Sky Masterson’s Law says: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”
Occam’s razor says that given multiple hypotheses, the simplest one is preferable. Occam’s razor is like Sky Masterson’s law: it doesn’t say the simplest explanation is always better, it just says that’s the way to bet. Technically, this is called a heuristic: an approach that isn’t guaranteed to be optimal or even rational, but that gives reasonably good practical results when an optimal approach isn’t known or feasible.
Now, Occam’s razor is not a law. Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation are simpler than Einstein’s special and general relativity, but special and general relativity are better explanations for observations of the real world, once we have good enough measurements to see the difference. But Occam’s razor is a good heuristic — it turns out to be right a lot.
This week, we’ve had a lovely example of the utility of Occam’s razor, as people argue over whether SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon or not. A whole lot of people in the U.S., mostly conservatives, want to argue that it’s a bioweapon created by the Chinese in a secret bioweapons lab in Wuhan, then released either on purpose or by accident.
Of course, now there are people from the Chinese government trying to convince the world it’s a U.S. bioweapon released in Wuhan, while also trying to claim that it’s racist to assert that a virus from 中华人民共和国湖北省武汉市 — “the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, People’s Republic of China” — comes from China or is foreign to the United States. This, by the way, is an assertion that the U.S. Megalithic Mainstream Media appears to be happy to try to publicize. Whether they’re doing that out of a natural inclination to own Trump, or they’re actually receiving pay from the PRC to push it I leave as an exercise for the interested reader.
But what do we know about SARS-CoV-2? It’s a virus closely related to a couple of previous viruses, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV (the virus that causes MERS the disease). It came from the area around Wuhan city, where SARS-CoV-1 also came from. It was first identified in a paper by Huang et al. published in The Lancet on 24 January 2020.
There is indeed a virology lab in Wuhan. It has been researching coronaviruses since at least 2015, and published — among other things — a paper on how bat coronaviruses could jump to humans. It has also patented vaccines for coronaviruses, like this one. Except this is a completely different family of viruses, gamma coronavirus, and the vaccine prevents pneumonia in birds.
So, we have a theory that SARS-CoV-2 is a new lab-created virus that was intended as a bioweapon and was either released by accident or on purpose by either the Chinese government or the U.S. government, and that it was carefully crafted to match the properties of a wild virus.
This theory appears to have started from a paper out of India claiming that there were key similarities to HIV. The problem is that they neglected to note that those same sequences show up in lots of different organisms. The paper was quickly retracted.
This paper has been withdrawn by its authors. They intend to revise it in response to comments received from the research community on their technical approach and their interpretation of the results. If you have any questions, please contact the corresponding author.
Adam Housley has been pushing the lying Chinese and their bioweapon today. Some of that involves some really deep misunderstanding of research and linear time. (I’ve had reason to criticize Housley’s treatment of science topics in the past.)
The first publication of the existence of 2019-nCoV was in that paper on 24 January 2020. In the last few days, a paper was published identifying “patient zero” as having had the disease in November.
Here’s the problem: mystery pneumonia appears in December. There are eventually a number of cases. Chinese doctor goes public with “there’s a really bad mystery pneumonia” in December. Government suppresses him.
(Now go watch Jaws and tell me what you think that mayor would have done if he had nearly unlimited power. Roy Schieder would have been toast.)
But doctors start researching mystery pneumonia and, after examining a cluster of cases, sequence the pathogen and find out it’s a novel variant of a well-known local virus. They publish a paper on January 24, citing cases that started in December.
There are a lot of things you might conclude — the mayor of Wuhan was an idiot. The guy who identified that there was a mystery pneumonia was smart, and the fact that he eventually died of mystery pneumonia is tragic.
What you can’t reasonably conclude is that they were lying about there being cases in December — because they mention those cases in the 24 January paper. And you can’t conclude that they’re lying about knowing those cases were SARS-CoV-2 because seeing someone with pneumonia doesn’t tell you why. Science isn’t magic, and there are a lot of things that cause pneumonia. They didn’t know it was a new variant until they sequenced it.
But if we follow this out, we have a theory that a secret bioweapon research lab made a bioweapon that is very communicable, doesn’t kill many people — we’re pretty sure it’s worse than flu but case fatality is way less than its cousins SARS and MERS — and whoever made it managed to release it in a way that created a worldwide panic and infected not only the Other Guys but Our Guys. While, in the case of Wuhan’s virology lab, publishing papers and asserting patents on the super-secret research.
On the other hand, let’s follow this out. Back in early December 2019, doctors start noticing mystery pneumonia in Wuhan hospitals. The patients they’re seeing tend to be elderly (remember, the median age at death of the first cohort was 75) and about half of the first cases were people who worked in the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market. A lot of them are dying — more than half of that first cohort. Researchers investigate and discover it’s a new variant of a known family of coronaviruses — beta coronaviruses — and genetically similar to SARS-CoV-1, the virus that caused SARS, and MERS-CoV, the virus that caused MERS. (Oh, and just in passing, MERS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, doesn’t come from China.)
Coronaviruses, like other single-strand RNA viruses, mutate like mad, and this mutation is very similar to other viruses in the same family in the wild. It seems to be more infectious than its cousins, but it has a much lower case fatality rate. (Which, by the way, means as a bioweapon it sucks.)
So we’re comparing a hypothesis that makes it a mysterious bioweapon, accidentally or purposely released by a super-secret bioweapons lab concealed in a virology institute researching and patenting coronavirus vaccines with a hypothesis that says it’s just a new variant of viruses already well known in the wild.
Which is the way to bet?