18 September 2020

Speech Or Silence: FactCheck.org Flunks Basic English

Free Speech is a moral imperative.

I have said this innumerable times when rising to the defense of various silenced speakers, most recently to protest the deplatforming of philosopher, online commentator, and host of FreeDomain Radio, Stefan Molyneaux, as well as other notable figures. What I said then is just as true today, and just as applicable to Chinese virologist Dr. Li-Meng Yan as it is to any political, moral, or philosophical commentator. Free Speech is the necessary moral standard because any other stance is a moral double standard, an hypocrisy, an indefensible abdication of our status as a free people.

If we accept the double standard, if we tolerate and excuse one rule for conservative voices and another rule for progressive voices, then our speech is no longer free, and we are no longer free.

At its core, all censorship rests on the hypocrisy of the double standard. The proposition that some ideas should be silenced and others not is the very essence of what a double standard is. That hypocrisy is why censorship can never be the right thing to do, why it is always the wrong thing to do. Avoiding that hypocrisy is why the alternative, free speech, is always the moral imperative.

Yet we must also recognize that deplatforming is but one form of censorship. There is another, more insidious and more perverse form of censorship: the "fact check" of a claim which is itself based on a lie.

FactCheck.org, in attemting to dismiss (and really to defame) Dr. Li's research into the origins of the CCPVirus, engages in an horrendous and self-evident lie, that her research is somehow "baseless". The only thing FactCheck.org establishes with its critique is that the author flunked 8th grade English.

Research By Definition Cannot Be "Baseless"

FactCheck.org's factual problems arise from its cavalier description of Dr. Li's claims as "baseless". This immediately puts FactCheck.org in the position of either being unaware of Dr. Li's research on the origin of the CCPVirus or falsely implying there is no such research.

This necessarily arises from their use of the word "baseless". The definition of "base" is a foundation for something else:

 the bottom of something considered as its support

To be "base-less", then is to lack that foundation.

having no basis in reason or fact

This can immediately be seen to be false because Dr. Li has published her research for all to see (I have taken the liberty of archiving the material here, to safeguard against spurious deletion). By definition, her claims have a demonstrable basis in reason and fact. We know this because we can see and interrogate that basis by reading and scrutinizing her research.

Nor can we simply dismiss her interpretations of various evidences. Dr. Li has demonstrated expertise in this particular subject, and on CCPVirus itself. She has published multiple papers and been cited by other researchers at least 573 times. We cannot accept any assertion that she lacks a fundamental understanding of the necessary science because she has been publicly acknowledged multiple times as possessing knowledge and expertise in the necessary science.

While none of this makes her claims intrinsically correct or accurate, it does mean we cannot dismiss them as "baseless". The plain blunt empirical truth is that, like all researchers, she has a foundation for her arguments, she has a base, and thus it is impossible for her claims to be "baseless".

What Is Her Base?

Not wishing to fall into the same rhetorical pitfall as FactCheck.org, we should establish the nature of the base for Dr. Li's claims.

Dr. Li presents considerable genomic evidence to support her claims.

I do not claim to have the necessary expertise to evaluate her interpretation of this evidence. I do point out that this is presented as evidence for her claim--and the presentation of this and other evidence is what precludes the dismissal of her claim as "baseless."

She also discusses the protein structures found within the CCPVirus.

Her contention is that these proteins could not arise within the CCPVirus naturally.

She documents why she concludes the CCPVirus' spike proteins has to be man-made.

The Spike proteins decorate the exterior of the coronavirus particles. They play an important role in infection as they mediate the interaction with host cell receptors and thereby help determine the host range and tissue tropism of the virus. The Spike protein is split into two halves (Figure 3). The front or Nterminal half is named S1, which is fully responsible for binding the host receptor. In both SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 infections, the host cell receptor is hACE2. Within S1, a segment of around 70 amino acids makes direct contacts with hACE2 and is correspondingly named the receptor-binding motif (RBM) (Figure 3C). In SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, the RBM fully determines the interaction with hACE2. The C-terminal half of the Spike protein is named S2. The main function of S2 includes maintaining trimer formation and, upon successive protease cleavages at the S1/S2 junction and a downstream S2’ position, mediating membrane fusion to enable cellular entry of the virus.
These are but a few of the evidences--a sliver of Dr. Li's foundation--to back up her claims. The paper itself contains considerably more such evidences, and the reader is advised to consult the paper itself and draw what conclusions may be drawn from its contents.

FactCheck.org Offers Few Facts

Having committed one egregious rhetorical sin in dismissing Dr. Li's claims as "baseless", FactCheck.org then doubles down on falsity by characterizing the entire premise of a lab origin hypothesis as "unsubstantiated."

A long-circulating, unsubstantiated claim about the origins of the novel coronavirus resurfaced in recent days after a paper published online purported that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab.

The baseless claim — which we first addressed in the early days of the pandemic — was further amplified when Fox News host Tucker Carlson featured an interview with one of the authors of the paper on his show on Sept. 15.

Again, we must consider definitions to properly apprehend what is said here. An "unsubstantiated" claim is one that is not proven to be true.

not proven to be true : not substantiated

While FactCheck.org presents this as fact, whether something has been proven true or not is, a conclusion--i.e., the result of evaluating evidences provided.

a reasoned judgment : INFERENCE

Even if one accepted the premise that her claims--which do echo prior claims about the CCPVirus--lacked evidentiary support before her paper was published, it is a spurious bit of circular logic to continue the premise of  there being no evidentiary support given that her paper purports to be the necessary evidentiary support.

Dismissing the paper that provides evidence of a claim because the claim previously was held to have not been proven is logically invalid and rhetorically absurd.

FactCheck.org further compounds its analytical errors by peremptorily dismissing Dr. Li's conclusions as "faulty". 

The new paper attempts to make the case that the novel coronavirus couldn’t have come from nature and instead may have been created by altering a previously discovered bat coronavirus. But several of its main points rest on faulty conclusions.

On what basis are her conclusions deemed faulty? We are not given that answer, merely the opinions (without supportive analysis) of two other credentialed virologists, Drs. Kristian G. Andersen and Stanley Perlman.

Kristian G. Andersen, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research who has studied the origins of the virus, said of the claim on Twitter: “This simply can’t be true – there are more than 3,500 nucleotide differences between SARS-CoV-2 and these viruses.”

And Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa who studies coronaviruses, told us in an email that the coronavirus referenced — ZC45 — is “only 89% related to SARS-CoV-2. In virology terms, that is very distant.”

Perlman said it would be nearly impossible to make the reverse genetics system needed to manipulate the virus and “changing its sequence to arrive at SARS-CoV-2 would be virtually impossible since it would not be known how to manipulate the virus.”

I must pause here and note that I am no more a credible evaluator of virologic data or the analyses of that data by various researchers than is FactCheck.org itself. I cannot claim--and I do not claim--that Drs. Andersen and Perlman are wrong; I merely note that their differing conclusions are not backed up by citation to other competing research.

The logical flaw of merely stating their opinions without at least reference to supportive analysis is that, without that support, such an opinion is merely an appeal to authority. The substance of their opinions is resting entirely on their credentials and on nothing else. An appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, not a logical argument.

FactCheck.org makes another error of logic with another claim made by Dr. Li.

The paper goes on to suggest that “SARS-CoV-2 contains a unique furin-cleavage site in its Spike protein” — which is “completely absent in this particular class of coronaviruses found in nature” — and that, therefore, the virus was engineered.

Susan R. Weiss, a University of Pennsylvania professor of microbiology who researches coronaviruses, told us in an email that that “makes no sense in terms of what we know about” coronaviruses.

“Among murine coronavirus strains there are viruses with the furin site and strains without — closely related strains closer than SARS-1 and SARS-2 yet they are all virulent,” Weiss said. “So this observation says nothing to me about the virus being engineered.”

However, careful reading of Dr. Li's paper indicates Dr. Weiss is making an invalid generalization and thus is guilty of a straw man argument.

Another unique motif in the Spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 is a polybasic furin-cleavage site located at the S1/S2 junction (Figure 4, segment in between two green lines). Such a site can be recognized and cleaved by the furin protease. Within the lineage B of β coronaviruses and with the exception of SARSCoV-2, no viruses contain a furin-cleavage site at the S1/S2 junction (Figure 6)57. In contrast, furincleavage site at this location has been observed in other groups of coronaviruses57,58. Certain selective pressure seems to be in place that prevents the lineage B of β coronaviruses from acquiring or maintaining such a site in nature.

Without delving into the particulars of Dr. Li's assertion, it is patently obvious that Dr. Li is asserting that the furin-cleavage site is unique to CCPVirus only within a discrete subset of coronaviruses. In fact, she acknowledges broadly the same point that Dr. Weiss makes specifically.

Dr. Weiss' point thus does not rebut in any way Dr. Li's assertion about furin-cleavage. Whether Dr. Li's assertion can be rebutted is immaterial--the flaw here is that Dr. Weiss's statement does not rebut the claim although it is presented as doing exactly that.

Moreover, Dr. Li's presentation of furin-cleavage is similar to research from Nankai University in Tianjin, China:

The present study for the first time reported a very important mutation in the Spike (S) proteins of BB coronavirus. By this mutation, 2019-nCoV acquired a cleavage site for furin enzyme, which is not present in the S proteins of all other BB coronavirus (e.g. SARS coronavirus) except the Mouse Hepatitis coronavirus (MHV). This mutation may increase the efficiency of virus infection into cells, making 2019-nCoV has significantly stronger transmissibility than SARS coronavirus.

Dr. Li was not part of this research effort, and her name does not appear as one of the published authors. Thus we must conclude at a minimum that her assertions here are echoed by at least a few of her professional colleagues.

FactCheck.org makes another fallacious appeal to authority in dismissing Dr. Li's claims that her research is being suppressed.

The paper also argues a conspiracy is afoot by claiming that scientific journals won’t publish the “alternative theory that the virus may have come from a research laboratory.”

“I don’t believe that,” Weiss said. “It is just that the data is not compelling. I don’t know any CoV researchers that believe this at all. There is no way anyone could figure out how to make a virus behave like SARS-2 – asymptomatic spread for [one] thing.”

Again, Dr. Weiss is offering opinion, not fact, and FactCheck.org is presenting her opinions as fact, which they are not. Dr. Weiss' statement of not knowing any CoV researchers that believe Dr. Li's claims is absurd, because Dr. Li is herself an acknowledged CoV researcher. Dr. Weiss therefore categorically knows of at least one CoV researcher who believes Dr. Li's claims: Dr. Li-Meng Yan. 

FactCheck.org is guilty of an error of omission by failing to note that Dr. Li's interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News has been banned by Facebook, and that her Twitter account has been suspended without identifiable cause. While these efforts by Big Tech Social Media to silence discussion of her research do not necessarily prove a similar effort among scientific journals, it is demonstrable fact that there are significant efforts to silence Dr. Li and suppress awareness of her research. With such efforts a matter of proven fact, at a minimum a discussion of why anyone wishes to prevent Dr. Li's claims from receiving a full and fair public airing. FactCheck.org is disturbingly silent on what on the surface appears to be a blatant example of Big Tech censorship.

Facts Matter--That Is Why We Discuss Them

What FactCheck.org ironically fails to appreciate is that facts matter. The reason we discuss and debate facts, evaluate them and seek to divine their full meanings, is because they are crucial to understanding the world around us.

FactCheck.org is demonstrably wrong to refer to Dr. Li's claims as baseless. They are demonstrably wrong to infer there is no substantiation for those claims in dismissing the research that aims to present that substantiation. FactCheck.org is demonstrably wrong to peremptorily dismiss her conclusions as faulty when they fail to provide any supportive analysis for that dismissal.

I am not arguing that Dr. Li-Meng Yan's arguments are correct, or that she has made the case for CCPVirus being a product of deliberate laboratory manufacture beyond all doubt. I do not have to argue this, nor do I have to argue that Drs. Andersen, Perlman, and Weiss are wrong. The merits and demerits of these researchers are not at issue here.

What very much is at issue is the flaws within FactCheck.org's attempt to discredit Dr. Li's research efforts. By arrogating to itself a role as arbiter of what is and is not "fact", FactCheck.org seeks to deny her research full public scrutiny. FactCheck.org seeks to silence Dr. Li by suggesting that her claims are wholly without merit and undeserving of any debate, when it is only by that debate by which anyone can determine if her claims are with or without merit.

FactCheck.org, like Facebook and Twitter, perversely give Dr. Li added credibility by leaving us to wonder what is it within her research that gives them such pause. Why silence her at all? Why not merely scrutinize her work, and challenge it openly and publicly, with rebuttals and countering evidences?

If her claims can withstand public scrutiny, we may fairly adjudicate them to be true. If her claims do not withstand such scrutiny, we may fairly adjudicate them to be false.

FactCheck.org seems to desire we not adjudicate her claims at all. That is censorship, and nothing but. As censorship it is morally indefensible. 

The moral imperative is, and will always be, Free Speech.

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