The “mad scientist” problem

Matt Yglesias has an interesting tweet:

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Last May, I said the following:

Occam’s Razor also applies to the lab release theory. We know that dozens of epidemics have come from viruses jumping from animals to humans without any “lab” being involved. Why construct an entirely new theory for this epidemic?

. . . Actually, the CCP would look far better (in a ethical sense) if the virus accidentally escaped from a lab doing valid and useful scientific research, rather than from disgusting “wet markets” that the CCP refused to shutdown. . . .

Of course it’s certainly possible the virus did escape from a lab during research on bat coronaviruses. I really don’t care.

In retrospect, that wasn’t my finest moment. I meant that I don’t care in an ethical sense, and I still hold that view. But Yglesias’s tweet raises an interesting issue. If it was a lab escape, then what are the public policy implications, if any? And I don’t know how to answer that question.

Over the years, I’ve argued that things like accidental nuclear war and bioterrorism were much bigger threats than global warming. (And I view global warming as a fairly big threat.) But I don’t know enough about science to know how policymakers should respond to the risk of bioterrorism.

However, I do know more about science than I did two years ago. As an analogy, before 2009 I thought Western policymakers knew how to handle the zero lower bound problem for interest rates. In 2009, I discovered that they did not, or at least there wasn’t a critical mass that knew what to do. Similarly, last year I found out that we were far less prepared for a pandemic than I had thought. Indeed, my perception of our preparedness seems to fall almost by the day, as I recently discovered our inability to deliver a vaccine to the public that has already been invented, tested, manufactured and distributed to states.

In the past, people who know more than I do told me not to worry about bioterrorism. But their arguments were not persuasive. Now I have zero trust in the public health establishment. I see no reason at all not to fear a “mad scientist” creating a virus 50 times more deadly than Covid-19, and letting it loose.

So to answer Yglesias’s question, it seems to me that if the virus escaped from a lab, then we should conclude that a future scientist with the same sort of psychological problem as that rogue Malaysian Airline pilot might someday unleash another Black Death. Say something as deadly as HIV, where symptoms show up with a long delay (as with HIV), and as easily transmitted as the flu. If you think I am wrong and are able to explain why this cannot happen, I’d love to be reassured on this point.

One thing I know for sure; if something bad can happen, at some point it almost certainly will happen.

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