now been almost completely eliminated by vaccines. I remember when cancer was an automatic death sentence. I remember when we couldn’t imagine going to distant planets. I remember when we didn’t understand how our climate worked. I remember times when we were less knowledgeable and prepared, until science helped open our eyes. At the same time, I know that science itself is not a substitute for morality or public policy. It is a method for us to understand the choices we might have to make.

What we need is to teach people what science is, and what it is not. We need to show how the process of discovery works, how ideas are tested and sometimes found to be wrong. We need to investigate such stories like the origins of the virus. But we need to put that into the context of life on the planet, our interconnectedness, and all the other factors that shaped this pandemic. We need to embrace science as a quintessentially human endeavor, our instinct as a species to cross horizons of knowledge and experience. Like all of our actions there is a fine line between benefit and harm. So we must strive to create structures and systems of government and society that promote the former and minimize the latter. That does not include fanning the flames of ignorance or demonizing scientists who are dedicating themselves to opening our collective minds to information and data and have done so much to lessen the suffering of the human condition.

I know people think Rather is superannuated, a has-been with little to say. But his piece, as in the words above, is a far better take on science than that of any non-scientist journalist I’ve seen. The man understand how science works, and how it’s intertwined with human wants and desires. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a clue.

And you could argue that Stewart is just making an extended joke. Indeed, his line about the “last words man utters” is funny. But also misguided. And I don’t think for a second that Stewart is just joking here.

But I’ll grant you this: Stewart has a good sense of humor.

66 thoughts on “Jon Stewart gets pushback for dissing science and insisting on a lab-leak origin for Covid-19

      1. +1 He’s seemed serious to me. And after I watched it a week or so ago, I was wondering to myself, what has happened to you Jon Stewart?

    1. Jon Stewart’ rant is a reminder: Don’t rely on celebrities for anything other than entertainment, and his rant is not very entertaining. It is however a reminder of the anti-science mentality of the left that we tend to overlook due to how loud and constant the anti-science of the right is. I know of people, I might even call them friends, who have those I Believe In Science statements (along with other “enlightened” liberal aphorisms like BLM and ACAB) emblazoned upon bumper stickers, signs, and t-shirts yet are anti-vaxxers, pro-essential oils, think kale, elderberries, and pot are magical superfoods, and certain that there is no difference between male and female. Are they any less crazy than a certain republican who claimed a snowball disproved climate change or a well-known huckster who tries to sell people magic COVID-curing SuperSilver toothpaste? Not as far as I can tell.

    2. Jon Steward repeatedly compared trust in science to religious faith while he was hosting the Daily Show. He’s not joking. He’s an “other ways of knowing” kinda guy.

      1. So many in entertainment and the arts are “other ways of knowing” folks, even the smart ones. They are also “lived experience” folks who prioritize their right to an opinion over actually knowing something about a subject. “We all have our story to tell.”

      2. Agree with Zane. I specifically recall watching Stewart claim that both religion and science relied on “faith.” Too bad he hadn’t read Jerry’s book.

  1. Scientific discoveries can be put to good or bad use. A case in point might be radio waves. We have learned to exploit them to communicate via television and radio. Sometimes what is communicated is wise, beautiful, witty, empowering, informative, entertaining and generally ‘good’. Sometimes it is malicious, poisonous, dishonest, cruel, misleading, rabble-rousing and can lead people into doing awful things. I am not sure that you can blame the scientists for that.

    1. Absolutely! We blame Heinrich Hertz, after whom broadcast frequencies are named, and Guglielmo Marconi for Fox News, talk radio, and advertising. It is time to tear down their statues, if there are any.

  2. Curiosity killed the cat, they say. And scientists are curious about viruses hiding in bat caves. So, it can happen that science kills us all. But we probably are going to die anyway.

  3. I’ve often heard people cite Hiroshima as evidence of the evils of “science.” I like to point out that the decision to develop the atomic bomb and to ultimately drop it on Hiroshima was not made by scientists — it was made by predominantly Christian politicians and generals.

    1. Moreover, paradoxically, it (and Nagasaki) probably saved millions of lives, by bringing a swift end to the war.

  4. Stewart is a funny comedian who regularly mocks the high and mighty. IMO, there is nothing particularly news worthy about the clip. He states views that are currently common (lab leak, dangers of science) in a humorous, oversimplified manner. That’s exactly what comedians are supposed to do and he does it very well.

    The fact that the news media takes him seriously is a reflection of the poor and biased coverage on science. A year ago, this would have been interesting but now it is nothing but humor.

  5. I’m giving Jon Stewart a pass on this.

    I never expected him to present unbiased news. His commenting is always biased toward entertainment value, particularly humor. He usually looks for irony.

    If we enjoy the irony when it is at the expense of the political right, we ought to at least be able to appreciate it a little when it is at our expense.

    1. Stewart also went out of his comedian’s role to strongly advocate for medical treatment for first responders, so he can be very serious— and effective— when he wants to be.

  6. I think “oversimplifying complex issues to land a joke” is the best explanation of Stewart’s rant. Although Colbert really doesn’t do much more than laugh during the rant, my impression was that he really didn’t like where Stewart was going with this. Although Colbert is religious, I would trust his judgement more than Stewart’s, though perhaps it is only because of this one instance. There might be others on which my opinions of them would be reversed.

  7. … Stewart, a role model from whom many young folk get their real news …

    Jon Stewart stopped hosting The Daily Show in 2015, back in ye olden days of the Obama administration (hard to believe, I know). I don’t think many young folk are still getting their news from him, and the young folk who did aren’t actually all that young anymore.

  8. Dan Rather? On Substack? Jesus, what is he, like, 117 years old?

    He made his bones reporting from the scene of the JFK assassination in Dallas several lifetimes ago.

    1. Zeus! Gratuitous ageism? One of what the Woke calls “old white men”? Should he hide and be quiet? Oh, I get it – all in good fun. Do you remember what you were doing 11/22/63? I do.

      1. I don’t think any American who’d reached the age of awareness will ever forget where they were or what they were doing on that date. It’s one of those events etched in one’s consciousness. I know the row and seat I was sitting in in grade school when the PA system unexpectedly came to life in the middle of the afternoon, the voice on the radio eventually announcing that JFK was dead, my teacher sitting at her desk in the front of the classroom, tears streaming silently down her face.

        1. I think it was early evening (in any case after school) in Vienna, my parents were out, and I answered a phone call for my dad from a reporter friend of his in Berlin who told me the news.

  9. “But it’s not because experts can’t be trusted, it’s because something kept them from seeing what they should have, or — perhaps more often — they just didn’t have enough information to arrive at the best judgment.”
    Indeed, Erwin Schrödinger’s: “The task is not to see what has never been seen before, but to think what has never been thought before about what you see everyday.” comes to mind.
    By the man who loved pussies, but at the same time did not 🙂

  10. To science, or not to science? That is not the question. When people criticize science as a bad thing I don’t think they understand the implication of their take. Let’s say we came to the conclusion that science is a bad thing and that it will most likely, inevitably, kill us all. Now what? Stop doing science? Outlaw science? Imagine the impossibility of both of these options.

    If curiosity is going to kill the cat then the cat will die because curiosity can not be stopped. Even if good people stopped doing science, bad people would continue doing science and good people would have no choice but to continue doing science to make sure its powers stays in the hands of good people.

    There is zero point in claiming that science itself is bad or that we should stop engaging in it. That would be a level of futility equivalent to that of standing on a beach during a tsunami and holding up your hand and saying “stop tsunami!” The idea of opting out of science to stop it from progressing is a non starter. It’s a waste of a conversation. Science will never stop so long as humans exist. So the best we can do is to stay on top of it and see to it that good people are putting science to good use for the betterment of humanity. This sled is flying down a steep icy hill and it has no brakes, but it does have a steering wheel. Stop looking for the brake. Grab the steering wheel and steer wisely.

  11. Seriously though, there are but 3 possibilities:
    1- The virus jumped species ‘naturally’, via ‘wet markets’ * or other. This has happened before with other virus, and is in no way surprising.
    2- The virus escaped from the lab were it was studied. Also a possibility, I can’t remember, but I think that that too has happened before.
    3- The virus was genetically modified/ engineered and released/escaped. Here we are in conspiracy theory mode, and about all evidence (AFAIK) points to the contrary.

    I do not see a significant difference between 1 (still the most probable since it has happened so often before) and 2. I think the public should be educated about the difference between 2 and 3, and that there is no serious evidence for 3.

    *Note that the Alt-right and Ctrl-left meet each other there. The Alt-right wants to blame the Chinese lab and government, the Ctrl-left wants to deny that Chinese eat bats, or basically anything that moves.

    1. “The virus was genetically modified/ engineered and released/escaped. Here we are in conspiracy theory mode”

      “Modified and escaped” is different from “Engineered and released”. The latter is in conspiracy territory. The former is a reasonable possibility for which there is not much evidence but a strong prior probability. WIV and Eco-Health Alliance said they would do gain of function experiments on alphacoronaviruses from bats, and one way to do those is by serial passage through human cells to generate virus strains that are more transmissible. That’s not engineering as one might commonly understand it, but it could readily have generated something like SARS-CoV-2.

      But I agree not much direct evidence either way.

      1. Yes, you are right, it was incorrect of me to heap modified and escaped with engineered and released. Indeed, the first is not an unreasonable speculation, it is the latter that is conspiracy theory territory.

      2. I’ve just been listening to More or Less on this one. The virus involved in COVID19 is 96% the same (in terms of RNA base pairs) as one found in bats in 2012. This means, that this particular strain and SARS-CoV-2 have a common ancestor from about 35 years ago.

        The interesting point though was that the differences between SARS-CoV-2 and the bat virus are distributed randomly throughout the RNA. If it had been modified by humans, we would expect the differences to cluster in hot spots where the humans had spliced in or removed specific RNA fragments.

        In the absence of any better evidence, I ‘m happy to conclude that the virus was not created or modified by humans.

        1. “The interesting point though was that the differences between SARS-CoV-2 and the bat virus are distributed randomly throughout the RNA. If it had been modified by humans, we would expect the differences to cluster in hot spots where the humans had spliced in or removed specific RNA fragments.”

          I think this reflects a misunderstanding. First, a laboratory selection experiment at WIV could have produced a selected SARS-CoV-2 strain with higher transmissibility without any splicing or removal of RNA fragments. Indeed, the *addition* of the furin cleavage site by an insertion in SARS-CoV-2 relative to other bat alpha coronaviruses requires some kind of explanation *not* involving spicing or lab engineering in order to be accounted for by a natural origins hypothesis.

          Second, the selection experiment is not expected to be a hard selective sweep in which all genetic variation is descended from one new mutant (e.g., in the spike protein that confers higher transmissibility) that arose *after the selection experiment started*. The research project at WIV (at least as described by the researchers themselves) was not long enough to sample a lot of new mutations. Instead, in a soft sweep of standing genetic variation, like that produced by artificial selection on a diverse sample of bat viruses selected for transmissibility in lab cultures of human cells, the advantageous variant (e.g., in the spike protein) will already be present in that wild sample and it will occur in lots of different ancestral strains in the starting lab population. The advantageous variant in that diverse wild sample will be linked to lots of other variable RNA nucleotide sites in lots of different ancestral strains in the sample. By the end of the selection process, the selected trait will be found in all of the selected viruses but it will occur in many different genetic backgrounds where the variant is linked to variable sites in other parts of the genome that get selected along with the advantageous variant.

          If that’s how the selection experiment unfolded at WIV, then it would not be a surprise that there are lots of other differences between the selected lab strain and the ancestral strain collected in 2012, or that the differences are randomly distributed around the (tiny) virus genome. That possible selection experiment is also consistent with the observed diversity of SARS-CoV-2 strains found in human infections.

          But I agree there isn’t conclusive evidence for the lab leak, and SARS-CoV-2 could have come directly from a wildlife host not via the WIV experiments.

          Also I admit that my comment seems like a lot of special pleading for the lab leak hypothesis. I’m wary of sounding like a conspiracist. I’m really just a very interested observer of all this.

    2. “The virus was genetically modified/ engineered and released/escaped. Here we are in conspiracy theory mode, and about all evidence (AFAIK) points to the contrary.”

      I think you are incorrect about this. According to the article by Nicholas Wade:

      “It is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice,” says Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety. “It is also clear,” Ebright said, “that, depending on the constant genomic contexts chosen for analysis, this work could have produced SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.” “Genomic context” refers to the particular viral backbone used as the testbed for the spike protein.

      When you say that “there is no serious evidence for 3” you appear to be overlooking, among other sources, the statement of David Baltimore, an eminent virologist and former president of CalTech: “When I first saw the furin cleavage site in the viral sequence, with its arginine codons, I said to my wife it was the smoking gun for the origin of the virus… These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for SARS2.”

      1. A virologist giving an opinion is not evidence. There are other virologists looking at the same data and concluding the opposite. Evidence would be a scientist from the Wuhan lab saying they created it or that it was released accidentally. I doubt that will ever happen so we’re not likely to answer this question without more real evidence.

        1. Baltimore really is a heavyweight. But he is not a specialist in Corona viruses. And so he should have checked his assumptions before making speculative public statements to journalists. Since others have pointed out that the data disagrees with him he has had to dial back his statement. His “smoking gun” turns out to be kind of common.

          Many coronaviruses, including 4 out of the 7 human corona viruses have furin cleavage sites. SARS-CoV-2 happens to have a peculiarly sub-optimal one. The codon, CGG, that Baltimore objected to turns out not to be rare in coronaviruses. And the two instances of it that he specifically objected to in the cleavage site both turn out to be highly conserved. Contrary to his expectation they are not being selected against. There are at least three known mechanisms that could have naturally given rise to the cleavage site Baltimore thought looked suspicious – polymerase slippage, template switching, recombination. All of these are common with viruses, they are rich with insertion and deletion events.

          https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-06-08/nobel-laureate-baltimore-smoking-gun-for-the-covid-lab-leak-theory – Baltimore recasts his objection as a suggestion we keep an open mind.

          Discussion of the data by a virologist who had the same initial impression that Baltimore had, but then went and sanity checked his assumptions, and found them to be unsupported:
          https://web.archive.org/web/20210527162603/https://twitter.com/K_G_Andersen/status/1391507230848032772?s=20

          And for what it’s worth, Wade’s piece appears to me nothing more than selective hyper-skepticism and permissive speculation. It contains precisely zero positive evidence of a lab leak.

          Mike (above) is right in saying that we can’t absolutely rule out escape from a lab. But it remains unlikely, particularly when there is as yet no evidence it was in the lab in the first place. No track and trace that connects the early outbreak to the lab. No evidence that lab workers and their family members were covid-19 positive at that time. The sort of evidence that should exist for an accidental escape.

  12. I think Jon Stewart’s point is much more subtle than the over the top comedy he used to make it. That the lab leak theory was handily dismissed and worse, described as a conspiracy theory (some exaggerated versions of it are), by popular mainstream media – when as he says – the name of the virus is right on the building edifice + clear motive for government in China to suppress – is the main point. My own personal bet, with the imperfect information I’ve seen on the topic – hovers at around 60/40 for the nature origin, but I remain annoyed at the treatment of alternate theories. It’s not a failure of science, but a failure of human bias – once again.

    1. The name isn’t “Wuhan virus” – that’s from the conspiracy theory.

      There is a serious argument to make over a lab leak, but that isn’t part of it.

  13. Stewart and Colbert — those two almost always make me laugh. Ultimately, that’s all I expect of comedians.

  14. I was quite impressed by Dan Rather’s expression about the nature of science. It’s been a while since I read or heard his work, but I seem to remember it generally being of above-average quality, and this is certainly consistent with that assessment. He writes very well, too.

  15. It appeared to me that some people took the view that the virus could not have been related to it’s study in the Wuhan lab, primarily because some republicans claimed it did originate there. If the republicans had no evidence for their statements, then anyone forming their views simply to oppose the republican view is also doing so without good evidence.

    I have certainly heard some conspiracy theories that defy both logic and evidence. Certainly the idea that the 9/11 attacks were actually carried out through the US of US missiles or controlled demolition fits that description. We have lots of available footage of the aircraft impacts, lots of physical evidence was at the scene, and anyone who is proficient with explosives would see the controlled demolition idea as hopelessly complicated to achieve, and with no evidence of it having occurred.

    The Wuhan issue is not at all like 9/11. We have no direct evidence of critters infected with Covid at the Wuhan market. They have not found populations of wild animals in the Wuhan area that carry the disease, either. Small populations of animals with similar but not identical coronaviruses have been identified, but those are more than 1,000 km from Wuhan.
    We do know that different strains of Covid were being studied in a very few labs worldwide, with WIV being one of them. It is my understanding that the folks at the Wuhan lab have been fairly opaque about their specific research or the medical histories of those employed there.

    Stewart is obviously not a virologist with specif knowledge of Covid origins. But suggestions of a lab origin cannot be anti-science, because there is no publicly available hard science with definitive conclusions about the virus origins.
    Instead, there are a series of probabilities to weigh against each other. Until some evidence is released that makes one option very likely to be the accurate one, neither should be dismissed out of hand.
    The opinions of Donald Trump should not influence our judgement about this, nor should the political needs of the CCP. When I hear the idea that the contagion might be somehow related to the lab dismissed as a debunked conspiracy theory, that seems like a position reached through political means.

    1. Calling a theory without factual basis a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean that it is wrong. Republicans offered the Wuhan Lab origin theory for political reasons, not because they had evidence. Dems and the media simply called them on it.

      1. I cannot presume to know whether the initial claims that the lab was involved were purely politically motivated, or if they were inspired by analysis from the intelligence community.

        If someone, even someone in politics, makes an assertion but does not offer enough data supporting that assertion to satisfy you of it’s accuracy, the more appropriate response would be to ask for more data. Or perhaps you might want to counter with data that disproves the assertion.
        In this case, not much definitive data has been released. Certainly not data that would exclude WIV as a source. So declaring it a conspiracy theory, denouncing those who suggest it as racist, and banning them from social media seems kind of absurd.

        I don’t personally see that the possibility of a failure of safety measures in a BSL-4 lab is measurably more offensive than the assertion that the infection was triggered by a market that sells live pangolins, puppies and bats for people to eat.

        “The Dems and the media” did not just call out the republicans, they forcefully denounced anyone who strayed from the official CCP narrative of the course of events. The WHO did not distinguish itself much in that regard either. Most of us understand that there are some conflicting concerns at play here. Especially with the media being pretty well tied into business relationships with China.

        1. You suggest that the intelligence community might have had evidence. Sounds like your own pet conspiracy theory. As far as I know, the people pushing the lab origin story weren’t claiming that. If they had, the press and the public would have demanded to hear about it.

          As far as asking for more data, you don’t think people asked for it? That seems unlikely. Sure, these people had all kind of evidence but no one thought to ask them for it.

          I don’t know what media you listened to but CNN most definitely told their audience about all the theories and that there was no definitive evidence. We all knew that some were pushing the lab origin theory and others were pushing the animal theory. I never heard them say that the origin theory was incorrect, just that those pushing it didn’t offer any evidence. Perhaps you confused the two.

          1. I tend to shift around, and try not to rely on any single source.
            WAPO- “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a conspiracy theory that was already debunked”
            Forbes-“The Wuhan lab leak hypothesis is a conspiracy theory, not science”
            NPR-“Scientists debunk lab leak theory”
            NPR- “Virus researchers say there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else.”
            AP- the “conspiracy theory that the virus was leaked — either accidentally or intentionally — from a lab in Wuhan, China, is a falsehood”
            CNN- the lab leak theory is “a totally evidence-free conspiracy theory about the disease”

            You flip a coin. Before either of us has had a chance to look at it, I call tails. You call heads, and tell me that mt idea that it landed heads up is a conspiracy theory, conceived without evidence, and hateful as well. I start to reply, and you kick me off of social media, and tell me that the “tails” theory has been debunked.

            But neither of us has seen the coin. Beyond that, I have access to intelligence assets that have been studying the issue, and have been briefing me on the most likely heads/tails scenario. Maybe high speed camera footage of the toss, or an IR scan of your hand covering the coin. Perhaps those images are inconclusive, so my confidence in “tails” is less than 100%. But you can’t debunk my call unless you have either peeked, or have better intelligence assets than I do.

            But back at the lab, the idea that the intelligence community might have evidence is not much of a conspiracy theory. I have been on the receiving end of a great many such briefings, although obviously not the comprehensive and unredacted ones POTUS receives. There is no doubt in my mind that those briefings would include the sources of the pathogen, and a frank assessment of how high the confidence is that the source is named accurately. That would be a primary issue. When radiation started seeping across Europe, whether the leak originated from Chernobyl or Kursk was one of the first questions asked.

            Because the source matters, especially as a means of preventing the next such outbreak. If the issue is failure to maintain negative pressure in a set of rooms at the WIV, cleaning up the wet markets is not going to be a good preventative measure.
            A lab leak, properly analyzed, might lead to global cooperation in changes to all such facilities as a condition of their holding BSL-4 status.

            1. I suspect that you are putting too much emphasis on “debunked” when used in a title. It probably doesn’t mean that actual evidence countering the claim was unveiled, just that the promoter of the theory was found to be offering it without evidence. It’s just another way of calling “bullshit”. It is a bit of a misuse of the word but that’s nothing new when it comes to titles. The media is always trying to hype the drama.

              That the intelligence community MIGHT have evidence is not controversial, as far as I’m concerned. It’s always possible they have some intercepted communique that bears on the subject. What matters more is whether someone offering the lab origin theory is using that as evidence. As far as I know, they have not. If they said that they’ve seen intelligence from Bureau X, the media would immediately ask Bureau X if it was true and, if so, what they had. It seems really unlikely they would hold back on such intelligence in this case. It’s not like we’re worried about embarrassing the Chinese government.

              1. When I think about what it means to debunk something, the first thing that comes to mind is the way The Amazing Randi debunked various claimed psychics and faith healers. In every case, he examined their claims, discovered and ultimately revealed the means by which they worked their deception. I think most reasonable people would hear that something has been debunked, and assume that some sort of analysis of facts has taken place, proving the claims to be almost certainly false. Or even that there is an alternate explanation supported by more reliable facts.
                The “wet market” hypothesis is neither of these things. Nobody has shown that animals infected with Covid were there, or even that Covid carrying species, sourced from areas known to harbor Covid, were previously sold there.
                One of the points made is that often virology research is carried out in areas where those diseases are found. And while it is true that populations of animals with similar diseases have been found in China, those animals live a very long way from Wuhan. That does not rule out the possibility, of course. But there is one place in Wubei province that we know with reasonable certainty had Covid on site prior to the outbreak. It seems logical to start any investigation with the assumption that the disease may well have come from the one place it is known to have been present.

                With the intelligence issue, it is not normal or appropriate to reveal sources and methods. When I receive a security briefing prior to entering a hostile area, I expect to see an analysis of threats and a rundown of recent incidents that could reasonably impact my mission. I would never expect the briefing to include how they know these things, except in the most general terms.
                For the top tier intelligence services, it is not about embarrassing the CCP, it is about revealing intelligence that could allow the CCP to know the limits of our intelligence gathering abilities, or as a worst case, allow them to identify our source and neutralize it. That does not necessarily mean shooting our spy in the WIV, it could be something like realizing that what they thought was a secure conduit of communications is insecure, and developing a new one.

  16. The WaPo one couldn’t help but resort to the same logical fallacy that got the press into trouble in the first place: that the lab-leak theory is questionable because people who believe it are associated with Trump.

    Rather “cannot overemphasize how dangerous” it is to say what Stewart did. Stewart’s “attack on expertise” involves “fanning the flames of ignorance or demonizing scientists.” But look, what if it is actually true that Covid-19 was created in a lab via gain-of-function research, a theory that many competent scientists credit? Or what if it wasn’t but scientists are currently engaged in research involving creating chimerical viruses which, if they got loose, could wreak incalculable havoc on the human population? If such a danger exists is it an “attack on expertise” to suggest that the background that scientists have does not give them either the authority or sufficient wisdom to be the final arbiters of the level of risk to which it is not inappropriate to expose the entire population?

    1. I don’t know how scientists can credit some sort of “accelerated evolution” when we don’t see examples elsewhere – the virus split from other similar about 50 years ago. And it doesn’t show signs of artificial function inserts.

      Can you name those “competent scientists”? And why do we not see peer -reviewed papers elaborating on the possible artificial origin?

      A chimera is no more or less dangerous than its components, unless you have targeted it to be. And the majority we know evolve naturally as well: “Other viral chimeras have also been found, and the group is known as the CHIV viruses (“chimeric viruses”)” [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimera_(virus) ].

      “Combining two pathogenic viruses increases the lethality of the new virus[8] which is why there have been cases where chimeric viruses have been considered for use as a bioweapon.”

      “Studies have shown that chimeric viruses can also be developed to have medical benefits.”

      University research has ethical oversight boards in many nations..

  17. “But his attack on expertise reminds us why expertise is so important.” – Dan Rather

    “Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Richard Feynman (1999) “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” p:187

    (I hope I am not opening myself to the same fate as Ashutosh Jogalekar, who was fired by Scientific American for commenting on biographies of Feynman with insufficient condemnation of him because of his sexism.)

  18. I was disappointed in Stewart’s rant also: NOT b/c the lab escape theory is the rantings of the right but because it seems all the people who ACTUALLY KNOW THIS STUFF say it is highly unlikely.

    And I have a BIG flea in my ear about celebrities making scientific judgements.
    His arguments were weak also.
    D.A.
    NYC

  19. This will get me in trouble, but here goes…
    There have been numerous examples on this site of articles/people etc professing something, and the question of whether they are ‘serious’ or not. Usually, it is decided that they were. (No, no proof – I notice it every time it happens, but don’t keep a log).
    I just wanted to say, that here in Australia, we look at every instance of this, and for the most part, it is really really easy to tell if it is satire, ‘taking the piss’ (as we say), serious ranting, misguided ideas…
    That comment quickly devolves into something like ‘Americans can’t detect satire/bullshit but we can’ – so please don’t. I’m just sayin’…it just seems so easy/obvious.
    Now the reason might not be country of origin – I like to think it is easy for those who feasted, when young, on Monty Python, The Goons, Morecombe and Wise, Yes Minister, Paul Hogan show (here in Oz), Dave Allen, Kenny Everitt (and there are some of the best US shows as well, lest you think I am excluding).
    I mean, no one takes Archie Bunker as actually representing those views (great show, btw).
    So, my flimsy premise is unsubstantiated, and merely motivated by what I have seen in the past – unverified, easily dismantled, but mine nonetheless (kudos to Ms Elk).
    Of course, before the take-down – maybe I’m not serious about any of it…

    ps: I can’t live without this site. It is my daily medicine.
    pps: we are in lockdown here in Victoria, so some stir-crazy keyboarding on my part also…

    1. Colbert certainly engaged and may still engage in satire (I don’t watch his show, so couldn’t say how much he employs it now). Stewart has always been more of a straight-up ‘observational humor’ type of act.

      It’s possible this was satire, but I think probably not. Read John E and Zane’s comments above – Stewart appears to be pretty consistent in his ‘suspicion of science’ commentary across the years. So it’s more likely this is something he actually believes.

      1. Although it may be something Stewart believes, it is unclear what “it” refers to. He is stating the obvious, that Wuhan was the source of the virus AND contains a lab which studies viruses, in a humorous way. He’s not claiming that he’s sure the lab was the source of the virus. He’s offering no new evidence one way or the other. I don’t have any problem with that. As far as I’m concerned, the lab origin theory is still on the table. It’s the somewhat anti-science and anti-scientist part of the rant that is troubling to hear. I don’t know if people really ever listened to Stewart as a source of news, but he is a valued news commentator and often makes serious political observations and is an activist himself. We don’t like to learn that our heroes are flawed.

    2. For me, it is obvious that Stewart is pissed at the media who wanted to close the subject immediately by claiming the Wuhan lab hypothesis was debunked ( how couldn’t it be, it was first advanced by Gopers ! ) and that those who, somehow, made a link between the virus and the Wuhan Lab were just fools…

  20. The unfortunate thing about the lab theory was that it was pushed at a time when there was a media focus on China – I remember seeing it in papers in Australia pushed without any supporting evidence for it. It was hard to think of it as anything other than pushing a sensationalist headline at the time, in line with anti-Chinese sentiment (I had to convince a friend not to cancel a catch-up at a Chinese restaurant, reminding him that it’s more likely that he’ll catch COVID on the tram ride to the restaurant than in it.)

    One of the problems is the lack of evidence, not helped by China’s lack of transparency and their unwillingness to allow for an independent investigation. We’ll probably never know the truth now as China decided to prevent any real attempt to understand the origins of the virus to take place. Not helped by Trump et al. of course (it’s not like China is the only country playing politics)

    1. That a hypothesis is “pushed” rather than comes naturally doesn’t augur well.

      I don’t think China “decided” to prevent increased understanding. They did not use good enough methods the first time around. We’ll see what comes out of it.

      1. I think when international pressure came in, China definitely put limits on what could it couldn’t be asked or addressed. Yeah, they didn’t do well the first time around, but they didn’t help things by deliberately retarding the international efforts to make sense of it. From a global health perspective, we all lost because China cared more about their international image than the well-being of people.

  21. Echoing David Anderson in 21, above, it would be well to play up some of what’s discussed here from about 32min and for the next 35 or so min on why the lab origin doesn’t hold water. And it’s not just in Episode 771, this is just the latest one to focus on that.

  22. I can’t help wondering….If Jon Stewart’s ‘monologue’ had appeared word for word in The Onion what would be readers’ opinions? He was not on the evening news. It was pure satire on Stewart’s part. This and nothing more. IMO.

  23. I suspect this anger over Jon Stewart going rogue comes from the intense fervor with which Americans identify with their political sports team. Democrats have been particularily red-faced because by accident an assertion of the Elephant Team became a bit more plausible.

    The Elephant Team had made it their core identity to believe in furthest-fetched conspiracy theories. Fans of the Donkey Team could feel unusually superior and great about this. They believe reality and the arc of history are on their side, and now the numinous forces of the universe seem to finally acknowledge that.

    Biden defeated Trump, Democrats “believing in science” took over, and that has brought the Covid numbers down. All was good. This was the right way. But sports and American politics are insecure. What if your team loses next time? What if the other side might be right one time, scoring points?

    I wonder what difference would it make, if the lab leak was generally accepted? I think that‘s unlikely anyway (I don‘t care either way). This tells me the real issue is something else. I think that’s the loyal, unwavering support for political sports teams and their particular message; the extreme polarisation in US politics where many issues, even if eventually pointless, are integral part of identity; and with Jon Stewart being a sort of traitor now in the eyes of the bue team. The “science” part is more window dressing, and an almost religious belief in science also part of the Donkey Team brand.

  24. Seriously? It looked like satire – Colbert is laughing, claiming they stopped recording and referring to a US politician who apparently call SARS-Cov2 (which causes Covid-19) for the ‘Wuhan virus’ like Trump did.

    I’ve heard lots of satire from Stewart. He is gfunny at times – if satire is funny is another topic.

    Finally, on the unlikely (but still marginally possible) “lab-leak” origin hypothesis, the last news cycle is that data transfer from a database to another is deemed suspicious simply because it involved erasing the old data. It is a self destructive hypothesis – now even more unlikely since the presumed support has become ordinary data transactions – as one would expect.

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