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When ‘Trust the Science’ Collides With ‘I <3 Beijing'

Have the West's major scientific journals been corrupted by Chinese influence? One writer thinks it's possible.

Credit: Anton_Medvedev/Shutterstock

Ian Birrell has an excellent piece up at UnHerd that chronicles how the scientific establishment effectively covered up and bungled the lab-leak theory. Only now is it becoming acceptable to even suggest that a Wuhan research facility was the source of the novel coronavirus. Yet as Birrell notes, some scientists have been trying to say as much since the pandemic began:

Just over a year ago, I stumbled across an intriguing scientific paper. It suggested the pandemic that was ripping around the world was “uniquely adapted to infect humans”; it was “not typical of a normal zoonotic infection” since it first appeared with “exceptional” ability to enter human cells. The author of the paper, Nikolai Petrovsky, was frank about the disease when we spoke back then, saying its adaptability was either “a remarkable coincidence or a sign of human intervention”. He even broke the scientific omertà by daring to admit that “no one can say a laboratory leak is not a possibility”.

But even though Petrovsky has excellent credentials — professor of medicine at a prominent Australian university, author of more than 200 papers in scientific journals and founder of a company funded by the US government to develop new vaccine technologies — I was still anxious when my story went global. His original document had been posted on a pre-print site, so had not been peer reviewed, unlike if it had been published in a medical or scientific journal. These sorts of sites allow researchers to get findings out quickly. Petrovsky told me his first attempt to place these seismic findings was on BioRxiv, run by prominent New York laboratory. But it was rejected; eventually he succeeded on ArXiv, a rival server run by Cornell University. Last week, however, he told me this important origins modelling paper had finally been accepted by Nature Scientific Reports after “a harrowing 12 months of repeated reviews, rejections, appeals, re-reviews and finally now acceptance”.

That delay had little to do with scientific rigor. As Birrell makes clear, the major medical and scientific journals look to have suppressed papers supporting the lab-leak theory in favor of ones that backed zoonosis. Specifically, as one expert put it, “Nature and The Lancet played important roles in enabling, encouraging, and enforcing the false narrative that science evidence indicates Sars-CoV-2 had a natural-spillover origin points and the false narrative that this was the scientific consensus.”

This will come as no surprise to readers of TAC contributor Lew Andrews, who has been documenting for years the more general corruption of peer-reviewed research. Andrews quotes Lancet editor Richard Horton as saying that perhaps half of all scientific literature “may be simply untrue.” Yet the question remains as to why it may have been untrue in this case. Groupthink? Politics? Birrell sees a more portentous motive:

Allegations swirl that it was not down to editorial misjudgement, but something more sinister: a desire to appease China for commercial reasons. The Financial Times revealed four years ago that debt-laden Springer Nature, the German group that publishes Nature, was blocking access in China to hundreds of academic articles mentioning subjects deemed sensitive by Beijing such as Hong Kong, Taiwan or Tibet. China is also spending lavishly around the world to win supremacy in science — which includes becoming the biggest national sponsor of open access journals published by both Springer Nature and Elsevier, owner ofThe Lancet.

Give his entire piece a read. And then click over to a Pew Research Center survey from last year, which found that, even as faith in institutions has cratered across the West, trust in the scientific community has remained broad and consistent. How much longer will that last? And why did it take a year and a half for the dam to finally break?

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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