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2 September 2021updated 07 Sep 2021 6:49am

The Covid-19 lab leak hypothesis proves it matters what – and who – defines a conspiracy theory

A year ago, even raising the possibility of a lab leak seemed unacceptable. But public sentiment in the West is shifting.

By Louise Perry

A new Channel 4 documentary has displeased the Chinese embassy in the UK. The film-makers are guilty, according to a statement released last week, of “peddling groundless speculation and hearsay” in promoting a “conspiracy theory”.

The question of the title, Did Covid Leak from a Lab in China?, is put to the various doctors and scientists interviewed for the documentary, and most of them answer that yes, it probably did. But they each insist, one after the other, that they are not conspiracy theorists, despite what the Chinese embassy might suggest.

They make a persuasive case for the lab leak hypothesis, which has only recently started to receive serious attention. The US intelligence community has just conducted an inconclusive assessment about the origins of the Covid-19 virus, following an investigation ordered by Joe Biden. The intelligence agencies were divided about the likeliest explanation for how the virus made the leap to humans, with five favouring a natural origin, one favouring a lab leak, and three undecided.

A year ago, even raising the possibility of a lab leak seemed unacceptable. In February 2020 a strongly worded letter to the Lancet, signed by 27 public health scientists, was unequivocal on this point, and used the same magic words the Chinese authorities have now adopted: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”

But public sentiment in the West is shifting. This started to become clear when the comedian Jon Stewart – the former host of The Daily Show, a comedic institution for progressive America – appeared on a talk show in June this year and expressed his support for the lab leak hypothesis. To cheers from the audience (and visible discomfort from the host, Stephen Colbert), Stewart joined the conspiracy theorists: 

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There’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China. What do we do? Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab. The disease is the same name as the lab! That’s just a little too weird, don’t you think?

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In doing so, Stewart elevated the status of the hypothesis, giving other laypeople permission to voice their suspicions. This was a significant intervention, since what is and is not considered a conspiracy theory has much to do with the theorist’s social status.

[see also: China’s Covid cover-up?]

The term “conspiracy theory” is not a neutral one. It is both pejorative and highly politicised. Noam Chomsky has said that to describe someone as a conspiracy theorist is “the intellectual equivalent of four-letter words and tantrums”, but this is an understatement, since the term is much more powerful and far more effective at diminishing the status of an idea than any four-letter word could be.

The concept of a conspiracy theory can be defined in various ways, for instance, as a theory that goes against the official consensus, or that relies on the existence of an occult force. But a particularly cogent and satisfying definition is concerned less with the substance of the theory itself than with the theorists’ manner of reasoning – specifically, conspiracy theories resist falsification. For their adherents, evidence against the theory is interpreted as further evidence in support of it, meaning that, once you have opted in, there is no epistemic way out.

Conspiracy theories have a long history, particularly in America, where a conspiratorial way of thinking has often flourished, described as “the paranoid style in American politics” by Richard Hofstadter in the 1964 essay of the same name. But the internet has ushered in a golden age of the conspiracy theory, since it has become so much easier to make contact with like-minded eccentrics.

Many of them are disdained by non-believers. The archetypal conspiracy theorist is a figure of contempt, a pathetic guy who lives in his mother’s basement and wears a tin foil hat. Flat Earthers, moon truthers, UFO abductees and far-right QAnon followers are all considered fair game for mockery, since their preferred theories have no credibility in the mainstream.

Yet there are other, higher-status ideas that meet the definition of a conspiracy theory but are never described as such. Take the work of the American academic Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility entered the New York Times bestseller list in June 2018 and remained there for over a year.

DiAngelo posits the existence of “white fragility”, a kind of defensiveness that white people demonstrate when their ideas about race are questioned, thus reinforcing white supremacy. DiAngelo, who is white, has made huge sums of money, not only through sales of her book, but also through diversity seminars in which she encourages other white people to expunge their fragility.

Except that they can’t – that’s part of the theory. DiAngelo teaches that white fragility is ineradicable, meaning white supremacy is also ineradicable. Moreover, to question this claim, she says, is to reveal your own white fragility. The theory cannot, according to its own premise, be falsified. There is no way out of the ideological maze.

Some theories are so outlandish that they could never hope to attract high-profile support. But there is a murky space between “credible” and “incredible” in which many other theories are to be found, and some can move in and out of favour depending on the ideological climate.

The lab leak hypothesis has made the leap into the mainstream – not because new evidence has come to light, but because the consensus has subtly shifted. In political terms, what counts as a conspiracy theory depends on who is doing the theorising. 

[see also: Why Covid-19 conspiracy theories are flourishing]

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future