Apocalyptic WSJ Op-Ed Not Based on A Study, Written by Fake Expert

The author has no relevant experience in the field of virology and does not explain data selection protocol or research processes that lead to bombastic conclusion.

Claim:

The Covid-19 pathogen has a genetic footprint that has never been observed in a natural coronavirus.

Steven Quay’s paper is not a scientific study.

Steven Quay and Richard Mueller penned an op-ed detailing the results of a paper published by Quay. It is a selective collage of information, ideas, and graphics that verge on incoherence. Neither is an infectious disease or virology expert and the paper has yet to draw the endorsement of anyone devoted to a related subject. Mueller has a history of generous funding from the Koch brothers back when he was a climate science denialist through 20121 when he converted.

Critically, the paper is not a study. It presents no new evidence and is largely defined by what is absent, like the criteria for including or excluding data in the study. The omission means no one can reproduce or repeat the paper. Confounders and effect modifiers—variables in a study that can interfere with the results —receive no address. We can’t check for those either.

Rather than one issue rendering the study results meaningless, it is one fatal flaw on top of the next. Still, the authors insist that devoted scholars in the US are wrong, and Quay’s paper is proof. Quay applied Bayes’s theorem, a way to determine likelihood, to the situation but failed to demonstrate the theorem was appropriate, reliable, or valid. In essence, this was a thought experiment, though not a particularly high-quality one.

It’s unclear why the method was chosen, something that should be included in a study, but again, this wasn’t a study.

In January 2021, the paper appeared on a familiar pre-print server, the same one that published another flawed paper in September 2020. Yan et al. (2020), much like Quay’s paper, meandered through scientific jargon and nonsequiturs. Despite the problems with the stories, the New York Post ran Yan’s story on Sept 11, 2020.

The Wall Street Journal featured Quay and Mueller’s provocatively titled The Science Suggests a Wuhan Lab Leak.2 Two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal ran a story about reports that workers had fallen ill at the Wuhan lab,3 suggesting a lab leak, but we already knew about the reports.4 Why publish this now? Why such high-volume coverage? We haven’t learned anything new.

The intricacy of both papers is the most insulting aspect

  • Both authors have the education to know these papers aren’t studies.

  • Both have intellect sufficient to know their peers would notice the problems.

  • Perhaps worst of all, they had to know the public would trust them. That’s a key reason people with both good and bad intentions publish.

    • Every expert has a moral obligation not to overstate what he or she knows and not to mislead the public about his or her area of scholarship, outside of which his or her opinion carries no more weight than anyone else’s.

Despite this, Quay and Mueller conclude their very public treatise by asserting there is a 99.8% chance that SARS-CoV-2s escaped from a laboratory.5 That notion conflicts with the current evidence.6

The op-ed includes recognized tactics of science denialism,7 which can be incredibly compelling in some cases. Key techniques: fake experts, fake study, the something-must-be-wrong, oversimplification, and most especially the Blowfish.

  • Blowfish: Focusing on an inconsequential aspect of scientific research, blowing it out of proportion to cast doubt on credible research.

  • Fake Experts: Presenting an unqualified person or institution as a source of credible information.

  • Something Must Be Wrong: Maintaining that “something must be wrong” and the official account is based on deception, even when specific parts of a conspiracy theory become untenable.

  • Oversimplification: Simplifying a situation in such a way as to distort understanding, leading to erroneous conclusions. Complicated ideas aren’t always reducible.

Bloggers8 have written feverishly on the Quay paper.

One excerpt reads:

What’s true?

The Associated Press did not write an article on this issue and did not support the position of Dr. Quay. The Associated Press published a press release written by Dr. Quay. The publication banner says it’s a paid promotion from the PR Newswire page, but the Associated team did not participate in its writing.9

The post no longer appears on the AP page.10

An Overview of the Paper and Its Context

The 193-page document titled, "Bayesian analysis concludes beyond a reasonable doubt that SARS-CoV-2 is not a natural zoonosis but instead is laboratory-derived.” The ungated, no-wait research publication Zenodo published the document on January 29, 2021. Zenodo is managed by the CERN Research Center.11

The paper re-published on March 29, 2021, a fully 50 pages lighter.12 It was difficult to tell what the rationale for the edits was, but it removed the mention of H. Lawrence Remmel. It’s unclear why.

  • Nowhere in the document are methods explained so it’s not possible to follow the author to his final conclusions or to detect any possible bias in the study.

  • Quay presents no new evidence of any kind that suggests the virus escaped from a lab.

  • Rumors about a manmade virus have become something more than the least plausible explanation for the pandemic. Experts in relevant fields have written an official letter stressing that this claim lacks any scientific basis.13

  • That doesn’t mean a lab leak is impossible but at this time there is no evidence to support the claim and we have learned nothing new.

We cannot attack another country on a hunch—indeed, that could be precisely what an adversary hopes we do. The reality makes clear that the sudden interest warrants skepticism.

Into the Nitty Gritty of Quay’s Claims

The paper begins by outlining the two possible explanations for the origin of the new coronavirus:

1) The virus arose naturally from animals

2) It leaked from a lab and is manmade

The odd thing is that there are 4 or even 5 possibilities if you have some imagination. Quay doesn’t account for these or explain why they don’t exist in this model. Not factoring those in should invalidate the entire effort.

To calculate the probability for each of the two options Quay uses Bayes’s theorem, a way to calculate the probability or likelihood. The theorem is well-known for being used inappropriately to bolster pseudoscientific arguments.

The framework doesn’t spit out objective values. The outcome depends upon what gets plugged into the model. Since the author failed to include at least half of the plausible explanations for how the virus jumped into humans, from the get-go, the argument is fatally flawed.

Following Quay through a litany of assumptions, the reader hears that if natural spillover happened then X must be true. If X is true—then he recalculates the probability to include this new data. Why Quay uses Bayes’s theorem is never explained. This situation is an inappropriate application so one would expect the author to demonstrate that the theorem is reliable and valid in this setting. Quay doesn’t.

Even if the method were sound, readers never learn the criteria for including or excluding data. Quay’s unknown criteria for inclusion coincidentally happen to exclude nearly all of the evidence that led a variety of fields in the scientific community to the conclusion that a natural origin was most likely—that doesn’t mean a lab leak is impossible, but it does make the claims of this paper puzzling. Study quality is the reason cited for excluding certain studies, but the excluded studies all exceed the caliber of Quay’s paper itself.

To recap:

  • The paper begins with an incomplete account of the potential avenues through which the virus jumped into humans. The outcome cannot be correct if the inputs were incomplete.

  • The data included in the study appear arbitrary and aren’t explained, so it’s not possible to replicate or repeat the exercise.

  • Then the theorem is not suitable for this situation, but the author never justifies, explains, or argues why it is acceptable in this instance. Quay never tells us how he knows this is a reliable and valid assessment. That’s an integral part of science—baring all and letting those most qualified to critique your argument, have at it.

  • Worst of all, the studies by which infectious diseases epidemiologists and virologists arrived at their consensus don’t appear in Quay’s assessment citing quality concerns. The justification, with the limited information given to the reader, is suspect given that the excluded studies exceed Quay’s paper in caliber.

The product of these grave issues is a predictably meaningless result. Still, the outcome from this exercise is the evidence Quay takes to one of the largest newspapers in the world—seriously calling into question the journalistic ethics of the publication itself-- and declares that devoted scholars are wrong. Quay knows this because of his paper, we are told.

As a medical doctor, Steven Quay took an oath to do no harm. That included knowing his limits. Intentionally or not, the irresponsibility of his claims betrays the public whom we have a duty to rightly inform. The bombastic claims strike at devoted scholars, weary from over a year in entrenched information warfare with assault from domestic and foreign sources alike.

It is difficult to imagine someone, as educated as Quay, could truly believe that the situation was so simple. How could anyone believe that asking oneself a series of questions constituted sufficient evidence to contradict nearly everyone familiar with the subject? As troubling as that possibility is, the alternatives are worse.

The Familiar Calling Card: Coordinated Amplification, Hyper-Partisan Pundits and Outlets, Oh My

The Wall Street Journal wasn’t the only outlet to run a sensationalist claim related to Dr. Fauci or the pandemic. Out of nowhere, with no new evidence, the conversation boomed out of nowhere. This included plenty of suspicious activity on social media platforms.

Drawing firm conclusions from coordinated amplification is an assertion too far. Instead, I simply share the inauthentic activity I have seen, the historical context, and make no assertions. What I can say is that the conversation is not taking place in the spaces one would expect to see groundbreaking virological news. Drivers of the conversation are not people one would seek out for advice on matters of infectious disease.

Here’s what’s driving the conversation

It is true that someone outside the field could have unique insight that those within a peer network might not, but in those rare instances, the evidence will show it. Here the proof does not exist, only the claim. The absence of justification for the claim is the main problem, not the authors’ lack of relevant expertise. The context is, however, a further reason for concern.

There’s Just Something About Fauci

Hashtags related to Dr. Anthony Fauci show coordinated amplification, a tactic used to influence public conversation.14 Both foreign and domestic actors use this method, which is a powerful way a small number of people can control the conversation for thousands if not millions.

Yan, the author of the first misleading study, has been amplifying unsubstantiated claims about the virus since late May 2021. The Guo network appears to be boosting her.15

Further Reading:

fact-checking by Stamos Archontis of Ellinka Hoaxes,16 with translation, editing, and analysis by E Rosalie17

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1

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/converted-contrarian-argues-humans-to-blame-for-climate-change/

2

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-science-suggests-a-wuhan-lab-leak-11622995184

3

https://www.wsj.com/articles/intelligence-on-sick-staff-at-wuhan-lab-fuels-debate-on-covid-19-origin-11621796228

4

https://2017-2021.state.gov/fact-sheet-activity-at-the-wuhan-institute-of-virology/index.html

5

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-science-suggests-a-wuhan-lab-leak-11622995184

6

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-01205-5

7

https://skepticalscience.com/history-FLICC-5-techniques-science-denial.html

8

Examples: dimpenews.com , triklopodia.gr , makeleio.gr , greeknation.blogspot.com , amethystosbooks.blogspot.com , gegonotstomikroskpio.com , katohika.gr , aggaleto.blogspot.com, as well as mainstream papers like the wsj.com

9

https://archive.vn/OMCeQ; https://archive.vn/GTYiu

10

https://archive.vn/1Sqxy

11

https://media.ellinikahoaxes.gr/uploads/2021/02/SQuay_Bayesian-Analysis-of-SARS-CoV-2-FINAL-V.2.pdf

12

https://zenodo.org/record/4470233

13

https://archive.fo/vwKtw

15

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/05/17/guo-wengui-disinformation-steve-bannon/

16

Stamos holds a degree in Chemistry (B.Sc.) from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and is a member of the Association of Editors of Daily Newspapers Macedonia - Thrace (ESIEM-TH). He is currently attending postgraduate school.

17

E Rosalie is an interdisciplinary scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a variety of interests: science policy, health security (public health + national security), and disinformation.