Back in March, thinking about the controversy over Gain of Function (GOF) research on influenza viruses, I suggested that the debate isn’t really about science, nor
about morals, no matter what some self-important researchers claim. The debate is about who will be able to control scientific research and who will benefit from the consequences (including, presumably, vaccines or other marketable preventive agents). Don’t be misled by assertions that the debate over GOF research is about public health, or ethics. It’s about the usual: political power and profit making.
Now that a new flu virus, H7N9, has caused over 130 human flu cases in the far east, with 37 deaths (per WHO’s summary of 29 May 2013), the questions on GOF studies might seem to take on new significance.
The insightful Guenther Stertenbrink brought me up on my assertions about GOF research, saying
I don’t see that connection and motivation, how they (signatories) might benefit from flu-research reduction politically or financially, the “marketable agents”… And don’t you think this should be discussed by hearing both sides, giving them the opportunity to reply, with links etc. to support the claims ? Have you contacted them ?
I’m trying to estimate the pandemic risks and I’m in the process of contacting them to see the letter to the ethics commission, how the signatories and 200 nonflu researchers were selected and approached, what their expertise is to judge and weigh and assess and quantify flu-specific benefits and risks.
Stertenbrink is working assiduously to assess both real pandemic risks and the scientific issues involved in the GOF research debate. He is hosting a useful colloquy and has also posted a timeline of commentary and findings.
But I’m sticking to my guns. Guenther is perfectly correct when he intimates that many of the complainants who ask that GOF flu research be controlled or curtailed have nothing financial to gain. But it’s not true that they have nothing at all to gain. In science, and especially in science that bears on public health, controlling the narrative is of nonpareil importance.
The only reason why external commissions should be convened to assess the possible dangers of success of GOF experiments is to make sure that the “right” people get to control the narrative. Because, really, to claim that the actual danger to humans arising from transfering genes in flu virions is knowable and predictable is to misrepresent the deep uncertainty in assessing risk.
First, it creates a false voice of authority. “We know that bad things are likely to happen with probability X if experiment Y succeeds” implies that “we” (the experts?) have knowledge beyond what is actually available. People who have claimed to have exceptional knowledge have done some very, very bad things to the world. All claims of extraordinary knowledge of the future are to be rejected, on moral grounds, in a civil society.
Second, the claim to be able to assess the risks of successful experiments works against the inspired tinkering of science. If our civilization want to have science — and I think it should — we are going to have to live with some unwanted disasters, and with some people (scientists, I mean) doing unseemly things. We may reasonably regulate what they do, in order to prevent animals from being tortured or people killed for the sake of science. But we can’t expect that science will always be “well behaved,” in the sense of a well-behaved mathematical function.
Third, claims that GOF experiments are unethical are really assertions that some other kind of science is ethical. Some other science, in other words, is closer to an imaginary Platonic sort of correctness. Science, as Paul Feyerabend argued, is anarchic. Properly so. But that means there are no hard-and-fast rules of Truth.
I stand by my assertion. The debates over GOF research, just like debates over “ownership” of the MERS coronavirus sequence or the carefully constructed fear over whether the world is sufficiently frightened about MERS, aren’t about science, or public health, or ethics. They are about who controls the narrative.