All posts by Thomas L. Knapp

Wuhan Lab Leak: It’s Not a “Theory”

Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo by Ureem2805. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo by Ureem2805. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Was SARS-COV-2 — the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic — created (or at least weaponized by being made transmissible to and between humans) in a Chinese research lab? Was it then leaked, accidentally or intentionally, from that lab into the human population? It’s impossible to overstate the explosive potential of a provable “yes” answer to those two questions.

Seventeen months into the news cycle surrounding those questions (they were first publicly hinted at in a tweet on January 5, 2020), they’re still putting off lots of heat and very little light. And that’s likely to remain the case, because the “Wuhan Lab Leak theory” is not a theory.

A theory has to be objectively testable such that if it’s false it can be PROVEN false. Otherwise, it’s just a hypothesis.

If my car keys go missing, I can hypothesize that little green faeries (who have the power to fool security cameras) took them in the middle of the night, then forgot to put them back after taking my car out for a joyride, filling the gas tank back up, parking it back where they found it, and rolling back the odometer.

My hypothesis “explains” the missing car keys. But it can’t be falsified. If I find the keys in my jacket pocket, well, the faeries obviously put them there, dummy!

Many “conspiracy theories” are just hypotheses which continuously change to accommodate any evidence that might disprove them.

No, I’m not saying the “Wuhan Lab Leak” hypothesis is a wild-eyed “conspiracy theory.” But it’s also not likely testable or falsifiable.

For one thing, the Chinese regime, while notable for many things, is not notable for its likely willingness to let western investigators poke around Wuhan at will, actively assisting those investigators in determining whether it accidentally or intentionally killed  millions of human beings and cratered the global economy.

For another, the regimes urging such an investigation have a long record of lying about pretty much everything (does “Saddam has WMD” ring any bells? How about “the NSA doesn’t spy on Americans?”), and have already spent a good deal of time setting  China up as their latest  “adversary.” It’s hard to imagine any situation in which those who WANT to believe in — or stand to gain political power from selling — the “Wuhan Lab Leak” hypothesis would concede that they were mistaken.

It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and it’s likely to stay that way. When dealing with hypotheses, our best analytical tool is Occam’s Razor. Simple version: The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is the likeliest.

Which explanation requires fewer assumptions?

That, like most human infectious diseases (60% according to the US Centers for Disease Control), SARS-COV-2 jumped from animals to humans via random mutation?

Or that, unlike (almost — the 2001 anthrax attacks may be an exception) any other past disease, SARS-COV-2 was weaponized in a lab and released into the human population?

Occam tells us to choose Door Number One. And good sense tells us to stop obsessing over questions we cannot hope to provably answer.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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After COVID-19 Fiasco, a Sign of Internal Reform at FDA?

Photo by US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Photo by US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

On June 7, the US Food and Drug Administration granted “accelerated approval” to Biogen’s new Alzheimer’s medication, aducanumab, two years after the company halted its first set of Phase 3 clinical trials over “disappointing” results. Accelerated approval is based not on the usual required finding that a drug is proven “effective,” but instead on a finding that it is “reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit.”

The decision comes with some  controversy. FDA advisor Dr. Caleb Alexander is “surprised and disappointed” by the decision, saying he thinks the FDA “gave the product a pass” despite lacking good evidence for its efficacy.  Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research acknowledges “residual uncertainties,”  but holds that “the data supports patients and caregivers having the choice” to try aducanumab.

In a free society, FDA would have no authority to come between doctors, patients, and medical treatment choices in the first place.

Private certification mechanisms,  like those provided by Underwriters Laboratories for electrical equipment, would almost certainly do a better and cheaper job of ensuring the safety and efficacy of medications and treatments. Doctors, insurers, and most patients would likely heed the findings of such mechanisms.

As for those who choose “alternative medicine,” home remedies, and even potentially dangerous black market drugs, they already make those choices now, regardless of what FDA says, and they would likely continue to do so.

Nonetheless, “accelerated approval” of  aducanumab is a good sign and hopefully the beginning of a trend.

FDA foot-dragging has likely killed tens of thousands of patients every year for decades. It takes far too long and costs far too much to get government approval of life-saving medications. From beta blockers to human body glue, Americans have paid for FDA’s skewed incentives and bureaucratic delays with their lives.

That continuous but largely unnoticed cost became, tragically, much higher and much more obvious last year. More than 300,000 Americans — including my mother — died in the six-month interregnum between Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine  establishing its basic safety and FDA finally granting an emergency use authorization.

We’ll never know how many departed friends and loved ones might still be with us if FDA had applied a “reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit” standard to medications we count on today but had to wait years for.

Can FDA make itself more useful and less deadly? Only time will tell. Here’s hoping the answer is yes.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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A Convention of States Wouldn’t Fix the US Constitution

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution. Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns. Public Domain.
Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution. Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns. Public Domain.

The Convention of States Project seeks, as its name reflects, a convention of states as provided for in Article V of the US Constitution. Such a convention, CPS claims, would “only allow” discussion of amendments that “limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, impose fiscal restraints, and place term limits on federal officials.”

The magic number of states for calling a convention  is 34. According to a map on the CPS site, 15 states have passed the required resolution, while one legislative chamber has passed it in nine, and another 16 have “active legislation” on the matter. So, while it may or may not happen, it’s certainly a live proposal.

The idea comes with quite a few problems.

One is that such a convention would decide for itself what it was “allowed” to do, just as the first such convention exceeded its own mandate (it was only “allowed” to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation, but instead proposed replacing those Articles with the Constitution).

A second problem is that (fortunately, vis a vis the first) it’s unlikely that the states would be able to agree on much at all.

A third problem is that even if they did agree in convention, it’s unlikely that 3/4 of the states would ratify term limits or fiscal restraints. Every state legislator sees a future US Representative, Senator, or president in the mirror each morning, and they all tend to a (secret, contradicting their campaign rhetoric) variant on St. Augustine’s prayer:  “Give me chastity and continence, but not right now.”

The biggest problem, though is that a constitution is, even at its very perfected best, only as good as adherence to that constitution.

Why do supporters of an Article V convention expect the US government would obey the proposed amendments any more than it obeys the existing document?

“In questions of power,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798, “let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Three years later, Jefferson was President of the United States.  Five years later, he proved himself (and Congress) unbound by those chains with the Louisiana Purchase, an act provided for nowhere in that Constitution.

In 1870, American anarchist Lysander Spooner observed that “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it.”

“In either case,” Spooner concluded, “it is unfit to exist.”

I’m skeptical of the notion that political government can ever be forced to limit its own power and prerogatives. The history of the United States tends to justify that skepticism.

Absent evidence that America’s rulers can be bound down from supposedly forbidden mischief by the chains of the existing Constitution, attempting to amend that Constitution seems more like an eccentric hobby — on the order of building model UFOs or collecting rare tuna cans — than a serious attempt to secure our rights and defend our liberty.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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