As US-China tensions intensify over coronavirus outbreak, here's a quick reality check on some conspiracy theories

Tensions between the US and China continue to intensify over the coronavirus, threatening what many are calling a 'new cold war'. At a recent press conference, US president Donald Trump claimed to have proof that the novel coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab, but refused to share the evidence. Earlier, he said that the US was investigating whether the virus escaped from lab, and warned of consequences if China was 'knowingly responsible'. Trump has also been referring to it as the "Chinese virus" from very early on.

It has widely been found to be true that the COVID-19 outbreak began in China, but the term "Chinese virus" has been used in a derogatory manner as a dog whistle — in a sense, blaming the Chinese people for the coronavirus outbreak as if it was 'intentionally done'. At the heart of this tension between US and China are conspiracy theories that the virus was a bioweapon created by China that either accidentally got leaked or might have even been intentionally leaked.

Such theories are intuitively appealing, considering that China's economy is recovering rapidly while western countries continue to suffer. However, one cannot help but notice that a completely opposing theory — that the virus was created and planted by United States to harm China as a part of trade war tactic — was popular during the initial stage of coronavirus, when China was suffering heavily and the western countries were largely unaffected. Many in the Chinese government, as well as Iran, directly blamed the United States.

This is not to say that all conspiracy theories are untrue. There is nothing inherently wrong about conspiracy theories in themselves; it is, in fact, important to scrutinise and challenge the official narrative. The Chinese government certainly has a lot to answer for its initial handling of the outbreak. The jailing of whistleblowers gave credence to conspiracy theorists. But, is that sufficient to conclude that the conspiracy theories are true?

 As US-China tensions intensify over coronavirus outbreak, heres a quick reality check on some conspiracy theories

Representational image. Reuters

It is one thing to say that China mishandled the outbreak and demand accountability, but it is a completely different thing to say that 'China infected the world' on purpose.There are people, within and outside China, raising legitimate questions over the role of Chinese government; this is not to question them. This is to address those who already believe in conspiracy theories without conclusive evidence — who have been believing in such conspiracies even as the outbreak began.

An impartial international commission to look into China's role is a reasonable demand. However, given the relationship between US and China, the Chinese government is likely to be reluctant to concede to the demand. There is hardly anything unusual about an authoritarian regime being reluctant to an open enquiry. One must be cautious before equating the reluctance of Chinese government as a conclusive proof of conspiracy theories. Taking big actions, after jumping to conclusions based on far-fetched conjecture, could be perilous: the US invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

Evidence in future may point towards the conspiracy theory but, so far, it is supported by little to no scientific evidence. Instead, preliminary research, based on public genome sequence data, suggests the opposite. There is wide scientific consensus that the SARS-CoV-2 was not human-made or genetically modified. So, why are some wild conspiracy theories still appealing, without conclusive evidence?

There are two key ideas implicit in such theories. First, is that idea that big events have big causes — that, considering its scale, there must be some gameplan behind the outbreak. This is a very common tendency and is referred to as "proportionality bias" by psychologists. There, however, is no logical reason to believe so; big things could arise out of a series of mundane events. This idea is captured, albeit in an exaggerated way, by what is called "the butterfly effect".

The second implicit idea is that we will never know the actual gameplan. Most conspiracy theories attribute something(s) to very powerful entities that are executing some big plan as a secret mission. As a result, they are never wrong: everything that supports the theory can be construed as proof of its validity; everything that contradicts the theory can be downplayed as a "cover-up". Scholars have attributed this tendency to confirmation bias.

At a philosophical level, conspiracy theories also satisfy what is referred in the literature as "epistemic need": The desire to find causal explanations of the events that occur around us. We often like simple explanations that fit our world view. Scientific explanations are usually complicated and somewhat uncertain, which makes them less appealing. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are usually simple and provides certainty, satisfying the desire for understanding and certainty.

How do we then avoid the trap of baseless theories while also maintaining healthy scepticism? It is important to constantly ask ourselves what it will take for us to accept that our theory is wrong. If the threshold for falsification of the theory is impractically high; or, if it is much higher than the threshold for accepting the theory (ie if you are convinced of the validity of a theory with much less evidence than you expect for its falsification), then there could be a problem. In that case, it is probably the time for an honest scrutiny and re-evaluation of the theory based on competing evidence.

The author studies politics at Ashoka University.

Updated Date: May 07, 2020 20:57:57 IST



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