Friday, June 18, 2021

Wikipedia's coverage of the lab leak hypothesis (pt. III): the main Wikipolicies enforced


In this entry (the third in a series, see here part I and part II), I cover three important disputes surrounding the lab leak hypothesis of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 origin, in Wikipedia. 

Since it started in 2001, Wikipedia has been notably good at handling controversial topics. It does so by having a surveillance system of adminstrators who can ultimately enforce the rules by way of sanctions.  One of the most controversial topics on the project, for example, has been the article on Race and intelligence, whose Talk Page has 103 archived pages of discusssions. The lab leak hypothesis is not that controversial, but it has had its moments of heated confrontation.

In chronological order, I will summarize the carefully selected disputes, citing the corresponding Wikipolicy that was invoked by the opponents of the lab leak and, to balance it out, I'll also present how experienced Wikipedians argued against this policies in order to save the lab leak from being quasi-censored from Wikipedia. 

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1) Date: May 27 2020

url: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?oldid=959201778#RfC_on_inclusion_of_lab-accident_theory

Description of the dispute: A few editors proposed in late April 2020 on the talk page of "COVID-19 pandemic" to include a mention of the possibility that the virus originated in a lab leak. The facts to be included were based mostly on early reports from Daily Mail or Vanity Fair. At that time, the source of this hypothesis was British intelligence sources.

Editors reacted by calling the lab leak a conspiracy theory, and mentioning sources such as Vox as evidence that the hypothesis was already debunked (Vox has recently evolved on its views on the legitimacy of the subject by adding a clarification note to its original article). 

It was at this moment, in April 2020 that I proceeded to run a Request for Comment (RFC) to try to reach consensus on this proposal. The RFC failed, and the almost unanimous result was to omit any mention of the lab leak at the COVID-19 pandemic page, at least until further notice.

Wikipolicy enforced: Wikipedia:Fringe theories

Here is a summary of how this wikipolicy work, in this particular case.  Scholarly opinion, which are generally the most authoritative source, identified as the mainstream view on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 the natural origin hypothesis. The lab leak departed significantly from this mainstream hypothesis given that it proposed artificial manipulation of the virus in a laboratory in Wuhan. 

Because reliable sources had said (this was back in May 2020) that the lab leak hypothesis was pseudoscientific or fringe, Wikipedia editors were careful not to present lab leak views alongside the natural origin view as though they are equal. While the lab leak hypothesis may have been, in some cases, significant to the COVID-19 pandemic article, it should be either mentioned so as not to obfuscate the description or prominence of the natural origin, or omited. 

Since the lab leak hypotheses had the dual nature of having a substantial following but also having critics describing it as pseudoscience, the COVID-19 pandemic article was allowed (per this policy) to contain information to the effect that the lab leak was questionable science; as long as it wasn't described as unambiguously pseudoscientific (given that reasonable amount of academic debate still existed on that point). Despite this window of opportunity for a brief mention, the decision reached was to omit it entirely.

A notable experienced editor who stood up for the lab leak theory in this dispute was:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:1990%27sguy

They said: 

"At least one major intelligence agency in the world is investigating whether the virus accidently escaped a lab. Other reputable reports in the media show that U.S. intelligence is taking this seriously. Regardless of whether this theory is proven true or false, it's being taken seriously and thus doesn't meet the definition of being 'fringe' or a 'conspiracy theory'." 

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2) Date: February 19 of 2021

url: Wikipedia:Miscellany for deletion/Draft:COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis

Description of the dispute: In February 10 2021, a draft on "COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis" was submitted to the "Miscellany for deletion" section of Wikipedia, a place to discuss whether drafts merit deletion on the basis of Wikipolicies.  The draft contained a summary of the lab leak hypothesis based on many sources, mostly from the popular press. As seen from the previous dispute in this blog post, to include a bare mention of the lab leak in Wikipedia was considered controversial, and when someone boldly put a draft of a whole page devoted to it, of course it encountered fierce opposition. The community reached a consensus to delete the draft, after only nine days of deliberation.

Wikipolicy enforced: Point of view (POV) forks

A POV fork arose when a Wikipedia editor by the alias of ScrupulousScribe disagreed about the content of the COVID-19 Misinformation article which dismissed the lab leak theory as a conspiracy.  Instead of resolving that disagreement by consensus, another article on the same subject was created by ScrupulousScribe to be developed according to the particular point of view that the lab leak theory was a legimitate scientific hypothesis. This second article is known as a "POV fork" of the first, and is inconsistent with policy: all facts and major points of view on a certain subject should be treated in one article. As Wikipedia does not view article forking as an acceptable solution to disagreements between contributors, such fork was nominated for deletion.

The anti-fringe brigade of editors rushed to refer to the fork as "POV" because they saw evidences of persistent disruptive editing. 

ScrupulousScribe tried to include his personal theory that the lab leak theory was legitimately scientific in the existing article about COVID-19 pandemic, and a consensus of editors rejected it as complete nonsense.  This defeat was not justification to create an article named "Unanswered questions about legitimacy of the lab leak theory" to expound the rejected personal theory. In this case, the fork was titled "COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis". 

ScrupulousScribe maybe was sincerely convinced that there was so much information about the lab leak theory that it justified a separate article. However, any daughter article that deals with opinions about the subject of parent article must include suitably-weighted positive and negative opinions, and/or rebuttals, if available, and the original article should contain a neutral summary of the split article. Despite that a legitimate fork could have been made to adjust to these guidelines, the community overwhlemingly voted to delete the draft entirely.

A notable defender of the lab leak theory in this dispute was this Wikipedian:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Rich_Farmbrough 

They said: 

"Even though there is a lot of crazy that feeds into the the umbrella of "Covid-19 lab leak", the idea is not unscientific.

There are many scientists who have described the conjectured event of a leak as improbable, but not so many who say it is impossible.

The question of the furin cleavage site is one factor that is described as having arisen in coronaviruses many times. This removes any necessity for it to have been inserted by genetic engineering as claimed by some. However we know that the virus existed in a post-bat reservoir (where the furin site would have been useful) before coming to attention in Wuhan. This reservoir may have been in a lab, or may have been in the wild, or in livestock.

Another argument given is that "no-one" was working on this type of project, in the Wuhan labs. It's by no means clear that we know what everyone in these labs was working on.

The RaTG-13 published datasets appear to be contaminated with both hoseshoe bat and Malayan pangolin DNA, implying that pangolins were involved in the science at some point, which has not been disclosed.

It should be noted that there are also ideas that the outbreak may have originated in Guandong or elsewhere, and only become widespread in Wuhan."

3) Date: June 12 2021

url: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Biomedical_information#RFC:_Disease_/_pandemic_origins. 

Description of the dispute: There is a divergence in the way the lab leak theory is presented in news sources as opposed to scientific literature.  On news sources, there is abundant information on the lab leak theory, but in the scientific literature (by a cursory Google Scholar search with the key words "covid lab leak", for example) shows almost no results.  Secondary sources such as scientific literature reviews that have addressed the origin of SARS-CoV-2 omit completely the possibility of a lab leak.  This are the most important sources to use in articles about biomedical information.  On other topics, to have just secondary sources (reputable articles in news outlets) should suffice to backup edits in Wikipedia articles.  On the basis of this divergence, many editors had different opinions on whether to rely exclusively on scientific literature reviews to source the articles on SARS-CoV-2 origin, or to allow the rest of reliable sources to have their information included.  Since no agreement was reached in Talk Pages, a Dispute Resolution Mechanism was started on one aspect of this controversy: should the page that list what information requires scientific literature reviews (MEDRS in Wikipedia jargon) include explicitely the origins of a pandemic?  

This dispute is still ongoing so I can not cite the result, except to note that most editors have voted opposing the explicit and unambiguous inclusion of the origins of a pandemic in the list.  

A notable defender of the lab leak theory in this dispute has been this Wikipedian:

Wbm1058

They said: 

"There's abundant evidence that normally excellent MEDS sources aren't reliable on the COVID origin issue. Also, Chinese blocking the road to the bat cave isn't biomedical information. Scientists getting death threats after expressing counter-"consensus" opinions isn't biomedical information. Funding for gain-of-function research isn't biomedical information. Lacking sufficient biomedical information to conclusively determine the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 pandemic origin, we must rely on such non-biomedical information to describe the efforts to determine the origin, until more conclusive biomedical information emerges."

This dispute may serve as good argument against asking that every aspect of an article about the origin of a pandemic requires MEDRS sources, which has important implications for the way in which the lab leak hypothesis is depicted in Wikipedia.

 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Wikipedia's coverage of the lab leak hypothesis (part II): a proposal to curate the news sources



This blog entry continues my comments on Wikipedia's coverage of the lab leak hypothesis.  The central point of discord has been that Wikipedia has to avoid edits pushing conspiracy theories, but without going as far as excluding pieces and bits of legitimate information.  Most information on the lab leak hypothesis is notable and worthy of coverage in Wikipedia, but so far the former balance has not been reached, and a feud is still ongoing.

Wikipedia publishes only the opinion of reliable authors. The complexities of the molecular biology, virology and epidemiology behind the origin of SARS-CoV-2 then requires that sources are chosen carefully. In this post I'll take a deep dive into the main differences in the presentations of the lab leak hypothesis between news outlets and official sources, like the World Health Organization (WHO). This is the second part in a series of blog post on this topic, if you are interested in reading the previous part, you can do it by clicking here.

Before I start citing news outlets on the lab leak hypothesis it is worth warning their potential for failing at reliability. Despite the occasional blunders, news reporting from well-established news outlets is generally considered to be reliable for statements of fact in Wikipedia. However, whether a specific news story is reliable for a fact or statement should be examined on a case-by-case basis, hence this blog post.

Two important considerations that help on this assesment are: Firstly, the fact that most medical news articles fail to discuss evidence quality.  They tend to overemphasize the certainty of any result. Second, the fact that statements that all or most scientists or scholars hold a certain view requires reliable sourcing that directly says that all or most scientists or scholars hold that view. Otherwise, individual opinions should be identified as those of particular, named sources. 

High-quality realiable source (RS, in Wikipedia jargon) that speak about the lab leak hypothesis include: Reuters, AP, PBS, The NY Times, and CNN.  In this post I will point out the main points of contention between the information they have published and the facts published in high-quality secondary sources published in top scientific journals, or, lacking that point of contrast, I will use the opinion of top experts virologists, like Kristian Andersen and Victor Max Corman.

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1) Let's start with claims from Reuters:

a. Where, when and how SARS-CoV-2 originated is a mystery.  

True. 

The word "mystery" means "anything kept secret or unexplained or unknown". Since the direction in which news sources usually fail is when they overestimate certainty of research, in this case they would be doing the opposite: underestimating the certainty expressed by mainstream virologists on whether the origin is a mystery or whether it is well-understood.  The WHO report says "It remains to be determined where SARS-CoV-2 originated". Andersen introduces a nuance: he said it is not surprising to not have found the intermediate host because that kind of work "often takes decades". A more precise wording that describes this fact is that we know little about the origin but, conditional on being about two years away from the start of the pandemic, we know approximately the right amount that we are expected to know.

b. The hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China, is one of the two prevailing competing theories.  

False.

The WHO report ranked first the hypothesis of introduction through an intermediate host followed by zoonotic transmission.  By definition the two prevailing theories are the ones that have "superior power or influence" than the rest.  This means the two prevailing theories are direct zoonotic transmission, and intermediate host followed by zoonotic transmission, at least according to the WHO report.  Andersen said that the WHO report shows there are "much more likely competing hypothesis" than the lab leak. He also finds unfortunate that others "suggest a false equivalence between the lab escape and natural origin scenarios". Reuters got it inaccurate here.

c. Scientists have failed so far to identify any wildlife infected [prior to the initial outbreak] with the same viral lineage of SARS-CoV-2

True

The WHO report says: "the presence of SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected through sampling and testing of bats or of wildlife across China. More than 80000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from 31 provinces in China and no positive result was identified for SARS-CoV-2 antibody or nucleic acid before and after the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in China. Through extensive testing of animal products in the Huanan market, no evidence of animal infections was found.". Victor Corman said that "it is a pity we still lack such data for SARS-CoV-2", referring to wildlife sampling he undertook in camels during his past research on MERS. He tweeted this in March 2, 2021. 

d. The Chinese government has refused to allow the lab-leak scenario to be fully investigated.

True.

AP has the exact same statement here. PBS said that "... on Tuesday, China rejected once again a call for further investigation".  NY Times said that China lacked cooperation with the WHO. China has allowed only a partial investigation, not full.  Although the WHO said in the "Declaration of interest" section of the report that "All declared interest were assessed and found not to interfere with the independence and transparency of the work", the evidence indicates that the Chinese government had a lot of control during the study.  For example, the report states that it was co-headed by Liang Wannian of the People's Republic of China, and that the Government of China was allowed to indicate objections to the list of foreign team members. Despite ocassional requests to refine the design of studies, the report says that the international team members started mainly with methods and data provided by the Chinese team. Wu Ken, Chinese ambassador to Germany said that his government has an open attitute about being investigated, but that they "reject putting China in the dock without evidence, assuming its guilt and then trying to search for evidence through a so-called international investigation". 

e. Scientists and others have developed hypotheses based on general concerns about the risks involved in live virus lab research, clues in the virus’ genome, and information from studies by institute researchers. 

Unusable in Wikipedia.

The Reuters article does not attribute specific names of scientists to this  "development of hypothesis".  We started this blog entry with the caution that news articles can be used in Wikipedia as long as their statements on scientists opinion are qualifiied by referencing more reliable sources (i.e. "According to a review published in Science, most scientists believe x", "According to a Coronavirology textbook published by Elsevier, many scientists believe y"). Failing to appeal these higher sources,  news articles can be used if at least they attribute individual opinions on particular, named sources. Even if I personally know the names of the scientists who believe there are clues of manipulation in the virus' genome, I can't edit Wikipedia with that information if it was omitted from the Reuters piece. So this is an example of a news piece that is flawed when referencing with correct balance the opinions of scientists regarding the origin of the virus.

f. A May 5, story by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said lab scientists experimenting on a virus sometimes insert a sequence called a “furin cleavage site” into its genome in a manner that makes the virus more infective. David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning virologist quoted in the article, said when he spotted the sequence in the SARS-CoV-2 genome, he felt he had found the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.



Usable in Wikipedia, but seems irrelevant anecdote.

Well, it is true that Nicholas Wade wrote that Baltimore said that.  Reuters did a good job in presenting adjacently the commentary from Andersen: "Kristian G. Andersen, a scientist at Scripps Research who has done extensive work on coronaviruses, Ebola and other pathogens transmissible from animals to humans, said similar genomic sequences occur naturally in coronaviruses and are unlikely to be manipulated in the way Baltimore described for experimentation." I wish someone asks Baltimore to expand his point.

The WHO report says that the Furin cleavage site has been found in animal viruses as well, and elements of it are present in RmYN02 and a Thailand bat SARSr-CoV. Andersen refered to the puzzling nature of this genomic insertion: "Furin cleavage sites are common in CoV, even if this is the first example we have seen in a SARSr-CoV. There are insertions in this very spot in other SARSr-CoVs too, so clearly a highly evolvable site.".  The verdict: Although puzzling, it seems that by natural recombinations it is possible for a non-sarbecovirus betacoronavirus to aquire the Furin Cleavage Site at the S1/S2 junction. 

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Moving on to AP, we have:

a. Arinjay Banerjee, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatchewan, Canada, was interviewd by AP.  His position was presented as follows:

“The great probability is still that this virus came from a wildlife reservoir,” he said, pointing to the fact that spillover events – when viruses jump from animals to humans – are common in nature, and that scientists already know of two similar beta coronaviruses that evolved in bats and caused epidemics when humans were infected, SARS1 and MERS. “The evidence we so far have suggests that this virus came from wildlife,” he said

Usable in Wikipedia, but we can not tell if this is an isolated opinion or if it is representative of many other scientists

It is true that Banerjee said that.  Now to check the accuracy of his statements, one would exert caution in that news outlets tend to overestimate the certainty of a scientific claim.  The WHO report says that "The majority of emerging diseases originate from animal reservoirs and there is strong evidence that most of the current human coronaviruses have originated from animals", which supports Banerjee's opinion.  However, if we are to add caution to this factual statement, the WHO report does say in the "Arguments against" section of the animal origin hypothesis the puzzling fact that all animals found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 were so by contact with humans rather than enzootic virus circulation. To present this evidence balances better the information so that it does not overestimates its certainty, in my opinion.

b. The case on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is not completely closed

True.

Considering that news sources overstate how good scientific investigations are, the fact that they report this one as "not completely closed" can be trusted.

This comes from an earlier AP report published after receiving a draft of the WHO report: 

c. Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh said it was possible the source of COVID-19 might never be identified.

Usable in Wikipedia, but we can not tell if this is an isolated opinion or if it is representative of many other scientists.

It is true that Woolhouse said that. Now, on fact-checking the actual matter.  The word "cause" in this case probably means the animal source of the initial outbreak in Wuhan.  Andersen said that finding the intermediate host "often takes decades" and to say that it may never be identified is not far fetched.  The WHO report set a Phase 2 investigation to help tracing the origin of SARS-CoV-2 including analysis of trade in animals as well as interviewing farmers that supplied wildlife to Huanan market.  Woolhouse would seem to be pessimistic about the outcome of this continuation efforts to find the source, but his is a reliable position, given the propensity of news sources to overstate the certainty of results in scientific research.  

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Let's move on to analyze PBS reporting.

a. Lab leak theories are low to medium confidence within the intelligence community. 

True.

In my opinion in dealing with secret intelligence sources, it is best to cite them in Wikipedia after their investigations concludes with a final public report, or with material being declassified, otherwise they are meh.

b. There is pressure from Republicans for the Government to push on investigating the lab leak, threatening to call it weak on China

True.

We can trust PBS on this, they are neutral when reporting political information.

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Now let's move on to NY Times:

a. The two most vocal poles of the argument are natural spillover vs. laboratory leak

True.

"Vocal" means "willing to express oneself in words, esp. in many words".  We can trust that NY Times qualifying the lab leak proponents as showing willingness to express it in many words, even more than, say, frozen-food hypothesis proponents. Nonetheless, this factual claim is probably limited to a Western world or US audience.   

b. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, said that "In the beginning, there was a lot of pressure against speaking up [about the uncertainties about the origins of the virus.], because it was tied to conspiracies"

Usable in Wikipedia, but seems irrelevant anecdote.

It is true that Iwasaki said that.  Now, to actual fact-check the existence of these pressures, I found nothing either in the WHO report or in the experts tweets (Andersen and Corman).  Until repeated by other sources, this remains irrelevantly anecdotal, in my opinion.

c. There is no direct evidence for the “lab leak” theory that Chinese researchers isolated the virus, which then infected a lab worker.

True.

The WHO report says "There is no record of viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in any laboratory before December 2019, or genomes, that in combination could provide a SARS-CoV-2 genome". It also says that the three laboratories in Wuhan had high quality biosafety level (BSL3 or 4) facilities. Andersen changes the "direct" qualifier to "scientific" and says "To this day, we have yet to see any  scientific evidence  supporting a lab leak".

d. Researchers have been able to reconstruct some of the evolutionary steps by which SARS-CoV-2 evolved into a potential human pathogen while it was still infecting animals. 

True.

According to the WHO report, one of these reconstructed steps was that RaTG13 was found to have 96.2% genetic similarity with SARS-CoV-2. However, they qualify that by saying "Although SARS-CoV-2 is closely related to RaTG13, only one of the six critical amino acids sites [in the RBD of the S protein] is identical between the two viruses. A second step was that pangolin viruses were found to have some of the parts needed to complete the evolution, but the WHO summarizes the results from this line as inconclusive by saying "Although some researchers thought these observations [similar amino acids to the RBDs of pangolins] served as evidence that SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in the recombination of a virus similar to pangolin-CoV with one similar to RaTG13, others argued that the identical functional sites in SARS-CoV-2 and pangolin-CoV-GDC may actually result from coincidental convergent evolution". Andersen summarized the advances on the reconstruction of the evolutionary history of SARS-CoV-2, in this tweet: "The 'natural' version of this actually has a lot of evidence to it by now - we continue to see more and more of the pieces that make up the puzzle of SARS-CoV-2's evolutionary origin. The problem is - it's a big puzzle.". If the puzzle is big and the main reconstructed steps have not been conclusively determined, we should be cautious to say that a lot of  progress has been made on this front, in my opinion. 

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Finally, let's breakdown information from CNN:

a. Three huge coincidences foster the lab leak theory (proximity of the lab, speculations of workers that fell sick near the time of the outbreak, that Wuhan's CDC moved in early December 2019)

True

The key here is that CNN is editorializing and that they are not saying that the coincidences hugely foster the lab theory (notice the order of words), but that they are huge coincidences and they foster it. "Huge" is editorializing and can be used in Wikipedia with attribution.  

The WHO report mentions the proximity and the moving of the Wuhan CDC in a section called "Arguments in favor" of the lab leak hypothesis.  The report is rather sparse about these arguments and does not qualify their magnitude.  

b. It is likely that China is hiding something related to hospital samples from 2019 or similar type of evidence

True.

Again, this is CNN editorializing, so that this statement can only be used in Wikipedia with attribution.  Neither the WHO report or Andersen have talked about China hiding anything. CNN expands by saying that the WHO team "admits they would like access to more material".

c. The WHO investigators share the conclusion of most specialists in this field: that the disease most likely came from bats, via another species, known as an "intermediary animal," and then infected humans.

True.

The WHO report says "likely to most likely", though, which is not exactly the same wording.

d.  The virus' transfer or spillover in nature, is the vast preponderance of scientific research on the subject to date.

Unusable in Wikipedia.

When a news sources qualifies the extent of agreement on the scientific community, it can only be used if a) it cites a stronger source or b) it is attributed to the opinion of a particular scientist that represents that position.  Neither is present here.

In conclusion, Wikipedia has had a hot topic of debate on how to present the lab leak hypothesis.  On one hand, some editors believe only scientific papers vetted by secondary sources are reliable sources of information on the origin of SARS-CoV-2.  On the other hand, other editors, have pushed to open the door to using news sources in the SARS-CoV-2 related pages of Wikipedia.  In this blog post I rigurously present a middle ground, in which news sources are curated by examining their main flaws, and leaving only a subset of quotes to be true and usable in Wikipedia.  

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Wikipedia's coverage of the lab leak hypothesis: a recount (part I)



For the past year Wikipedia has hosted hundreds of clashes between its volunteer editors, who go back and forth in the articles concerning the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. Agitation and heated debate abound whenever someone dares to add, delete, twist, or push around, the idea of a lab leak origin of the initial outbreak of COVID-19 that ocurred in Wuhan in December 2019. I brought a sample of these clashes in the images above the blog entry.

What a casual reader of Wikipedia may ignore, is that editing happens behind the scenes at various levels.  Edits, that is, the inclusion or modification of information, are firstly made by anyone, constituting the first layer.  On a second layer, edits are initially discussed by the community in a separate space called "Talk page" where a consensus is pursued before someone hits the publish button. This curation is made obligatory in pages deemed to be highly controversial, like the article on Jesus, where protection measures are set in place so that no new user is allowed to edit the information displayed. 

There is also a deeper third level, in which discussions gets so heated that they require special forums where experienced moderators help as arbiters. After this mediation, Talk-page discussion usually resume harmoniously again, and edits can be produced. These third-level spaces are called "dispute-resolution pages".

By April of 2020, a few casual editors tried to include for the first time information on the lab leak hypothesis of the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wikipedia.  The edits, as usually happens, got reverted because they lacked quotes from reliable sources as required by Wikipedia's policies.  A second round of edits followed, and, as usual they got reverted again, because the sources used were unreliable (i.e. blogs and questionable news outlets).  The internet is full of crazy bloggers pushing conspiracy theories on the origin of the pandemic, and it is perfectly fine to avoid using them to reference information in Wikipedia.  So far so good. 

By late April 2020, edits on the lab leak sourced on good reliable sources (RS, in Wikipedia linguae) appeared, but they also faced push back at Talk pages.  Even information coming from Newsweek, NBC, or Fox News was denied entry in Wikipedia.  A team of editors watching closely the articles on the pandemic vigorously reverted this round of edits.  The information, admittedly, was weakly supported in the sources, with the most favorable ones saying "a lab leak can not be definitively ruled out".  An editor commented this on the state of affairs in April 29 2020: 

"Of course scientists will 'acknowledge it’s not possible to definitively rule out the lab-escape theory:' they're scientists and thinking in terms of probabilities. Scientists' love of hedging and cautious language has been used by others, notably climate science deniers, to produce controversy where there is none. Many scientists calling the lab escape theory 'highly unlikely' means 'BS' in plain English."

By the Fall of 2020, the dominant position among Wikipedia editors was that the lab leak hypothesis was an extraordinary claim that required critical review from the scientific community so that high-quality RS discussed it as an alternative position. Basically, this meant that until a high-quality RS said it was not a conspiracy theory, it had to stay out of Wikipedia, or confined to the entry on "COVID-19 Misinformation" along tin foil hat conspiracies.  

On January 8 2021, I received an email from a Wikipedian by the alias  "ScrupulousScribe" saying that he was having confrontations with some editors allegedly acting together to counter his contributions by continually citing the policy on how to identify RS in medical topics. He went on to ask me to "look at the talk pages to see how we can go about this". He must have found about me because I had led a Request for Comment (a dispute resolution mechanism) on this topic in April 2020.  I am not a virologist (I'm an economist), but have been a semi-active wikipedian (under the user name "Forich"), at least on and off, for 13 years, and I began to be interested in Covid-19 at around the time it arrived to Colombia -my country- in March 2020.

I responded unsympathetically to ScrupulousScribe: "They have valid points on MEDRS, because in its fine print it requires papers not only to be peer reviewed, but to be secondary sources, which is equal to be a systematic review, or a paper with the word 'review' in the title.". 

By mid January, by curiousity prompted by this email, I looked again at the Wikipedia pages on COVID-19, and became involved at Talk pages discussing the lab leak hypothesis.  I made great progress working alongside a Wikipedian by the alias Alexbrn. He is a recognized defender of Wikipedia with regards to fringe content. Together we did a breakdown of what the scientific literature said on the lab leak hypothesis and laid the ground for separating clearly what was speculation coming from dubious sources and what was legitimate claims published in peer-reviewed articles and, on top of that, reviewed by experts who published surveys in scientific journals. It can be read here

Between mid January and May 2021, Talk pages and the higher administrative instances within Wikipedia exploded with activity related to the lab leak hypothesis. Many editors, including ScrupulousScribe, were temporarily banned from editing pages related to COVID-19, on charges of disruptive editing.  Basically, they got owned fighting experienced Wikipedians, some of who had deep understanding of the technicalities and laws that guide the editing of pages.  They lost not so much of being wrong but because of "wikilawyering tactics", as they are sometimes called. 

Around the time of a  WHO joint mission study landed in China, back in February 2021, a brigade of new users appeared out of nowhere disrupting the talk pages and asking for the label "conspiracy" to be removed from the lab leak hypothesis.  Actually, there are clues suggesting that these new editors were recruited or at least summoned after reading tweets by an amateur team of investigators on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 called DRASTIC. Here is one sample of said tweets

The attention received by the behind the scenes Wikipedia activity escalated quickly by late February, when an episode of the DarkHorse podcast commented on the declined attempt to create a page exclusively devoted to the lab leak hypothesis.  Bret Weinstein, one of the cohosts of the podcast said "This doesn't have anything to do with facts.  This has to do with people who want that entry down for their own reasons, whatever they may be, shaping what the world takes to be a factual reference".   

The lab leak controversy has escalated within Wikipedia up to an instance called "Administrator Noticeboard Incident".  The issuer is a Wikipedian by the alias RandomCanadian, who denounces that some editors "are advocating for the hypothesis of a lab leak despite statements from the WHO in their report deeming it 'extremely unlikely'. RandomCanadian also says that "This has been going on for about a year and is again reaching levels of WP:BLUDGEON proportions; and despite multiple topic bans and blocks for socking (ScrupulousScribe) and off-wiki harassment (Billybostickson), the situation is not abating, and in fact there is distinct evidence off-wiki canvassing is still ongoing." It is currently under discussion whether Wikipedia administrators should take measures such as temporarily banning egregious offenders or putting the main Covid-related pages under protection.  

At the time of writing this, we are witnessing a change in the tide regarding the public perception of the lab leak hypothesis.  Maybe it was the Redfield declaration of support, the Wade article, or the Science letter, that triggered the change.  Some Wikipedians, however, remain unimpressed:

"The [Science] letter doesn't change anything as far as WP:UNDUE and WP:FRINGE is concerned (it's a WP:PRIMARY source for the opinion of its authors, as clearly explained). Conspiracy theory, unfounded speculation or small minority scientific hypotheses all get the same treatment, so you can call foul all you want, but without a secondary, reputable MEDRS to support the lab leak, you're wasting everyone's time."

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog series, in which I will try to expand on the details of this debate and what has been the latest points of contention between editors on how to address the lab leak hypothesis.