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Bad reasoning – Econlib



Bad reasoning

A recent one NYT article provides an almost textbook example of how poor reasoning can fuel conspiracy theories. The author claims to have provided five pieces of evidence indicating that Covid escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. In fact, none of the evidence is convincing at all, and some is factually incorrect. Here I will focus on the first piece of evidence cited, the inferences we should draw from the fact that Covid happened in Wuhan.

The article shows a graph of the “hundreds of major cities” within about 1,500 miles of the bat caves where Covid is believed to have originated:

We are then led to believe that it would be an astonishing coincidence if Covid emerged naturally in the only city in this region that happened to have a major virology laboratory. But is this claim true?

I got married in Beijing in 1994. Our honeymoon was spent in Wuhan and Chongqing. Is it an ‘amazing coincidence’ that my honeymoon was spent in the city where Covid originated? As we will see, the answer is no.

A more relevant example occurred in 2014, when virologist Eddie Holmes visited the animal market in Wuhan, where Covid first spread to humans. He took a photo of a cage with a raccoon dog and speculated that this is the kind of place where a future pandemic could arise:

What’s even stranger: it turns out that one of the study’s co-authors, Eddie Holmes, had been brought to the Huanan Market several years before the pandemic and displayed raccoon dogs in one of the stalls. He was told: “This is the kind of place where the ingredients are present for the transmission of dangerous pathogens between species.”

So he clicks pictures of the raccoon dogs. In one photo, the raccoon dogs are in a cage, stacked on top of a cage with some birds inside.

And at the end of our detective work, we checked the GPS coordinates on his camera, and we discover that he took the photo at the same stall, where five samples tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like an even bigger coincidence than the virus emerging in Wuhan.

The NYT article is wrong; Wuhan is not just one of hundreds of major cities, it is a Chinese city megacity. Southern China has four megacities (Wuhan, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Guangzhou/Shenzhen), or five if you consider Guangzhou and Shenzhen as separate metropolitan areas. They are all hundreds of kilometers away from the so-called ‘bat caves’. Pandemics are much more likely to arise in these places than in the hundreds of other Chinese cities. These cities have many affluent shoppers and huge animal markets that attract exotic species from all over China. Also a dense population and many visitors from elsewhere. Places that are magnets for people and trade.

But let’s just say I’m wrong, and there’s nothing special about these four Chinese megacities. In that case, lab leak proponents face a different problem. Unlike Covid (also known as SARS-2), there is absolutely no debate about how SARS-1 jumped to humans in 2002. It first appeared near a wildlife market in the Guangzhou metropolis. So people who reject my claim that southern China’s megacities are special have merely traded one astonishing coincidence for another. Now they must explain why Covid emerged in the giant city of Guangzhou, and not in one of hundreds of other southern Chinese cities.

Here are the facts:

SARS-1 is known to have crossed into an animal market located about 1,500 kilometers from the bat caves. There were intermediate animal hosts.

SARS-2 first appeared in people who worked and shopped at an animal market about 1,000 miles from the bat caves. The famed virology lab was in a completely different part of the massive metro area.

Please use Occam’s razor.

Most Americans have very limited knowledge of Chinese geography, and are therefore easily persuaded by the kinds of arguments made in the NYT. So consider an American analogy. Imagine a pandemic developing among people working and shopping near an animal market in Vlissingen, a Chinese part of New York. Pandemics are known to have started in such markets before. Than someone on the internet points out that the pandemic began in “New York City,” which also happens to be home to a hugely important virology laboratory at Columbia University. Maybe there was a lab leak and the infected scientist just happened to go across town shopping at an animal market in Vlissingen, infecting other people.

Does that seem like a very plausible ‘conspiracy theory’?

Throughout history, many global pandemics started in South China. Even by Chinese standards, the Southern Chinese are known for eating a wide variety of exotic animals. Southern China has a dense population, which often lives in close proximity to animals.

Yes, the NYT article also contains other “evidence,” all of which is equally weak. Those other points have been refuted here And here And here.