Posted on: March 26, 2023 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Graphic by Emily Stephens

By Glacier Editorial Board

For more than three years, we’ve heard it from a little bit of everywhere.

From our friends and family mentioning it in passing. Die-hard MAGA conservatives screaming in all caps on Facebook. Jon Stewart letting his wit speak on the idea while on Stephen Colbert’s show. Joe Rogan throwing it out there on podcast after podcast.

Three years of hearing about the COVID Wuhan lab leak theory.

The theory is a dragged-on conversation, and it will continue to drag as the year moves. Agencies within the U.S. intelligence community can’t agree on the origins of COVID-19. Meanwhile, many researchers and scientists still believe a natural origin is more plausible. As President Biden signed a bill requiring a declassification of information related to the virus’s origins, a widely agreed upon and definitive answer awaits. That’s rough to hear knowing that when people don’t like waiting for answers, they’ll stick to the one that best fits their value and belief system. 

But science does not work like that, so we shouldn’t; a debatable global scientific question on this scale leaves many to show their worst while they’re left in that unknowing anxiety. We can see that by looking at how we’ve gone about this conversation so far.

Outrage, false accusations of xenophobia, confirmation bias, spreading misleading content, cherry picking sources, banning accounts, assuming we knew things when we didn’t know them. What do these have in common?

Photo by Jason Redmond

They are all problems that arose the past few years politicizing a pandemic’s research process right in front of our eyes. From that politicization, we’ve seen oversimplified treatments of these issues in public spaces that might just lead us in more messy discourse.

One of the first contributions to the mess came from former president Donald Trump’s fingers and mouth. As early as 2020, he started spewing his assumptions COVID came from a lab using his Twitter account, with no evidence and many nicknames–”Wuhan virus” and “Kung Flu” among them. His nationalistic stance to see China as a threat reached many of his followers as well as other conservatives.

Although these claims were laughed off as ridiculous, real people were starting to get attacked. Polls from Asian Americans started citing increases in violence against them in direct correlation with the start of the pandemic, and some showed Trump’s rhetoric was the fuel that added to the flame.

Around the same time, more scientists made legitimate claims that COVID-19 could have come from a lab, more people started to report on this, and censorship on Facebook and Twitter followed. Many media outlets and Democratic politicians described such claims as conspiracy theories, muddying the legitimate concerns being raised in the name of seeking the truth.

We should make it clear that viewpoints that jump to conclusions because of xenophobia and nationalistic mindsets don’t deserve a space within the scientific method’s search for truth. But those who come to a similar conclusion through legitimate research do not deserve to be censored on social media. Hindering those opinions is no better than using xenophobia as a vehicle of explanation.

In fact it might create unintended harm.

As humans, we are naturally tribe-oriented. If the media pushes those who raise concerns based on scientific research to the side of a delicate conversation like this, the chances of these people’s ideas being used by a hateful crowd–or those people joining in on such a crowd–only grows. Then the crowd-think that you wanted to prevent only gets stronger.

These past few years we’ve come to learn a more harsh reality: Hate itself can spread like a virus.

And while hatred is something without an agreed-upon societal vaccine, we still have preventative measures: an ability to notice its symptoms and understand its harmful effects. Misdiagnosing those without symptoms as ill with the hatred virus may make them more vulnerable to catching this disease and more contagious.

The Glacier Editorial Board consists of Juan Carbajal, opinion editor, Nick Stulga, editor-in-chief, and the section editors of the publication. Editorials represent the official position of The Glacier.