Q: How do I evaluate the quality of this claim and support good science?
A: This extraordinary claim requires some serious evaluation to prevent the spread of misinformation.
Curiosity and scientific skepticism are quite healthy, though the new pre-print article violates many foundational principles of scientific inquiry. Lindsay’s Laws of Infodemiology provide a useful guide to walk us through a further evaluation – extraordinary vetting for extraordinary claims, seeking out competing views, and amplifying only good information.
Science, by definition, is the systematic study of the world around us through observation and experiment. Scientists rely heavily on a process of asking very specific questions and then designing experiments to test those specific questions. When the experiment concludes, results are discussed and reviewed to ensure 1) underlying bias in designing and executing the experiment is clearly explained 2) the process used to answer the question is methodologically sound and 3) the conclusions drawn can be directly linked to the results of the study.
*Extraordinary vetting for extraordinary claims*
The recent article claiming SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was produced in a lab fails a few sniff tests for extraordinary claims made by scientific sources. The first sign of trouble is in the introduction. Instead of laying out a testable question and related existing related evidence, this paper explains multiple theories supporting the authors’ eventual conclusion. The paper reads like a persuasive piece and not like a scientific study. The article also lacks peer review. Peer review is a process in which other scientists review and critique work to ensure it is thorough and factually sound prior to publication. When looking closer at the references to previous work supporting the claims made in this paper we find most come from other sources that lack peer review and includes blogs and opinion pieces. The references are listed at the end. While the font looks scientific, several scientific principles are violated.
*Seek out competing views* Competing views in science are important. A competing view suggests SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats, passed to another animal, and then infected humans. Studies supporting this claim do two important things that the recent study claiming SARS-CoV-2 originated in a lab fails to do. First, a scientific body of evidence exists and has been published explaining everything we know about coronaviruses in bats to date. Second, new studies build upon previous literature from rigorously conducted studies to incrementally understand similarities and differences between prior coronaviruses found in bats and SARS-CoV-2. When experiments are conducted in a transparent and rigorous manner, results can be reproduced and new knowledge is gained. While we crave an absolute answer quickly, the competing views take a slower, stepwise approach with an extensive paper trail to justify the findings. When everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into a single study such as the recent pre-print, making new discoveries and linking to existing concepts in a scientific manner becomes impossible.
*Amplify good information and cut off oxygen to bad information* This does not mean we must ignore alternative theories. When well-vetted new information presents itself, it should be shared widely. Alternatively, findings lacking scientific rigor or prematurely declaring extraordinary claims should be further investigated before clicking share or send. Each time we critically evaluate what we read and share, we further refine the firehose of information being spewed into the world in this moment.