Following our preconceptions often leads us astray

Steve Kelman stresses the importance of keeping an open mind.

steve kelman

Bret Stephens is one of my favorite columnists in The New York Times. He is a bit more conservative than I am, but he is always thoughtful and worth listening to.

He has a great column about how the media did a poor job pursuing suggestions that the coronavirus originated in an escape from the Chinese virology lab in Wuhan. He notes that the idea has intuitive plausibility, since it was no secret that the lab was conducting research on coronaviruses and that the research was risky -- the lab had been classified by U.S. experts into the highest danger category for research labs. Stephens also notes that no evidence was produced that the original victims made purchases at the food markets China had suggested were the source of the virus.

His worry is that despite this plausibility, the theory was not taken seriously by the media. The Washington Post referred to the idea as a “fringe theory” that “has been repeatedly disputed by experts.” An article in The New York Times was similarly dismissive. A writer for Vox referred to the idea as a “dangerous conspiracy theory” being promoted by people “known to regularly spew nonsense (and bash China).”

A key fact to note here is that one originator of the lab leak theory was Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.

Cotton is definitely not my favorite senator; he is very far to the right. Here, though, his worries were not crazy at all, though we still don’t know if they are true. President Joe Biden and Anthony Fauci have now called for further investigation of this theory.

Let me add an additional perspective. If there were an accidental release of the virus, this by itself would not be evidence that China is evil. To put it very bluntly, terrible accidents do happen (think of the Three Mile Island nuclear material leak a number of years ago). Some, including some European virology experts, believe the Wuhan lab was doing experiments to weaponize the virus, which if true is more problematic. And China has not exactly encouraged efforts to figure out what is at the bottom of this.

The lesson here is about how we as human beings tend to think. We tend to let preconceptions shape our assessment of new information much more than we should. If it is in line with our preconceptions, we tend to embrace it with open arms. If it isn’t, we look for reasons not to believe it.

All of us -- including me -- need to fight this natural human tendency. People with whom we don’t agree can nonetheless be valuable sources of information and insight. If we forget that, we will often be led astray.

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