The Lab Leak Theory, UFO’s and Known Unknowns

Journalism needs to up its game on stories where we don't (yet) know the answer.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

Journalism, at its heart, is about reporting facts-- at its best, uncovering facts readers hadn’t previously known. Conversely, journalism is at a disadvantage, and sometimes at its worst, when the facts are unknowable.

I have been starkly reminded of this recently by two crucially important stories that may seem quite unlike each other, but that I think have this important lesson in common—the COVID “lab leak” and UFO controversies.

The potential importance of these stories should be clear to us all. While there has long been doubt on both, we have been living in a world implicitly but fundamentally premised on a particular resolution of both stories: that COVID emerged naturally, and that aliens don’t really exist.

What if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

Sure, some people disagree with each of those premises. But if it definitively emerges that millions have died because of a mistake made in a Chinese lab and then covered up by the Chinese government, you can pretty safely bet that the geopolitical implications will be enormous. And while folks may say they think, or guess, that there is life elsewhere that exceeds ours in intelligence and capability[1], let’s be honest: they don’t behave that way in their religion or their politics or much else.

What do these two very different stories importantly have in common? Each poses a critical question to which we do not yet have the answer. Bad journalism has too often been the result.

When opinions are not enough

Perhaps the central mistake of covering a story where the truth is not just unknown but currently unknowable by journalists is to lapse into reporting it as a matter of contrasting opinions. Opinions are wonderful—this newsletter is a weekly exercise in voicing my opinion, I hope in a manner you find interesting. But not all questions are matters of opinion. No matter how many people think the world is flat rather than round, it simply isn’t. And it wasn’t even when pretty much everyone in the world, many centuries ago, thought it was. Similarly, the virus either leaked from the lab or didn’t; the objects seen in the sky by Navy pilots either are terrestrial or extra-terrestrial in origin.

So it was a serious mistake of journalism to let the lab leak theory essentially get shouted down last Winter. One essential task of reporters is to divine if “experts” are authoritatively bringing facts to bear on a question or are just aggressively seeking to vindicate their own preferences. We collectively failed in that last year by taking seriously Chinese denials of the lab leak when everyone closely covering the crisis already knew the Chinese authorities had been dissembling from the outset, and have continued to do so-- most dramatically on the death toll in China-- to this day.

With all of that said, however, just because the Chinese first lied about having the situation under control, and then lied about its cost, does not mean they are lying about whether a lab leak occurred. Closer to home, we need to reckon with the reality that while Trump, who has favored the lab leak theory, lied 30,000 times in office, not everything he said was false. Aesop’s fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf should be an object lesson not only to people tempted to prevaricate, but also to reporters who need to test factual propositions.

Even more dangerous, when it occurs to journalists, is indulging a temptation to ridicule a possible storyline before you know it is false.

There is no doubt that lots of nutty stuff has been advanced over the years about aliens. But it’s also true that super-serious people like John Podesta, who served at the top of two presidential administrations, have been suggesting for years that this question was not entirely a joking matter. A New York Times story from two years ago has still not been explained, despite a significant investigation. I know a lot has been going on in the interim, but I also think it’s safe to say that if the observed objects eventually prove not to be earthly, people will wonder how in the world we paid so little attention to this for so long.

What is to be done about such stories? Two things, I think. First, we should restrain ourselves from framing known unknowns as merely a battle of contending views. More important, however, I hope that somewhere somebody (and preferably multiple somebodies) is trying to report out if stories like these are true. They could be world-changing. Or not.

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[1] This is a key aspect of the UFO story. If these UFOs come from elsewhere, it seems inevitably true that the intelligence and capability of whoever sent them exceeds our own. The proof is simple: we haven’t—and can’t yet—dispatch beyond Earth anything like what seems to have been observed here.