When the cranks get it right

Be very skeptical when someone says something shouldn't be legally up for debate.

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for legacy media outlets who haughtily dismissed the lab-leak theory about COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. As evidence comes to light suggesting that the novel coronavirus may indeed have emerged from a laboratory, the backtracking has been furious.

JVL is correct to say that at least mainstream media outlets have come forward and corrected the record without the threat of lawsuits hanging over their heads, which is more than you can say for right-wing outlets that broadcasted wild conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines. But this kind of thing doesn’t fill me with confidence that it won’t happen again:

(The Post has since added a correction to the story.)

Bret Stephens, in the New York Times, takes his own industry to task for its groupthink:

If it turns out that the Covid pandemic was caused by a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, it will rank among the greatest scientific scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a poorly safeguarded facility, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, catastrophic for the entire world.

But this possible scandal, which is as yet unproved, obscures an actual scandal, which remains to be digested.

I mean the long refusal by too many media gatekeepers (social as well as mainstream) to take the lab-leak theory seriously. The reasons for this — rank partisanship and credulous reporting — and the methods by which it was enforced — censorship and vilification — are reminders that sometimes the most destructive enemies of science can be those who claim to speak in its name.

Rewind the tape to February of last year, when people such as Senator Tom Cotton began pointing to a disturbing fact set: the odd coincidence of a pandemic originating in the same city where a Chinese lab was conducting high-end experiments on bat viruses; the troubling report that some of the original Covid patients had no contact with the food markets where the pandemic supposedly originated; the fact that the Chinese government lied and stonewalled its way through the crisis. Think what you will about the Arkansas Republican, but these were reasonable observations warranting impartial investigation.

The common reaction in elite liberal circles? A Washington Post reporter called it a “fringe theory” that “has been repeatedly disputed by experts.” The Atlantic Council accused Cotton of abetting an “infodemic” by “pushing debunked claim that the novel coronavirus may have been created in a Wuhan lab.” A writer for Vox said it was a “dangerous conspiracy theory” being advanced by conservatives “known to regularly spew nonsense (and bash China).

[…]

To its credit, Facebook reversed itself last week. News organizations are quietly correcting (or stealth editing) last year’s dismissive reports, sometimes using the fig leaf of new information about Wuhan lab workers being infected in the fall of 2019 with a Covid-like illness. And the public-health community is taking a fresh look at its Covid origin story.

But even now one gets a distinct sense of the herd of independent minds hard at work. If the lab-leak theory is finally getting the respectful attention it always deserved, it’s mainly because Joe Biden authorized an inquiry and Anthony Fauci admitted to doubts about the natural-origin claim. In other words, the right president and the right public-health expert have blessed a certain line of inquiry.

Yet the lab-leak theory, whether or not it turns out to be right, was always credible. Even if Tom Cotton believed it. Even if the scientific “consensus” disputed it. Even if bigots — who rarely need a pretext — drew bigoted conclusions from it.

Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives. It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.

Does this mean we should be falling on our knees to apologize to Cotton? I don’t think so. Originally I thought he was a pro-Trump kook. Now I think he’s a pro-Trump kook who might have been right about this one issue.

In a world where disinformation can spread faster than ever before, and where the highest-rated pundit on cable television can preach conspiracy theories about life-saving vaccines, many people have surged in the other direction and called for censorship of “false” or “unscientific” ideas. (See this Reddit thread about the Halifax library dispute I mentioned a few days ago.)

The problem is, this assumes that truth is a destination you arrive at instead of something you’re always searching in the dark for. More importantly, it assumes that science or facts are completely immune from political and societal pressure, and that even the experts never self-censor for fear of offending the social media hordes.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, a fringe thinker is just a fringe thinker. But sometimes it’s the fringe thinkers who turn out to have been right all along.


Which brings me to Kevin Annett, a former United Church of Canada minister who for many years spoke about mass graves of children at former Residential Schools, including the one in Kamloops. Whenever his claims were reported in the mainstream media, it was with a tone of skepticism:

As Canadians have learned to their shock and horror this week, Kamloops was indeed a dumping ground for young children ground up and spit out by a Church- and government-sponsored scheme to “civilize” them. And there may be many others.

That 2008 news story is very interesting to read in hindsight, especially in light of the Catholic Church’s refusal to apologize for its role in this cultural genocide:

There's no doubt in Kevin Annett's mind the land surrounding the old Catholic school on the Kamloops Indian Band reserve is full of the remains of dead children who once walked the building's halls.

Not only does the spokesman for the Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared (FRD) claim he has documentation to prove these allegations, he said he has eyewitnesses who will testify to witnessing several burials in the land adjacent to the old residential school and the surrounding orchard.

But Annett's claims that Kamloops is home to a mass grave have been met with stiff opposition and severe doubt by local and regional Church officials who say his allegations rest solely on anecdotal evidence and rumour.

[…]

And some, who say they have been dealing with Annett, a former church minister, and his accusations for the past 10 years, are growing somewhat tiresome of his antics as well as his apparent refusal to bring his case to the RCMP.

The alleged Kamloops mass grave is just one of 28 Annett and his group recently identified in a public address outside the Indian Affairs building in Vancouver.

The others are dotted all across the country and mark the alleged atrocities committed by Canada's residential schools.

The group estimates the bodies of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children lay in these graves.

While Paul Schratz, the communications director for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, doesn't deny "unfortunate" things did happen at some of these schools, he noted they were a "far cry" from what Annett and his group are alleging.

Annett was right about Kamloops all along. Does that mean he deserves to be taken more seriously in the future?

If so, only slightly. Because he remains an anti-vaxxer sovereign-citizen conspiracy theorist whose other claims about mass graves haven’t panned out:

Since September, Kevin Annett has made weekly appearances in a Zoom chat organized by Dena Churchill, a former chiropractor from Halifax who had her license to practice revoked in 2018 for promoting anti-vaccine misinformation. These Zoom meetings were done on behalf of the Atlantic Common Law Assembly which she is part of, but others are allowed to attend. Recordings of the Zoom chats are uploaded to Dena Churchill’s YouTube account. In these videos, I have seen figures claiming to be from the Greater Edmonton Common Law Assembly and an apparent Vancouver Common Law Assembly. On his podcasts, we can also hear representatives of the Greater Victoria Common Law Assembly. In some cases they are recognizable figures of confirmed location, so these assemblies clearly exist in at least some capacity.

[…]

COVID-19 is not the first deadly disease Annett has used to spread conspiracy theorist scares about vaccines. During the H1N1 pandemic, Annett made false claims that vaccinations were being designed to commit genocide against Indigenous peoples. Then, like today, he said that the usage of these deadly vaccines on white people would constitute the expansion of a continuous genocide towards Indigenous peoples being expanded to include white people. This took better founded fears of medical colonialism, which persisted then (the initial assistance Health Canada gave to Manitoba reserves was to send body bags) as it does today, and turned them into an absurdity. Martial law did not happen, Canada did not become a dictatorship, and the vaccines did not make things worse, all of which he predicted.

Exploiting the real and tragic history of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples to push his own outlandish fantasies is a recurring theme from Annett’s work. The best known of these is when he had a sham court find Pope Benedict XVI guilty of genocide. When Benedict XVI resigned Annett declared that his “ruling” caused him to resign in fear, a claim he repeats to his followers today to impress them of the strength of common law and his declarations.

Another scam of his which has not received as much attention online is his claim that he had discovered proof of unmarked mass graves of Indigenous childrens murdered at a residential school in Brantford. Annett dug up an animal bone, immediately published statements falsely declaring that he had the remains of a child against the wishes of other investigators who were working with him in good faith and the Six Nations Elected Council. He then went round showing these bones off, including to an Occupy Toronto demonstration. An APTN investigation put his findings into doubt.

Annett wants people to believe that his own “discoveries” are what led to the government launching the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which he considers a whitewash for not repeating his claims) and Trudeau’s acknowledgement of genocide in response to the Inquiry on MMIWG2S, which he bizarrely believes vindicates his own unfounded claims.

A white man taking Canada’s real and attocious history and understandable fears and using it to spread wild fantasies for his own self-promotion (which apparently has included fundraising) is quite despicable. Indigenous activists seeking justice for residential school survivors have opposed Annet’s shameless exploitation of these issues for over two decades. While some of Annett’s actions might seem like he’s trying to support Indigenous people, he says many things about Indigenous people that would put the average anti-Indigenous haters to shame, including accusing leaders on reserves of being bribed and partaking in drug dealing and child trafficking. Much of Annett’s focus can also seem abstract and detached from realities on the ground, in several hours worth of material I have listened to him from recent months he does not mention important Indigenous struggles like Wet’suwet’en, Mi’kmaq, Six Nations, and others that are going on at present, some of which (like the Mi’kmaq fishing standoff) are obviously more complicated than just the fault of governing elites.

Annett also says that Queen Elizabeth II visited the Kamloops school in 1964 and took ten of the children back to England with her, perhaps to be shared with Jeffrey Epstein or something. So, there’s that.

In light of this, I’d say a tone of skepticism is still warranted. It usually is. But that’s still a determination I’d like to make for myself, instead of having a news outlet or social media platform - or, God forbid, the government - do it for me.


I’ve been there, Ken.