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COVID-19: It’s Not Your Fault

May 4th, 2020

The most seductive words in the English language are it’s not your fault.

Finding someone else to blame is human nature. We all love to be told that some rank bajin is responsible for whatever ills us. We don’t have to take responsibility for ourselves, if we can only blame someone else.

This is why conspiracy theories thrive. Some shadowy figures were responsible and therefore we’re not to blame.

The most successful people I know never blame others, even when it’s others’ fault. If they hire someone who turns out to be a disaster, they blame themselves for making a bad hiring decision, not the person who was a disaster. They – to put it simply – take responsibility for themselves.

This is why the “Wuhan virus lab” story is so beguiling. It’s not our fault we didn’t learn the lessons of SARS. It’s not our fault that we didn’t have reasonable stores of PPE equipment. It’s not our fault… it’s their fault. And even if they didn’t mean to do it, well, it’s their responsibility anyway.

Now, I don’t know that the virus wasn’t designed in a Wuhan lab. It is, after all, almost impossible to prove a negative. But let’s start with the first and most important thing.

If this were to be a biological weapon, it would be among the most useless in history.

The ideal biological weapon kills the young, while leaving the infirm alone. Or, failing that, kills them all at the same rate. Something which barely affects those of working age, while hammering the retired sounds like an ideal way to solve the developed world’s dependency ratio problems, rather than a weapon of warfare.

Another thing: good biological weapons need to mutate rapidly. You want it to go from deadly to docile in five or six generations as less virulent mutations outcompete the more deadly ones. Otherwise, you’re going to end up killing yourself. The Coronavirus is a very slow mutating virus, which makes it a highly unlikely you’d want to make a weapon out of it.

OK. How about the more plausible scenario. At the lab in Wuhan, they were experimenting with coronaviruses in bats, and it escaped.

Well, it’s possible.

Occam’s Razor applies here. This states that of two explanations, the one which requires the fewest number of assumptions is more likely to be correct. More likely, that is, not certain. So let’s look at the assumptions that are needed here:

– The Wuhan lab was investigating these kinds of viruses
– There was a bat who had this kind of virus
– Said bat escaped or was stolen, and this then made its way to a wet market

All those things are possible. And yes, viruses do escape from labs. But at each level there are assumptions here. I know everyone says that the Wuhan lab was investigating coronaviruses. Was it? And if they were, did this involve injecting bats with them? Every level of this chain is possible, but nothing more. And yes it’s quite possible that possible * possible * possible equals what happened.

But the alternative explanation is that it came in exactly the same way that SARS or MERS did. I.e. it made the jump from animal carrier to human, perhaps through one of the thousands of live bats sold at wet markets across China.

That’s one small assumption versus quite a lot of rather big ones.

It’s comforting to make this someone else’s fault. If you ask pretty much any human to choose one of two explanations for some misfortune that’s befallen them, they will choose the one which involves absolving themselves of blame. That’s human nature.

But it’s important to guard against this. Seeing what you want to see because it absolves you of blame is a dangerous, dangerous game.

Robert Smithson