Why is The Hill’s Rising Platforming an Alt-Right COVID-19 Conspiracy Theory?
Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti hosted Bret Weinstein, of intellectual dark web fame, in an absolute farce of journalism and conspiracism. This disgraceful, softball session of an interview is hosted at The Hill’s YouTube channel, here:
To set the scene, so-called journalists, Ball and Enjeti, play a clip featuring an interview with Trump’s CDC director, Robert R. Redfield. They do not bother to mention how the Trump administration was documented doing everything it could to pin responsibility for COVID-19’s damage in the United States on China, that Redfield routinely parroted biased, unscientific talking points on behalf of Trump on conservative radio, or that he was subject to congressional hearings and routinely criticized for enabling Trump’s completely counterproductive polices regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of noting any of that, Ball and Enjeti jump into interviewing Weinstein. Right out the gate, they mention that he is a visiting fellow at Princeton’s James Madison Program, but what even is that program? A quick glance at its Wikipedia entry shows that it was launched through funding from the Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation, both sources of conservative grants, who have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative think tanks. Grant-making like this is how right-wing propaganda happens. Speaking of right-wing propaganda, the Madison Program is also the home to a chapter of the Federalist Society, a Koch instrument. These types of institutions are the people behind the “viewpoint diversity” movement to discredit academia, who have also been behind such movements as intelligent design and climate denial. The program’s director, Robert George, has engaged in efforts to oppose expansion of reproductive rights and gay marriage, and is a Ted Cruz supporter. Everything about this institution is anti-science.
None of this is mentioned, despite the ease with which this information can be researched and the political leanings of the James Madison Program disclosed. Instead, Ball and Enjeti host a man who has been booted out of the academy, who has an axe to grind with the academy, and who is not a working scientist and not a virologist or epidemiologist, to opine as a supposed expert from Princeton on the so-called “lab leak hypothesis.” Immediately Weinstein says the hypothesis is not a conspiracy theory and merits more investigation. Ball offers extremely weak push back and notes that the media consensus is that the lab leak hypothesis is nonsense, to which Weinstein responds the consensus, itself, was “seeded by the scientific community” and that “it is worth recognizing that that community has a substantial conflict of interest.” In other words, he explains that this is not a conspiracy theory by invoking a conspiracy theory that a bunch of scientists have a vested interested in burying the lab leak hypothesis. He says we need to “take what is said by this community with a grain of salt,” but nobody, not Weinstein, Ball, or Enjeti mentions that it might be a good idea to take the opinions of Trump lackeys with a grain of salt, or it might be a good idea to take the credentialing, expertise, and opinions of someone at the James Madison Program with a grain of salt.
Ball and Enjeti do not bother to comment on this. Instead, they are impressed by his obscurantist techspeak and let him carry on about his “hypothesis,” which morphs into Weinstein arguing that the explanations given by the vast majority of the scientific community of the virus’s likely natural origin are “fairy tales.”
But is his hypothesis even a hypothesis? Enjeti asks what it would take to prove it, and in this question and in Weinstein’s rambling non-answer, we see the quackery and psuedo-science emerge. A hypothesis is not scientific because there may exist some way to prove it right; it is scientific if there exists some way to falsify it. Weinstein never offers any criteria for how the hypothesis could be falsified, and Enjeti does not understand science well enough to ask that question. Weinstein could always invoke another conspiracy if the Wuhan Institute of Virology was cleared. He could ask “cleared by whom” or “how do we know they did not destroy the evidence” or “what about a secret lab?” Instead, he offers “evidence” to why it came from a lab, even though every single example he cites has already been debunked by the very same sources (and others) that Ball offered at the outset of the interview. Evidence that Weinstein dismissed straight away with unchecked conspiratorial accusations about “mainstream science.”
Ball tries one last time to offer a counterexample from a reputable scientific source as to why Weinstein’s ideas are wrong and have already been disproven multiple times, which Weinstein dismisses as “narrative theater” and “that argument doesn’t make any sense and nobody who is in this community could believe that it does.” What community? Because Ball is citing the community of actual virology researchers, not podcasters who do not actually work as scientists. Is the community of visiting fellows at Libertarian-funded institutions the community we should be asking about virology research? He goes onto contradict himself with his explanation, saying that “we are not necessarily talking about edits” to genes, but previously in the video he offered the likelihood of gene edits as one of the pieces of evidence for why he believes the virus came from a lab.
All in all, this interview is horrible. I am not even offering an opinion about the origin of COVID. I am offering an opinion that this is terrible journalism and even worse science. In fact, it’s neither. It’s not journalism, and it’s not science. It’s a bunch of podcasters boosting, or failing to push back against, a conspiracy theory linked to none other than Steve Bannon, and backed by the likes of Donald Trump, Josh Hawley, Marsha Blackburn, and Tom Cotton. In other words, it is a favorite conspiracy theory of fascists and white nationalists, which is no surprise when we consider both xenophobia and sowing distrust in the institutions of science are big components of fascism, Libertarian disinformation tactics, and the Republican Party. How nice of The Hill and Weinstein to carry their water for them. Yet again.