COVID-19 Origins: Conventional Thinking, Conspiratorial Thinking, Crazy Thinking, and Bat Crap Crazy ThinkingRead Now
I have often railed against conspiracy theories in my blog, but I want to make it clear that I make a distinction between conspiracies and conspiracy theories. There have been many verified conspiracies. The cigarette manufacturing companies conspired to hide the fact that cigarettes were harmful. The Nixon administration conspired to maintain its involvement in the wiretapping of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Building a secret. The Catholic Church conspired to hide child abuse by their priests. These conspiracies have been exposed and found to be true by detective work backed by internal documents and testimony from witnesses. Conspiracies do happen, and we must take claims of a conspiracy seriously, but only as long as they are backed by evidence. The argument that COVID-19 originated in a lab was originally branded a conspiracy theory, but evidence has emerged, and arguments have been made that have made it more plausible generating a debate within the scientific community. This debate is guided by what we can call “conventional thinking” following the terminology of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook.
Several scientists have argued that there is strong evidence that the COVID-19 virus, SARS-Cov-2, arose in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and not in a natural manner. Although the details are highly technical, in a nutshell it is argued that there are some aspects of the SARS-COV-2 virus that are unusual as it contains sequences that make it highly contagious for humans. It is also argued that analysis of viral genomes in bats and other animals make it unlikely that the Covid-19 virus arose naturally. Unlike previous coronavirus disease outbreaks, no viruses bearing a close relationship to the SARS-Cov-2 virus have been found around the Wuhan area, and the WIV had samples of large number of bat coronaviruses that they had gathered in trips to several caves a thousand miles away in another Chinese province. It is claimed that the WIV was carrying out gain of function research, which is research performed to make weak viruses more infectious, and that a grant from the NIH may have funded some of this gain of function research. Recently US intelligence has confirmed that some researchers from the WIV were admitted to a hospital with flu-like symptoms before the Covid-19 pandemic started. It is also known that researchers at the WIV were not following safety protocols when collecting the viruses. Thus, there is the possibility that the Covid-19 virus could have been present or even created at the WIV and released accidentally.
The critics counter that careful analysis of aspects of the virus’ genetic sequence and makeup compared to other preexisting coronaviruses still leaves open the possibility that the COVID-19 virus arose naturally. They also argue that it is questionable whether the Covid-19 virus shows signs of manipulation or optimization to infect humans as per the most current genetic techniques used in the field of virology. They further point out that some people that have entered caves containing populations of bats have become sick with a Covid-like disease, suggesting that these viruses can infect people directly without need for genetic modification. Finally, they argue that the production of vaccines and drugs against Covid-19 benefited from research at the WIV. With regards to the gain of function funding claims, officials such as Dr. Fauci and the NIH director Dr. Francis Collins deny that the grant money that reached the WIV funded any such research.
The above debate is what you get when scientists and other individuals with competing ideas are involved in an exchange regarding complex technical issues. The process of conventional thinking involves skepticism, evaluation of evidence, and coherence. Conventional thinking is not perfect, as it can be distorted by politics, polarization, and emotions, but it is the best method we have at our disposal to generate evidence-based answers to questions. The opposite to conventional thinking is what we will call conspiratorial thinking also following the terminology of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook.
There are several conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the COVID-19 virus. In general, many of them start with the information I have alluded to above and make the leap to argue not only the “certainty” that the virus was produced at the WIV as a bioweapon with NIH funding, but that the Chinese government released the virus on purpose with the goal of bringing down Donald Trump’s presidency or somehow gaining some global advantage over other countries. While conventional thinking and conspiratorial thinking both rely heavily on evidence, conspiratorial thinking involves overriding suspicion, over-interpretation of the evidence, and often results in contradiction. When properly carried out, conventional thinking uses evidence to find the truth, while conspiratorial thinking often uses evidence to justify a prejudice.
Apart from the levels of “conventional thinking” and “conspiratorial thinking” from the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, I also want to suggest two additional levels that lie below it.
In this level, it is argued not only that China developed and released the virus, but that it did so with the support of the deep state within the US government to not only bring down Trump but to control and track the behavior of people through mask wearing and other measures including the implantation of a microchip using vaccines in coordination with Bill Gates and his foundation. In these claims, Dr. Fauci and other government figures not only knowingly funded the development of COVID-19 by China but also coordinated with pharmaceutical companies to enrich themselves and oppose cheaper effective therapeutic alternatives like hydroxychloroquine. While conspiratorial thinking makes the mistake of overinterpreting evidence or using it in a selective way, at the crazy level people make use of evidence only in the most cursory of ways to lay the foundation for an edifice that they erect based on innuendo, hearsay, rumors, ignorance, fear, bigotry, misinformation, and disinformation. But believe it or not, things can get worse.
Bat Crap Crazy Thinking
This is the ultimate level of human folly. Here is where you find QAnon, tin foil hatters, flat Earthers and other such fringe. The individuals in this level are so divorced from reality that their claims often run afoul of mainstream crazy. With regards to COVID-19 origins, they make assertions such as that the disease is not produced by a virus but rather by 5G wireless networks, or that it is not a disease at all but a cover up for sex trafficking by a cabal of deep state satanic pedophiles who torture children and drink their blood. They make claims that COVID-19 vaccines are lethal, that the vaccines themselves can cause COVID-19, or that they change people’s DNA. They also argue that the pandemic is a sham, which they call “shamdemic”.
The effort to understand the origins of COVID-19 is ongoing, but it is far from perfect. Human passions and folly at several levels may stand in the way of progress towards this goal, but hopefully sane people of goodwill guided by science will get us there.
The image by Felton Davis from flickr is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
I recently went to Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee and visited several of its waterfalls including the magnificent Fall Creek Falls, which is the tallest free-falling waterfall in the Eastern United States (see below).
When I visit a place such as Fall Creek Falls, I like to enjoy the immediate beauty of the area which I can perceive through my eyes, but I also like to place what I see around me in the context of the scientific knowledge we have about the place.
The park is part of a geological area in Tennessee that is called the Cumberland Plateau which rises about 1,000 feet over the Tennessee River Valley. Several of the limestone, dolomite, and shale rocks in the Cumberland Plateau started out as sediments deposited in a swallow sea 360-320 million years ago. And from 320 to 300 million years ago the erosion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which once were as tall as the Rocky Mountains, also contributed sand and pebbles to the area. Over millions of years the sediments were compacted (lithified) into rocks and the whole area experienced an uplifting event which led to the creation of swift streams that carved out gorges in the plateau creating beautiful waterfalls such as Fall Creek Falls.
When I stand near Fall Creek Falls, I am standing in an area that hundreds of millions of years ago was a tropical sea. And when I look at some of the rocks under the waterfall, I am looking at sediments that came from the summits of mighty mountains. Isn’t that amazing? Doesn’t that knowledge increase our sense of wonder about the place? It does so for me, but my enjoyment was dampened a bit when I saw that some of the park signs had been vandalized in a particular way.
Signs everywhere are often vandalized by individuals for different reasons, but I noticed that the sign next to Fall Creek Falls (as well as other signs in the park) had one word crossed out: the word “millions”. And in this particular sign, the word “thousands” had been scratched in below. Clearly the person defacing the sign had a problem with the sign alluding to geologic formations “millions of years old” feeling that the proper description should have been “thousands of years old”. Who would this person be and why would they choose to vandalize the sign in this way?
Although I have no definite proof, I presume that the individual(s) who vandalized this and other signs in the park believe in creationism. Other persons who have read these signs have arrived at the same conclusion.
Creationists are people who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible and believe in several things that are contrary to scientific evidence such as that the Earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 thousand years old, that there was a universal flood that covered much of the Earth, and that all living things were created at the same time, and therefore human beings coexisted with dinosaurs. In recent years, creationists have framed the refusal of mainstream science to accept their views while promoting the teaching of evolution in schools as an attack on religion and the imposition of atheism. This is not true, but I have dealt with creationists before in my blog, so I am not going to repeat myself in this post. However, I do want to address the issue behind the vandalism. How do we know the Earth is much older than 6,000 years? There are many ways to figure this out, but I will only talk about two of them here.
I have already mentioned in the Interesting Stuff section of my website that one of the methods scientists use to determine the age of rocks is radiometric dating. Radioactive elements decompose into other elements at fixed rates, and by measuring the proportion of both the parent and daughter elements in the rocks, scientists can find out when these rocks were formed. The results repeatedly obtained by many scientists using these techniques applied in many areas of the Earth is that the oldest rocks of our planet are billions of years old. This result has also been obtained when radiometric techniques were applied to meteorites and moon rocks. Creationists argue that radiometric techniques rely on false assumptions and have seized on mistakes made by some scientists to discredit these techniques. However, not only have creationist arguments been refuted, but many examples abound of rocks that have been carefully analyzed and found to be much older than creationist claims.
Another way to figure out that the Earth is much older than 6,000 to 10,00 years is using the science from plate tectonics. The continents of the Earth are sitting on top of areas of the Earth’s crust called plates that move over the Earth’s mantle very slowly. Some continents that were connected in the past, such as North America and Africa, have since moved away from each other, while India has crashed into Asia giving rise to the Himalayan Mountains. The rate of movement of these plates nowadays can be measured by GPS and it is in the order of 0.6 to 10 centimeters per year. If you calculate the thousands of miles that the continents must have travelled at these slow rates, you arrive at figures in the tens to hundreds of millions of years. Creationists claim (with no evidence) that plate movement was much faster in the past, but to pack all that movement of colossal landmasses into a span of a few thousand years would be impossible from a physical point of view.
The error in the creationist beliefs comes from using the Bible as a textbook of natural history, which it is not. To express this in a couple of sentences. The Bible is about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go. The Bible is about the rock of ages, not about the age of rocks. Creationists do a disservice not only to science but also to religion itself when using the Bible in this way. All the evidence we have clearly points to a very old Earth where most changes in the landscape have taken millions upon millions of years.
And vandalizing park signs is not going to change that.
The photographs belong to the author and can only be used with permission.
The development of the capacity to culture cells ushered in a revolution in the biological sciences because it allowed scientists to remove cells from the great complexity of the live organism and grow them in a controlled environment where they could study the chemical and physical changes that the cells exhibited during their life cycle in response to both normal and pathological stimuli. The nature and role of many molecules and fundamental processes going on in living things have been discovered thanks to cell culture research, and this has in turn allowed the development therapies for many diseases. Additionally, cells have also been used as tools to screen for new drugs, grow pathogens, test the effects of changes in genes, and in the future may allow the creation of replacement organs.
During my scientific career, I have worked with many cells including human cells. Most of the human cells I have worked with were cancerous cell lines derived from tissues such as breast, pancreas, ovary, colon, and cervix. The way these cell lines are generated is that they are initially isolated from a cancer found in an organ, and they are then grown in culture flasks for several generations. Once enough cells are available, they are frozen and stored under conditions that do not harm them, and they can be packed in dry ice and shipped to laboratories around the world. Nowadays you can buy these cells from companies that have divisions that are specialized in cell culture.
When I do an experiment with human cells, I am primarily focused on getting the science and the procedure right. However, when I peer through my microscope at those tiny things that swarm and multiply in my culture flasks, I sometimes wonder about the human beings from whom they were taken. Who were these individuals? What did they do? Where did they come from? What challenges did they face in life? What were their opinions about local and world events and trends? What foods and music did they like? What books did they read? Were they killed by their cancers? How would they feel if they knew that I am looking at cells from their breasts or their prostates?
When you purchase a cancer cell line, there is very little information available regarding the person from whose cancer the cells were generated. Normally only the age, sex, and ethnicity of the person are provided. Consider the most famous of all cell lines: the HeLa cell line. This was the first cell to be cultured, and it played a crucial role in the process that led to the development of the polio vaccine. The HeLa cells were isolated from a cervical cancer which killed a black woman named Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Since then, these cells have been extensively used for research all over the world and the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells has been told in a remarkable book by Rebecca Skloot entitled, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But if you purchase a vial of HeLa cells today, the only information presented regarding the person from which they were obtained is:
Age: 31 years adult
There is extensive documentation regarding the genetic, biochemical, and physiological characteristics of the cells, as well as information regarding how to grow them and references to their use in research, but there is no information about Henrietta and her life. And some scientists would argue that, in addition to privacy issues regarding the individuals and their families, this is OK because cells are a tool, and any personal information regarding the individuals from which they originated is irrelevant.
Although I understand this argument, I still would like to know a little more about those individuals whose cells I am culturing and how they feel about it. I believe that if someone is donating their cancers to research, they should be given the option to at least write a few lines to the scientists that will be using their cells. For example:
My name is Jane Doe. My doctors tell me that the cancer they will remove from my ovaries will be used to produce cell lines for research. I am praying that the surgery and the chemo will work, and that I will be able to spend more time with my daughter and my grandchildren. However, I want you to know that regardless of the outcome, I want you to make good use of my cells and find ways to treat this and other diseases. We all appreciate more time in this world, and I hope that God guides your studies and blesses you with clarity. When you peer through your microscope and look at my cells, I may be long gone, but remember that you will be handling a part of me that will outlive me and which represents a little of what I once was. So please take care of my cells and good luck in your research!
My name is John Doe. I have lived through a lot. I have been in wars. I have been shot. I have stared death in the face many times and survived. So it’s a bit ironic that this colon cancer may be the thing that brings me down, but we all sooner or later have to accept our fate. The doctors say they will use the cancer they take out from me to produce cells for research. It feels a bit strange to know that there will be a bunch of strangers handling cells from my colon, but if this helps to treat this disease, I am all for it. I love my country, and I value the time I spend with my family, and with my fellow vets when we get together to have some beers every now and then. I would appreciate any extra time I can spend with them, but if I can’t do it anymore, I hope your research will allow others that chance. So please make good use of my colon cells and have a beer for me next time you go to a bar with your research buddies. Godspeed.
Including notes such as these in the information available in human cells used for research would give a little more humanity to the process as well as perspective and motivation for those of us using these cells.
HeLa cell photograph from Fraunhofer-Institut für Biomedizinische Technik, St. Ingbert, Paul Anastasiadis, Eike Weiß is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license. The photo of Henrietta Lacks from the Oregon State University Flickr webpage is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.
A while ago, I posted some science jokes in my blog. I followed that by posting some terrible science jokes and puns, and then more terrible science jokes and puns. Today I present to you even more terrible science jokes and puns, along with (when necessary) an explanation of why they are funny.
The chemistry student e-mails his professor claiming that he has been able to react lithium with argon. The professor replies to the e-mail by writing, “You are a LiAr”.
Argon is an element that doesn’t react with any other element. The chemical symbols for lithium and argon are, “Li” and “Ar”, respectively. If lithium did react with argon the formula of the resulting compound would be “LiAr”. The play of words is with liar as in a person who utters falsehoods.
Q: What was the name of the first electricity detective?
A: Sherlock Ohms
The Ohm is a unit of electrical resistance named after the German physicist George Ohm. The play on words is with Holmes, the surname of the famous detective character created by the British writer Arthur Conan Doyle.
The wife of the logician says, “Can you please go to the grocery store and buy one carton of milk, and if they have eggs, get six.” The logician leaves and returns with six cartoons of milk. Puzzled, the wife inquires, “Why did you buy six cartoons of milk?” The logician replies, “They had eggs.”
As Sherlock Holmes would say, “Elementary.”
I blew up my lab doing a chemistry experiment. Oxidants happen.
A play on words on “accidents” and “oxidants”, which are chemicals that can react very strongly and can be hazardous if not handled safely.
The scientists Einstein, Newton, and Pascal are playing hide and seek. Einstein covers his eyes and counts while Pascal hides, but Newton stands behind Einstein and draws around himself a one meter by one meter square box in the ground. Einstein finishes counting, turns around, and opens his eyes. Upon seeing Newton in front of him he says, “I’ve found you Newton, now you’re it”. Newton says, no you haven’t found me, you’ve found Pascal.
A Newton is a unit of force named after the English scientist Isaac Newton. A Pascal is a unit of pressure named after the French scientist Blaise Pascal. A Pascal is a force of one Newton applied to a surface of one square meter. The joke is that because Newton was standing on a square meter, he was really a Pascal (a Newton applied to a square meter), so Einstein had found Pascal, not Newton.
Q: What kind of bear dissolves in water?
A: A polar bear!
Compounds that have positive and negative charges are said to be polar. These compounds can easily dissolve in water by interacting with the water molecules. The play on words is with the type of bear (a polar bear).
Heliocentric System: the Earth and the planets revolve around the sun.
Geocentric System: the sun and the planets revolve around the Earth.
Egocentric System: everything revolves around you.
I’ve met a few people during my lifetime who believed in this last system.
The chemist says, “Alcohol is not a problem. It's a solution.”
As in a liquid.
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data...
And if you can’t figure this one out, you belong to the other kind.
Q: Who led the people of Israel across a semi-permeable membrane?
The process by which molecules of a solvent cross a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution to a more concentrated solution is called osmosis. This is a play on words on the Moses of the Bible.
Q: What is BUNNY-O-BUNNY
A: Ether Bunny
An ether is a chemical entity where two identical molecules (R) are joined through a bond with an oxygen (O) in a manner described as “R-O-R”. In the above case the “R” molecule is “bunny”, and the resulting ether (ether bunny) is a play on words on Easter Bunny.
The professor said wryly to his students, “Remember, a couple of months spent in the laboratory can save you a couple of hours in the library.”
The normal advice goes in the opposite direction.
Q: What did the stamen say to the pistil?
A: “I like your style."
The stamen is the male organ of a flower, and the pistil the female organ. The style is part of the pistil. The play on words is with “style” as in elegance or refinement.
Sodium sodium, sodium sodium, sodium sodium, sodium sodium, sodium sodium, sodium sodium, sodium, BATMAN!
In the original Batman series from the 1960s staring Adam West as Batman, the lyrics of the show’s theme song featured a section (which can be heard 35 seconds into this video) that went: Na Na, Na Na, Na Na, Na Na, Na Na, Na Na, Na, Batman! The joke is that “Na” is the chemical symbol for sodium.
To impress a lady, the nerd says to her, “You must be made of uranium and iodine because all I can see is U and I.” The lady replies, “Wow you must be a germanium-nickel-uranium-sulfur, eh?”. They nerd says, “Well, yes, thank you.” The lady then adds, “You also obviously don’t understand sulfur-argon-calcium-samarium.”
The chemical symbol for the element uranium is “U” and the one for the element iodine is “I”. The chemical symbols for germanium-nickel-uranium-sulfur spell “Ge-Ni-U-S”, but the chemical symbols for sulfur-argon-calcium-samarium spell “S-Ar-Ca-Sm”.
The mathematician told a joke. He said, “There is a fine line between the numerator and the denominator”, but only a fraction of the people got it.
The top number of a fraction is the numerator while the bottom number is the denominator, and they are separated by a fine line (the division symbol).
The geology student said, “Of quartz I love geology, it’s just that I don’t take it for granite.”
Play of words of “of quartz” as in “of course”, and “granite” as in “granted”.
And now for the Grand Finale!
I think the name “Saturn” has a nice ring to it.
I am mindful of gravity because, after all, it’s the law.
I think that supernovas are a blast, but black holes suck.
I’m reading a book about anti-gravity, and I can’t put it down.
I have a new theory of inertia, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
I told a story in science class to illustrate the effects of friction, but it was a drag.
I did not invest in the company that wants to build a time machine, because I think it has no future.
To my knowledge these jokes and puns are not copyrighted. If you hold the copyright to any of these jokes or puns, please let me know and I will acknowledge it. Image by Perlenmuschel from Pixabay is free for commercial use and was modified.