By: Andrew C. McCarthy – nationalreview.com – June 5, 2021
Of course, it’s only circumstantial evidence. We may never know the truth.”
If I’ve heard this once, over more decades than I care to admit, I’ve heard it a thousand times. It is the rote dismissal of circumstantially based cases, and it is almost always wrong.
We can no longer afford to be wrong when it comes to the origin — the generation by regime-controlled Chinese scientists, almost certainly by accident — of a pandemic that has caused nearly 4 million deaths globally (now closing in on 600,000 in the U.S.), in addition to geometrically more instances of serious illness, trillions of dollars’ worth of economic destruction, and incalculable setbacks in the educational and social development of tens of millions of children.
I was a prosecutor for a long time, and prosecutors are in the business of proving stuff. Every good one will tell you that the best case is a strong circumstantial case. It is the most airtight and least problematic kind of proof.
Circumstantial cases are a tapestry of objectively provable facts. No one of those facts, by itself, establishes the ultimate conclusion for which all the interconnected facts collectively stand. Instead, each single fact supports a subordinate proposition that must be true in order for the ultimate conclusion to be valid. Stitch enough of those subordinate propositions together and the ultimate conclusion is inexorable.
We have a natural human reluctance to trust circumstantial evidence. In our own lives, we know what we know — or at least what we think we know — because we have lived it. We don’t need to run down a plethora of clues to grasp our own experiences. We can describe them firsthand. If we worked in a lab that came under scrutiny, we could tell everyone how an accident there happened — or assure them that it didn’t happen. Ergo, we reason, what we really need is direct evidence, someone like ourselves who can narrate the goings-on.
Only then, we tell ourselves, can we really know. Even when all the disparate circumstantial trails lead to the same answer, we instinctively ask how we can trust that answer unless and until it has been confirmed by someone who was there.
But that is not how it works in the real world. Once you get beyond the narrow limits of your own experience, everything else is about what you can trust. And you quickly realize you can trust a constellation of objective facts that fit together (i.e., circumstantial evidence) more reliably than the subjective account of a witness — “direct” evidence — whose entanglement in a controversy may erode his credibility.
The murderer is apt to tell you he didn’t do it. And even the murderer who tells you he did do it is apt to be lying about something significant. Maybe he’s currying favor with the prosecutor, who has demanded testimony against an accomplice in exchange for a reduced sentence; maybe he is settling a score with the accomplice; maybe he has mistakenly assumed that the accomplice was complicit because of what some intermediary told him.
What’s the upshot of all that? Well, it means we’re necessarily right back to circumstantial evidence.
When it comes to something of consequence, we don’t take the direct witness’s word for it. We demand corroboration. And how do we corroborate a witness’s testimony? The same way we prove a circumstantial case: by establishing that the subordinate facts line up with the testimonial version of events — that, for example, the records show the alarm triggered just when the witness says the break-in happened; that a nearby surveillance camera captured a streaking vehicle matching the getaway car’s description only 20 seconds later; that the next morning, a series of suspicious cash deposits started to be made at banks just a few blocks apart from each other; and so on.
Apodictic knowledge eludes us. That’s the human condition. Whether we are in the position of relying on circumstantial evidence, direct evidence, or some combination of the two, we are forever at a deficit. Our knowledge is imperfect and our premises may be flawed (and constantly reminding oneself of that is what separates good intelligence analysts from bad ones). Notice that in the criminal justice system, where we apply the most exacting evidentiary standards, the requirement is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, not proof beyond all possible doubt.
There is no proof beyond all possible doubt.
What NR’s Jim Geraghty has chronicled for months is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the coronavirus pandemic was generated by an accident — a lab leak, a not-uncommon mishap in medical research conducted by fallible human beings — at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Ditto the important work of Nicholas Wade, Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban, our own Michael Brendan Dougherty, and a few intrepid others.
Lab accidents are common, and have been known to spawn infectious diseases (including the escape of SARS1 from the Chinese National Virology Institute in Beijing “no less than four times,” according to Wade). WIV scientists were conducting gain-of-function research on bat-based coronaviruses, in particular their capacity to infect humans. The bats in which are found closely related (but, importantly, not identical) viruses do not inhabit the vicinity of Wuhan — they are nearly a thousand miles away from that densely populated city and have limited flight range. The likelihood of naturally occurring interspecies transmission (outside a lab setting) is infinitesimal. The lab conditions in Wuhan were insufficiently safe — grossly so, it appears. Several of the lab’s researchers fell ill (at least three severely enough to be hospitalized) right at the critical time, in autumn of 2019, before the first identified case of infection with SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Here, two additional points are salient. First, those implausibly claiming that the circumstantial case is weak always skip past the inconvenient fact that the circumstantial case for their preferred theory of natural transmission (from bat to human, directly or through an intermediary species) is so weak as to be negligible — there being, most tellingly, no known existence of a bat (or pangolin, etc.) in which a virus matching SARS-CoV2 has been found.
Second, we are not in a U.S. prosecution. The presumption of innocence that obtains in U.S. criminal trials does not apply in other contexts, and China is not entitled to it. Nor is China vested with the privilege against self-incrimination. We are fully within our rights to conclude that the monstrous regime in Beijing is not an innocent actor, and that it has sealed records, silenced witnesses, and hidden evidence because it knows both that SARS-CoV2 was generated by an accident in one of its labs and that its sundry deceits in concealing this fact undermined any possibility of containing the damage — to catastrophic effect.
On the same rationale, we can justifiably infer that American officials who zealously maligned sensible, informed efforts to investigate the lab-leak theory were motivated not by some adherence to science but by the awareness that the U.S. government knew about and was supportive of China’s virological research.
China and its abettors have much to account for. Unless and until China comes forward with convincing evidence that the lab-leak theory is wrong, the position of the United States and the world must be that China is culpable. We should stop spouting the untenable and irresponsible drivel that, because the case is “circumstantial,” the truth may never be known. We know plenty.
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