Discussion about COVID-19 non-scientific origins considered harmful

by dyokomizo2 min read5th Apr 202013 comments



[Text status: rough draft after initial review]

[Epistemic status: unclear on actual risk values and how to reduce it]

[Edit log: added missing word, added a explaining link to ban and a disclaimer that a question in the end is rhetorical]

The important thing is to get rid of the arrow, not to inquire where it came from.

-- Sangharakshita, about the "Parable of the Poisoned Arrow"

tl;dr, avoiding the existential risk of a nuclear war between the US and China is reason enough for the rationalist community to ban discussion of COVID-19 non-scientific origins and actively seek to reduce the spread of this idea.

Discussions about COVID-19 true origins have been happening for a while. Scientists debate about the virus ancestry and laypeople are conceiving conspiracies about biological warfare. Whenever a piece of news appears new messages start circulating among our family and friends. This meme is spreading.

China must pay Britain £351bn in coronavirus damages

For this kind of news it doesn't matter if the source is reputable or not, just how far it reaches and how strong is the public outcry.

We've seen how far politicians are going to cover their mistakes and pretend they're saving their nation. The containment failures that already and will continue to happen are increasing incentives to find a scapegoat.

We entered this year in the worst state of nuclear war ever:

Closer than ever: It is 100 seconds to midnight

2020 Doomsday Clock Statement, January 23, 2020

How close to midnight do we want to get? How probable is a nuclear war in 2020.

This is not a detailed analysis, but a sequence of disturbing pieces of evidence, that seem to point our governments are willing to commit absurd acts with catastrophic consequences.

  • The Covid-19 bioweapon conspiracy theory has not only failed to be debunked; it even seems to be getting a second wind, and prominent politicians from countries around the world are embracing it.
  • Trump first denied the strategic reserve to the states, heavily aggravating NYC's crisis. Then US started taking supplies shipments from its own longtime allies and fellow NATO members. Then it started taking supplies from the states. Then went on TV saying this was all right and correct, because America first, above all, and America does not seem to include the states. How many of us could have predicted that? Last year, before the pandemic? Thirty days ago? This unpredictability of the government coupled with we global effects we're seeing is the most critical component of the risk.
  • This rising unemployment is unprecedented in modern days. Using only US data: in 2008 it took eight months to go from 5% to 7.2%, but now it went from 3.5% to 17% in two weeks. Historically, mass unemployment was a trigger to nationalism and war tendencies.
  • Western democracies are failing really hard to contain the damages caused by federal executive government. In the US and Brazil, my country, we the federal executive government actively harming lock down efforts, problems reported by the media and denounced by congress, and still these rampant abuses are happening. Our social institutions are unable to fix such problems because they're happening too fast and there are political interests (e.g. reelection for legislative). The media reports this as yet another power struggle.
  • The US started a nineteen year old multi-trillion dollar war (still ongoing) over a tragedy that had a much smaller impact in lives (a tragedy still) and in the economy. Initially the pandemic didn't have a target, but now it seems that China will be the villain.
  • After the peak passes and things seem to get under control, how long before the governments use China as a scapegoat for the population's outrage. How will this unfold? If we see the actions taken in the past few weeks, we can expect sudden grand gestures followed by quick escalation. How would China react to any action that may be seen as a threat? Moving battleships towards South China Sea? Moving more and more troops to Japan and South Korea? How will Russia react with a potential conflict near its borders?

I was running with the scarily huge number of 1-2% risk of nuclear war in this century. How is it possible to justify a number smaller than 1% right now? [non-rhetorical question]



13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:51 AM
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"Considered harmful" is what Wikipedia refers to as "weasel words". By whom? Why do we care what they think? It's much better to make the case directly than to attempt to weasel in a (false) sense of consensus. Doing the latter damages your credibility, and you're going to need that.

If you're concerned about conspiracy theories "failing to be debunked", what you need are honest and credible experts. The public can't evaluate the claims themselves. Heck, I'm a pretty smart guy and I can't evaluate the evidence based on looking at the genome itself or even from evaluating the object level claims of people who have. But I and many many others are smart enough to notice a big coincidence when we see one, and smart enough to know that many many people like to think it's a good idea to censor, distort, or otherwise lie about things to paint their preferred viewpoint. Honestly and openness is critical if you want to persuade anyone of anything. If you say "The bio-weapon theory has been debunked as just a conspiracy theory", what am I supposed to take from that? That you are very open to this theory would speak publicly about all evidence you find in its favor if only it existed? Or that you want to silence "information hazards" with weasel phrases and like to use terms like "debunked" or maybe even "conspiracy theory" to discredit ideas without even diving into whether or not they might be true? When the latter is a strong possibility, we can't just take things like "X has been debunked" on faith.

I actually don't think it's a bio-weapon and I do believe it has been debunked. But the reason for this is that when I look to people who are able to evaluate the object level claims themselves, the ones who are capable of honestly considering and stating "yep, this sure looks like a bio-weapon" are actually saying "yeah, I considered that hypothesis myself because it's a totally reasonable thing to check, but it turns out that this one looks natural (and here's why, if you want to check my work)". That is the only way you can debunk these things, since everyone can't become virology experts overnight and you can't declare yourself into credibility by fiat.

You're right that now is not the time to be starting wars, and I think there is a very persuasive case to be made for that. Fighting and posturing are last and second to last resorts respectively, and not ones we want to hastily resort to ever, let alone in difficult times where there might be a flinch to do so. It is a bad idea to pick fights and start wars, especially when the ability to cooperate globally is most important, especially especially without thinking these things through very very carefully. However, this all holds true even if it were a bio-weapon, or escaped from a lab due to negligence, or spread worldwide due to attempted cover-ups/etc. Instead of removing your voice from the conversation that will happen anyway and has to happen anyway, use your voice to say what needs to be said. "Yes, it's very reasonable to suspect that it might be a bio-weapon, and that's why we checked. It doesn't look like it is". "Yes, it is very important for people and organizations to be held accountable for their actions. It is also very important to first make sure we know what those actions actually are and to give people the benefit of the doubt both on what they did and their willingness to take responsibility voluntarily first. Now is the time to cooperate with one another to fight this pandemic. Later is the time to sort through the mistakes we made and make sure we're all working honestly to avoid repeating them for personal gain or otherwise".

Wikipedia has an article for Considered Harmful. "Goto Considered Harmful" was the title an editor gave to Dijkstra's paper originally titled "A Case Against the Goto Statement". It's an informal tradition in computer science to write papers with this title pattern, including ""Considered Harmful" Essays Considered Harmful".

It was not intended to be misleading, only a reference to a crowd that I, perhaps erroneously, assumed would be familiar with this pattern.

Now, on the core of the argument. First the epistemic status says it's uncertain about risk values and how to reduce it. I linked to a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article about why this debunked idea still keeps coming up and the harms associated with it. Just printing articles and pointing people to them wasn't enough. I don't have more to say about your specific arguments because I think they're covered pretty well by the article I linked.

This post was to point out that this problem exists, that credible experts in extinction risk (i.e. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) think it's a worrying trend, that economic patterns are similar to past situations giving birth to extreme right wing governments and that current institutions seem to be unable or unwilling to curb Trump's excesses.

He seems to respond to actual public opinion (from his electorate).

The article also ends with a non-rhetorical that seems to be misunderstood as alarmism.

I linked to a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article about why this debunked idea still keeps coming up and the harms associated with it. Just printing articles and pointing people to them wasn't enough. I don't have more to say about your specific arguments because I think they're covered pretty well by the article I linked.

That article is just a list of a bunch of opinions people have and it is nothing more than a gossip piece. Literally all it does is repeat things like:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president who seems unable to resist a good opportunity to propagate falsehoods (even Al-Qaida once asked him to stop making things up), also got in on the coronavirus conspiracy action. In an open letter to the UN secretary-general, he wrote that it was clear that the virus was “produced in laboratories … by the warfare stock houses of biologic war belonging to world hegemonic powers.”


Lentzos worries that the parade of prominent figures promoting the bioweapons conspiracy theory could weaken the global taboo against possessing bioweapons—making biological weapon research appear to be widespread.

It does nothing to even begin commenting on why these ideas keep spreading, just that they are and who is spreading them. Likewise, exactly nothing in that article responds to anything I've said.

It's no wonder that linking to trash like this doesn't convince anyone. To even get started you need to be able to link to things like this. Then you need to have people who can understand why that is credible explain it to their social circle who respect them and wouldn't understand it on their own. And that means you need an army of people who are capable of empathizing with the very real concerns that these "conspiracy theorists" have instead of falling into the trap of arrogance to hide from their own difficulties in being persuasive and credible.

Yes, it's hard. Let's get to work.

People you neither like nor agree with must be allowed their voice. The answer to that isn't to try to silence them but to answer with your own speech. If something is wrong then it can be demonstrably proven so, if something is without evidence that can be highlighted, if the problem here is really the fear of war then that must be discussed clearly in daylight.

Speech isn't the problem, speech is the solution.

As for your main concern of nuclear war, it's unlikely but possible. That's probably bigger than all of us, in the same way that covid has been. If you cannot control something then you're not responsible for it either. You still have to live with it, and that's the part you need to focus on.

If something is wrong then it can be demonstrably proven so

To whom? Do you think anything can be proven to anybody?

If that thesis is true then OP's suggestion for censorship is redundant.

Clearly speech can persuade, and proofs are a subset of that persuasion. If something can be shown to be true then some will change their views based on that.

If something can be shown to be true then some will change their views based on that.

Whilst others will fail to understand, and others still will misunderstand. You don't have a proof that openness is guaranteed to be positive sum.

Which is why I used the word some and not the word all.

I think there is far more evidence to support the idea of open communication than censorship or secrecy as a general good. The ability to communicate freely is a net positive despite any individual failures.

This entire subject is predicated on the idea of harmful knowledge. I'm not convinced that's a real thing.

You are making an all-or-nothing assumption. Even pro-censorship people think a fairly small number of things should be censored.

Your evidence shows support that generally it's bad to discuss this conspiracy theory. But it doesn't show evidence that it's helpful to ban it on LessWrong, or in other similar spaces.

In my understanding, ban in sequences-inspired rationality, particularly for politically-charged topics, is a reminder that Politics is the Mind-Killer. I made it explicit in the text.

The US was lead at the time by leaders who wanted to go to war in Irak. On the other hand, none of the leaders want to move troops towards China or go to war with China.

The conflict that US leaders want to have is one about trade. Then there's a bunch of cyberwar where everybody hacks each other. Powerstruggle will continue to exist regardles of any blame around the virus.

I think the most likely way a physical war could happen if China thinks that it gained power in this exchange because the West is dependend on Chinese produced medical equipment and China decides to take China.

When we had pools that asked for existiential risks engineered bioweapons continue to be very high. Modeling this as a possible bioweapon means that you can get more resources to actually do decent work on that front.

The post doesn't talk about nor imply a traditional war with congress approval. For example, placing a battleship in international waters but close enough China's maritime space is enough to trigger another Arkhipov situation. This is just a specific scenario, some don't lead to disastrous outcomes and some do. The post is intended to spark discussion, not set policy without debate, and point to the risks. As stated we entered 2020 in the worst level of risk ever, and then a pandemic happened, with a bunch of unthinkable events happening.