Nicholson Baker writes on the "lab leak hypothesis" of COVID-19

Originally published at:

Noticeably missing from his accolades: Scientist (particularly, epidemiologist).


The essayist and novelist

But he writes essays!!! and novels

And it’s a novel Coronavirus. FACTS.


If scientists are the only people able to write about society’s values and the possible consequences of certain types of scientific work, we’ve decided as a society that there’s no such thing as a professional journalist, and really no such thing as learned discourse as well.

Agree or disagree with Baker’s conclusions or his sense of where our values should be, but attacking his voice as invalid because of credentialism is a low form of anti-intellectualism. You did read the essay and saw how many scientists and epidemiologists he read and talked to for the piece, right?


As Baker freely admits, he has no evidence this is what happened.

Yeah, also knowing that Baker is not a scientist I stopped right there. New York magazine should be ashamed of publishing this lengthy JAQ-off session.

I’m fine with non-scientists writing about scientific matters. But when the subject of the piece is the writer’s personal belief for which he admits he has no real evidence, he might as well be writing about angels on pinheads for all that it matters. Unfortunately, though, in the midst of a pandemic where dangerous disinformation is being spread by malicious actors, it does matter.


I guess today is the day I end up in the disappointed in BB spreadsheet (are we still compiling that?) Even though it appears in a somewhat reputable publication, this is still a conspiracy theory.


Shared without reference, a rejoinder to the general thrust of this sort of argument:

Basically one of the conspiracy angles is always, “isn’t it weirdly coincidental that a novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, where there just happens to be a virology research lab that specializes in coronaviruses?”

Well, the rejoinder I heard was: the reason that they chose Wuhan as a location to establish a virology lab with a focus on coronaviruses is that Wuhan is apparently a natural hotbed of animal coronaviruses.

Wish I could find the source where I saw this, though…


“Proposing that something unfortunate happened during a scientific experiment in Wuhan …isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s just a theory.”

No, it’s not a theory. It’s a proposition. If you start insisting it’s true without evidence you can graduate to conspiracy theory which is a whole other thing. But if we’re going to talk about science, can we at least banish the phrase “It’s just a theory?”


Baker isn’t reporting on anything real. He had no witnesses, cited no reports specific to COVID. Didn’t do interviews. This isn’t journalism. It’s fiction written by a fiction writer.


Oh also, here’s an article debunking the lab-origin story with, you know, actual scientists talking about actual science:

(ETA: I know that Baker is insinuating that it’s maybe-natural-but-got-out-from-a-lab but where does he think the lab got the coronaviruses they study from?)


So, a lot of smart educated people work hard to prepare for the inevitable health problems of a crowded world and THEY ARE THE PROBLEM? Please. NB, buy a clue, call a friend, ask an expert, but first thing . . . STFU.


I will add that I feel it’s important for people like Nicholson Baker to bring up their concerns. What he’s saying here is not so different from the kind of warning the MD/writer Michael Crichton provided in “The Andromeda Strain” decades ago. But please can we stop saying “it’s just a theory” when we’re discussing science-- where that word theory has a more specific meaning than “anything that could be so”?

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And robot gunslingers! And resurrected dinosaurs!


This line of thinking is no better than “The human eye is so complex, it couldn’t possibly have evolved that way by chance!”

There are approximately 5 million people living in very close proximity to or interacting with wild bat habitats in China. If there is only a one in a million chance that some bat coronavirus crosses to one of those humans in a year, that means it could happen to five people.

We’ve known for decades that another pandemic was inevitable. It could have easily happened already; we just got extremely lucky that SARS and MERS never got out of control.


While it is something to consider and study, these musings of possible with out evidence is just conspiracy theory 101.

Occam’s Razor is that we were over due for a pandemic.


A theory is a set of propositions. That’s what “theory” means.

Baker’s usage here is very different than the “It’s just a theory” that anti-evolution people say. What he is saying is that the “conspiracy” element of “conspiracy theory” does not apply to the theory that COVID developed in a lab. When the anti-evolution people say “It’s just a theory.” what they intend to mean is that the set of propositions that evolution entails have no more scientific validity than any other set of propositions.

That said, Baker’s hypothesis here seems to be completely without evidence and as others have pointed out, there already does seem to be some evidence against it. So even if it is not a “conspiracy theory” but “just a theory”, it is also a bad theory in so far as it leads to contradictions with other things we believe to be true.

Crichton has written a number of screeds without the redeeming cover of imaginative Science Fiction-- iirc, Airframe just oozed sexism, for instance. And of course, he hated the environmental movement.

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No no no no no. What a piece of utter irresponsible garbage this essay is. It’s not just incredibly ignorant speculation. Stories like this actively undermine public feelings about science in an era when science is the only thing that can save us all.

What if 5% fewer people will take vaccines now because they don’t trust them? What happens if a few thousand people buy a new SUV now because maybe climate science is like those clowns making viruses that they read about? At a time when undermining of science and expertise in general is at an all time high (which gave us Trump) stories like this dig the hole deeper.

Let’s be perfectly clear: this essay has a body count. We’ll never know precisely the impact, but deaths in the next 50 years will be higher because New York printed this piece of shit.


Remember the time the American Association of Petroleum Geologists gave their journalism award to Michael Chrichton for “State of Fear”? That was a good one.


It is not just theory, it is a possibility! It is not the first time that such thing happened. Sadly enough history have a tendency to repeat itself, where writers predict the future or the real truth of the past and/or reality imitates fiction. We cannot censor someone’s writing just because we don’t like what is telling.
Lab accidents are far more common than we think or wish to be. Here is a link to three articles regarding some incidents:
A brief, terrifying history of viruses escaping from labs Apr 11, 2014
How smallpox claimed its final victim 10 August 2018
Decades after deadly lab accident, a secret Russian bioweapon decoded 11/15/2016