Political Science Has Its Own Lab Leaks

Paul Musgrave at Foreign Policy: “The idea of a lab leak has gone, well, viral. As a political scientist, I cannot assess whether the evidence shows that COVID-19 emerged naturally or from laboratory procedures (although many experts strenuously disagree). Yet as a political scientist, I do think that my discipline can learn something from thinking seriously about our own “lab leaks” and the damage they could cause.

A political science lab leak might seem as much of a punchline as the concept of a mad social scientist. Nevertheless, the notion that scholarly ideas and findings can escape the nuanced, cautious world of the academic seminar and transform into new forms, even becoming threats, becomes more of a compelling metaphor if you think of academics as professional crafters of ideas intended to survive in a hostile environment. Given the importance of what we study, from nuclear war to international economics to democratization and genocide, the escape of a faulty idea could have—and has had—dangerous consequences for the world.

Academic settings provide an evolutionarily challenging environment in which ideas adapt to survive. The process of developing and testing academic theories provides metaphorical gain-of-function accelerations of these dynamics. To survive peer review, an idea has to be extremely lucky or, more likely, crafted to evade the antibodies of academia (reviewers’ objections). By that point, an idea is either so clunky it cannot survive on its own—or it is optimized to thrive in a less hostile environment.

Think tanks and magazines like the Atlantic (or Foreign Policy) serve as metaphorical wet markets where wild ideas are introduced into new and vulnerable populations. Although some authors lament a putative decline of social science’s influence, the spread of formerly academic ideas like intersectionality and the use of quantitative social science to reshape electioneering suggest that ideas not only move from the academy but can flourish once transplanted. This is hardly new: Terms from disciplines including psychoanalysis (“ego”), evolution (“survival of the fittest”), and economics (the “free market” and Marxism both) have escaped from the confines of academic work before…(More)”.