Spotting non-false fabrications in the news: Coronavirus-Origins as example | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Spotting non-false fabrications in the news: Coronavirus-Origins as example

Uploaded: May 5, 2020

How to assess the credibility of a "news" story? After dismissing those whose vocabulary and structure clearly mark them as advocacy -- selling a particular agenda -- I look for dishonest presentation. This can be hard when you know little of the topic, so you have to look for patterns. One such pattern is the overspecified claim. Also, if you know a bit about the topic, you may spot talking points, the unasked obvious question, and cherry-picking (aka fallacy of incomplete evidence, suppressing evidence).

We used to hope that journalists -- as part of their job -- would counter these attempted deceptions for us. They would be more skilled at detecting, dissecting, and describing them, and they had the ability to follow-up with the source. Today, we have to do this ourselves: Too many reporters are incredibly credulous, and too many are complicit in pushing deceptions that support their own agendas and beliefs.

Why I am using the debate over the origins of the coronavirus as my illustrative example:
I wanted a debate that had sufficient examples from before it became too enmeshed in US partisan politics, and that is becoming highly partisan so that this discussion would be useful in your evaluating subsequent stories. The partisanship in the early debate had on one side "truth-seekers" and critics of China (overlapping). The other side was dominated by various institutions beholden to China by various business and financial interests. Most "news" media outlets are now subsidiaries of conglomerates with large presences in the Chinese market.(foot#1)(foot#2) Various major universities and various of their faculty members also benefit from significant Chinese funding, using techniques pioneered long ago by other countries (Saudi Arabia springs to mind) and by various special interest groups, for example, funding "institutes" at those universities which in turn provided its spokespeople with impressive-sounding credentials, ...

Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge of the coronavirus origins nor do I have expertise in this area. Since I am relying on published accounts, I will forgo "reported", "claimed" ... except when a reminder is judged useful. I am giving the most credence to accounts that cover multiple related aspects with details.

Terminology notes:
• What is currently commonly referred to as the "coronavirus" was initially called the "novel coronavirus", and now is officially called "SARS-CoV-2", with the term "^COVID-19^" also being used, but technically referring to the disease, not the virus itself.
"China" and "Chinese" refer to the area currently governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
"CCP virus" / "CCP coronavirus" : This is the name used by some publications in reaction to the CCP and its allies objecting to the name of the coronavirus referencing it origins in Wuhan China (a common naming practice).
Note: Warning on search: Videos and articles using this name may not show up -- YouTube (and ??) has announced that it/they are suppressing items that go against W.H.O. (World Health Organization) recommendations, of which the virus' name is one. What YouTube is actually suppressing is unknown, for example, wearing masks is contrary to W.H.O. recommendations, but those videos don't seem to be being suppressed.

----Overspecified claims----

Want to avoid addressing an opponent's actual claims and positions? Transform them into something you can easily attack -- a ^Strawman^. The overspecified claim is a favorite of partisan "fact-checkers" and others using that template: They make the claim more specific, refute that addition, say that the whole claim is therefore refuted, and hope that the readers will think that the original/actual claim is false.

Another use of the overspecified claim is to have so many components that it seems unreasonable. For example, if I were accused of negligence that seriously injured someone and my response was "If I had known that leaving my gardening tools on the public sidewalk last night would cause a 73-year-old grandmother of six to fall and break her hip this morning, I never would have left them there." Of course it is unreasonable to think that I could have anticipated all those details, thereby trying to distract you from the real issue of whether I should have anticipated that those tools on that sidewalk would create a tripping hazard.

In articles claiming to counter the basic theory that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, you will of encounter various "enhancements" to the statement of that theory. For example, that the lab was developing a bioweapon,(foot#3) or that the virus was man-made. Yes, there are some making these more specific claims, but treating the fringe as mainstream is a time-honored tactic.

There are actually two labs in Wuhan that have been identified as the possible origin -- Wuhan is a center of research on viruses in China. The better candidate is the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

--Wuhan Institute of Virology--

After the ^SARS (SARS-CoV-1)^ outbreak in 2003 and the ^MERS (MERS-CoV)^ outbreak in 2012, multiple governments funded collaborative research to anticipate future coronavirus (CoV) outbreaks and prepare for them. Notably, this included China, France, and the US. As part of this, the ^Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)^ was created, opening in 2015. Because it was intended to research viruses that had a potential to infect humans, it was designed to provide Biosafety Level 4 (the highest). A French company received the original contract to build the facility, but was replaced by a Chinese company (qualified?). A French visit to the operational lab resulted in an alarming report on safety problems. In response to reports of problems at the lab, the US State Department arranged multiple visits in 2018 and reported multiple serious problems.

A 2020-04-14 Washington Post article describes these reports ("cables") and provides significant background.(foot#4) Examples from this article: "During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory". The State Dept experts "argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous." The WIV lab "spent years testing bat coronaviruses in animals" and published scientific papers that they were experimenting with the same species of bats from the location that was thought to have produced SARS-CoV-1.

The research involved gain-of-function, that is, putting viruses in environments where they become better or stronger through mutation or swapping segments of their genome with either the host or other viruses. Bats host lots of different viruses and thus provide lots of opportunities for viruses to modify themselves.
Notice: Since humans are only facilitating this process rather than directing it, it is non-false to say that the new viruses are not "man-made".

In 2014, two top Chinese virologists -- Xing-Yi Ge and Shi Zhengli (alt: Zhengli-Li Shi) -- came to a US lab to collaborate with virologists there. In the course of this work, the US decided it had too great a risk of a deadly virus being created and escaping.(foot#5) Funding for the research was canceled and a moratorium imposed. However, the Chinese virologists continued their work at WIV despite international concerns.

Undercutting this theory is the distance from the initial hotspot -- the Huanan Seafood Market (the wet market). The WIV is on the opposite side of the Yangtze River and a 14-mile best-route drive (^annotated photo, within video^) (^map^: select the layer "Directions from the Wuhan Institute of Virology ..." and pan-and-zoom to see the whole route). If the source was the WIV, why wasn't the initial hotspot closer to it?

Although the above was news to those who depend on the establishment media, all of it was effectively available much earlier to those following non-establishment media.(foot#6)(foot#7)

Reminder: The above does not prove that the coronavirus escaped from a lab -- the evidence here is far from adequate for that. My intent is for you to spot these tactics so you can ask whether the writer is ignorant of well-known contrary evidence or is choosing to ignore that evidence, and why.

--Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC)--

This is the other top candidate for the coronavirus escaping from a lab. The research there is on diseases affecting animals, not humans, and consequently, it is classified as operating at only Biosafety Level 2 (vs WIV's level 4), but severe safety problems have been reported. Among the research animals is the same bat species -- Intermediate Horseshoe Bats -- identified as the probable source of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus), based upon similarities of their genomes.

Unprotected researchers have been bitten, urinated upon, and have had bat blood spilled on their skin. Understanding the risk of transmission of one of the many viruses hosted by the bats, these researchers have quarantined themselves, including for two weeks. These researchers or other animals in the lab could have been the host where the coronavirus crossed the species barrier (from bats to humans).

The lab building is less than 1000 feet from the Huanan Seafood Market, the initial hot spot for the coronavirus (^map^: select the layer "Directions from the Wuhan Center for Disease ..." and pan-and-zoom to see the whole route). It was also very close to the Union Hospital that treated the early patients and which employed the initial groups of doctors who got infected.(foot#8)

--Overspecifying via inflated word choice--

Many of the attempts to debunk the possibility of the coronavirus escaping from a lab rephrase this as it being the result of an "accident". Notice that the situation described above -- inadequate staff, poor training, sloppy procedures, ... -- could well be described as the coronavirus having escaped unintentionally or accidentally. However, an "accident" is an (identifiable) event, and I see this used in the argumentation: An accident would have been reported; there is not an accident report; therefore there was no accident; therefore the coronavirus did not get out of the lab. This suggests a very skilled PR person at work.

--Adding unlikely alternatives is similar to overspecifying--

The flaws and uncertainties associated with unlikely theories can drag down the much more plausible theories in a kind of negative ^Cheerleader Effect^.

The Huanan Seafood Market was the initial hotspot for the coronavirus, but contact tracing quickly found it to be unlikely to be the origin. The first infected person -- "Patient Zero" -- was identified as becoming infected on December 1 (or December 3rd in some account), with no connection to the Market being found. Roughly one-third of the 41 patients admitted to hospitals with coronavirus that December had no connection to the Market.(foot#9) There are vague references to a patient in mid- to late-November, and this has fueled various speculations.(foot#10)

Witnesses claim that they hadn't seen bats being sold in the Market. The species of wild bats that are the reservoir for the virus that gave rise to coronavirus live in ^Yunnan Province^, over 600 miles west of Wuhan. However, the Market was disinfected before an investigation could be conducted, destroying evidence.

However, there were claims that there was a known problem in China of lab workers selling the carcasses of experimental animals to food markets for additional income. There weren't allegations of this being a problem at the two labs cited here, but the State Department report on the WIV noted problems with the safe disposal of research animals.

--False assumptions slipped in as facts--

In various of the prominent arguments against coronavirus having escaped from the WIV, the fact that it is officially designated as a Biosafety Level 4 facility is used to assume that it was actually operating according to Level 4 procedures and safeguards. And with this unstated assumption, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the escape of the virus is implausible.(foot#11) The reports from actual visitors are to the contrary. Are the experts making these arguments shilling for China? Or have they failed to do due diligence before putting their credentials behind their public pronouncements? Or ...??

----Underspecified: Talking Points, Unasked Questions, and Cherry-picking----

Spotting attempts to manipulate you with incomplete information can be difficult, but may emerge from a pattern in multiple publications. Many partisan groups -- political and other issues -- distribute talking points to their spokespeople with the hope that repetition will reach a broad audience and hammer it home. Back when I bothered with the national news programs on broadcast TV, I would first listen to the opening 20-30 minutes of the PBS News Hour because it would routinely have a Democratic and Republican politician delivering their party's talking points, often robotically. This helped me spot if the TV reporter was adding anything. My final breaking point came during the 2008 Presidential campaign when Obama announced he wouldn't be accepting Federal matching funds. The CBS Evening News anchor went to the CBS reporter embedded in the Obama campaign, who rattled off the Republican talking points -- omitting Obama's -- as if it was his own reporting.

The talking points being pushed into the discussions on coronavirus, with one of the themes of Chinese propaganda centered on how helpful and cooperative China has been. This pops up occasionally in articles as an argument against coronavirus having escaped from a lab, seemingly push for an inference that if that had happened, China would have revealed it.

One version I have seen multiple times characterizes China publishing the genome as evidence of that cooperation. Problem: The scientists thought the information was so important that they published it directly, bypassing channels. They were disciplined and an edict when out that all information on coronavirus had to be approved by the central government.

Most people with much interest in this topic could probably have listed multiple examples of failures of cooperation by China, including
• failure to timely provide information that would have helped other countries better combat the virus,
• refusing to allow foreign medical experts to visit Wuhan,
• refusal to provide the virus itself to other labs, which would have aided them in creating detection tools,
• massive destruction of records about the spread in Wuhan and elsewhere in China.
So why are articles published in US media in seeming ignorance of this?

When I encounter a seemingly too small set of supporting evidence, I suspect ^cherry picking^. When I see that same too-small set repeated in multiple articles, it signals a coordinated campaign. Or it may just be ^churnalism^, that is, "If it's on Twitter or in a press release, no need to check if it's true."

Too many "news" interviews bear too much resemblance to a late-night TV infomercial. The interviewer/host guides the interviewee through the talking points, avoiding actual follow-up questions or ones outside the scope of what the interviewee wants to focus on. Problem is that you have already wasted your time before you know that this is happening.

----Conclusion----

Please remember that my goal is not to argue for any of the theories of the origins of the coronavirus. Rather it is to provide you with enough examples and background information to motivate you to better argue about this and similar issues by being more sensitive to a few of the manipulations being used.

----Footnotes----
1. Conglomerate ownership of media, creating vulnerabilities to financial pressure from China
The vulnerability of the media to outside pressure was recently illustrated by ABC News had quashed for three years (and counting) a substantial investigative story on pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and some of those around him. "The Palace found out that we had her whole allegations about Prince Andrew and threatened us a million different ways. We were so afraid we wouldn't be able to interview Kate and Will that we, that also quashed the story." - ^Hot Mic of anchor Amy Robach bemoaning being scooped^ publicized by Project Veritas, 2019-11-05.
Bloomberg killed an expose of the corruption of China's top leaders, and "^After Killing Investigation, Bloomberg News Sought To Silence Reporter's Wife^" - NPR, 2020-04-14.
• ABC of The Disney Corporation.
• CNN of WarnerMedia of AT&T.
• CBS of ViacomCBS.
• Fox News of Fox Corporation which sold off most of its non-sports entertainment components to Disney in 2019 which seems to have reduced its exposure to the Chinese market.
• NBC and MSNBC of NBCUniversal of Comcast.
• Bloomberg News of Bloomberg L.P. who core money-maker is the Bloomberg Terminalwhich has widespread adoption in the Chinese market.
• Washington Post shares an owner -- Jeff Bezos -- with Amazon.
• The New York Times: China regularly runs full-page advertisements, but I have heard of no other significant financial link to China.

2. Chinese influence in US media
Chinese propaganda is frequently promulgated as news by US media.
• Sometimes it is so obviously propaganda that the response if "How could they not have known??"A recent example was CNN's "^China's PLA Navy is controlling coronavirus and aircraft carrier's deployment proves it, report says^" (2020-04-13) - archived version that allows you to see the changes in response to the criticism, such as "^CNN Basically Published A Press Release From The Chinese Military^" - The Daily Caller, 2020-04-13.
• Sometimes a tiny bit of skepticism is needed, for example, a major media outlet ran a story (misplaced link)about how China had created an extensive and sophisticated system for reporting potential disease outbreaks, but it had been thwarted by a few rogue local officials. The "rogue underlings" excuse is so routine that it should have been a tip-off of a cover-up, even without the reporting in the non-establishment media of directives from Beijing to local officials that it was their duty to not have any more cases (standard bureaucratese for "don't report").
• Then there is the propaganda designed to appeal to the biases and agendas of the US media. For example, when the media echoes the claims that China is doing much better than the US in containing the coronavirus using numbers that are not credible. For example, when China was claiming only 2535 dead in Wuhan, one of the eight funeral homes received shipments of 2500 funeral vases on each of two days and another received a shipment of 3500("^Report of Urns Stacked at Wuhan Funeral Homes Raises Questions About the Real Coronavirus Death Toll in China^" - Time, 2020-03-27.

3. Overspec: Coronavirus developed as bioweapon:
That sets up a counter by "experts"who claim that the SARS-CoV-2 is not what they would have designed to get the COVID-19 functions. Notice that this counter has a questionable assumption: "My way is the only way."
Aside: It is easy to not be aware of how many layers of assumptions underlay such a belief, for example, that your schooling, training, experience, resources ...are the same as everyone else.
• After the ^1990-1991 Gulf War^, the US sent teams from its nuclear facilities to determine how extensiveIraq's nuclear program had been. The nuclear processing machines had been removed from the facilities, but there were still plenty of clues, but they were baffling. Then one team member recognized they matched the patterns of long-obsolete equipment that had been replaced by more efficient versions. It dawned on them that energy efficiency was not important to a country sitting on an ocean of oil, with the additional advantage that components they needed to import would likely to have fallen far down, if not off, the export-monitoring lists.
• As a high school student in the late-1960s, I visited a research lab of Corning Glass Works. One of the problems they were working on was creating computer logic circuits operated by air because many of the electronic components of the time couldn't survive the radiation that various satellites would experience. Science fiction fans may recognize a similar situation as a plot point in the 1974 book The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

4. Article on US State Dept visits to Wuhan Institute of Virology:
"^State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses^" - The Washington Post, 2020-04-14. The link is to an archive that shows the many updates and revisions (through at least versions.
Some news articles are tracked by ^NewsDiffs.org^which allows you to easily see the changes.Unfortunately, this article was not one of them.

5. "^How deadly pathogens have escaped the lab -- over and over again^" - Vox, 2019-03-20. "Research into dangerous viruses and bacteria is important, but for the deadliest pathogens, it's not clear the benefits are worth the risks."

6. Video documentary presenting evidence spanning multiple years:
^1st documentary movie on the origin of CCP virus, Tracking Down the Origin of the Wuhan Coronavirus^ (54:16) - China in Focus - ^NTD^, 2020-04-07.
Much of this is now appearing in dribs-and-drabs in the establishment media,often being cast as a leak from the "Intelligence Community".
Question: Why does open source material become more credible as a supposed leak from a group whose job includes manipulating (foreign) public opinion??

7. Non-establishment media on this topic:
Some came from YouTube vlogger who started by sharing videos from inside Wuhan that they found on social media and then went deeper. Some came from English-language articles from independent media that focus on China, with the more prominent being the related outlets The Epoch Times, China Uncensored, NTD (New Tang Dynasty). There are various controversies surrounding these outlets. Their ownership is conservative and that is reflected in what stories they choose to pursue -- this is OK with me since there is no pretense of being anything but specialized news media. My experience with the articles and videos I have read/watched has been that they represent very good journalism, including in retrospect.

8. Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
This theory was published by two scientists -- Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao -- working at the government-sponsored South China University of Technology. The official publication has been taken off the Internet,but copies can still be found on many sites. Lacking a copy of the original, I can't authenticate any of the copies I found via web search.
"^Did coronavirus originate in Chinese government laboratory?^" - Daily Mail Online, 2020-02-16.

9. Initial contact tracing:
"^Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China^" - ^The Lancet^, Volume 395, ISSUE 10223, P497-506, February 15, 2020. Published online 2020-01-24.

10. Coronavirus case in November??:
"^New Chinese study indicates novel coronavirus did not originate in Huanan seafood market^" - ^Global Times^ (CCP-owned daily tabloid), 2020-02-22. Mid to late November start. First expansion on December 8. Human-to-human transmission in November.
"^Coronavirus: China's first confirmed Covid-19 case traced back to November 17^" - ^South China Morning Post^, 2020-03-13.
• Simple mention in: "^1st known case of coronavirus traced back to November in China^" - Live Science, 2020-03-14.

11. Level 4 is designed to prevent escape, therefore escape is implausible:
The most quoted expert making this argument in articles I have encountered is Epidemiology Professor Jonna Mazet of UC Davis, for example, "^Virus Researchers Cast Doubt On Theory Of Coronavirus Lab Accident^" - Goats and Soda, NPR, 2020-04-23.
Caution: Be wary of the accuracy of media quotes of scientists.To reduce the problem of serious misquotes, many universities issue press releases with quotes by scientists,thereby allowing articles to be written as if the reporters had actually interviewed the scientists.Or the article may be based on what was written elsewhere (churnalism), with potential for errors to be introduced.


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An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.


----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.

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