Apocalyptic WSJ op-ed not based on a study, authored by "fake experts"
The authors have no relevant experience in the field of virology and do not sufficiently explain how they reached their bombastic conclusion.
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 2012,1 when he converted.
According to the two authors (referred to as Quay moving forward), “The Covid-19 pathogen has a genetic footprint that has never been observed in a natural coronavirus.” Let’s unpack that. The paper is not a study. It presents no new evidence and could be 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. Things in a study that can interfere with the results—like confounders and effect modifiers —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 their proof. Quay applied Bayes’s theorem, a method to determine likelihood, to the situation but failed to demonstrate whether the theorem was appropriate, reliable, or valid.
It’s unclear why the method was chosen, something that should be included in a study, but again, this wasn’t a study. In essence, this was a thought experiment, though not a particularly high-quality one.
The paper appears on Zenodo.
In January 2021, the paper appeared on a familiar pre-print server, the same one that published another flawed paper in September 2020. Zenodo has its uses, but one of the downsides is the ease with which non-relevant experts can publish papers there, creating the appearance of legitimacy.
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
We have not learned anything new to warrant such a piece, so the reasons for publishing the piece are unclear. Repetition can lead people to find ideas more plausible, all else being equal, and even if the claim is false.5
Both authors have the education to know these papers aren’t studies.
Both should have the intellect sufficient to know their peers would notice the problems.
The ethical obligation to know one’s limits
Publishing publicly means a certain number of people would trust them, and the preprint will only have increased that number. 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.6 The figure is astounding, but more importantly, the notion conflicts with the current evidence.7
The op-ed includes common science denial tactics.
Science denialism can create the impression that something is true.8 The tactics work together to create the “feeling” that a claim is true. By exploiting vulnerabilities in our minds, bad actors can create this impression in our minds. The tactics that appear in this piece and other similar articles include fake experts, fake studies, 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.
Bloggers have written feverishly about the Quay paper.
One excerpt reads9 :
This excerpt references The Associated Press as reporting on this, but AP 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.10
Still, using the AP name could increase how legitimate the piece appears to readers.
The AP page for the post eventually disappeared, likely because someone raised concerns about the article.11
The paper and its claims
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 research publication Zenodo published the document on January 29, 2021. Zenodo is managed by the CERN Research Center.12
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.14
That doesn’t mean a lab leak is impossible, but there is no evidence to support the claim at this time, and we have learned nothing new.
We cannot attack another country on a hunch—indeed, that could be precisely what U.S. adversaries hope we do.
Into the details of Quay’s claims.
The paper begins by outlining the two possible explanations for the origin of the new coronavirus:
The virus arose naturally from animals
It leaked from a lab and is manmade
This leaves out other possible explanations, of which there may be 4 or even 5 if you have some imagination. Quay doesn’t account for these or explain why they don’t exist in this model.
To calculate the probability for each of the two options, Quay uses Bayes’s theorem 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, X must be true. If X is true, he recalculates the probability of including 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 research, but the excluded studies all exceed the caliber of Quay’s paper itself.
Together, the issues in the article are as follows:
The paper begins with an incomplete account of the potential avenues through which the virus jumped into humans. The reasons for excluding other possibilities are not stated.
The data included in the study appear arbitrary and aren’t explained, so it’s not possible to replicate or repeat the exercise.
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.
Studies by qualified infectious diseases epidemiologists and virologists 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. No serious discussion of the problems with these studies takes place in the paper.
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 declaring 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 under 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 and tens of thousands of studies? As troubling as that possibility is, the alternatives are worse.
Potential coordinated amplification of the article.
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.
Drawing firm conclusions from coordinated amplification is an assertion too far. Instead, I simply share the inauthentic activity I have seen and the historical context and make no assertions. I can say 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, such as Joseph Flynn, Dinesh D’Souza, and Rep. Boebert.
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. That isn’t what has happened here.
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.
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
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.
E Rosalie is an interdisciplinary scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with various interests: science policy, health security (public health + national security), and media manipulation.