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What does the science say about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic?


Since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began three years ago, its origin has been a topic of much scientific — and political — debate. Two main theories exist: The virus spilled over from an animal into people, most likely in a market in Wuhan, China, or the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and spread due to some type of laboratory accident.

The Wall Street Journal added to that debate this week when they reported that the U.S. Department of Energy has shifted its stance on the origin of COVID. It now concludes, with "low confidence," that the pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China.

The agency based their conclusion on classified evidence that isn't available to the public. According to the federal government, "low confidence" means "the information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information."

And at this point, the U.S. intelligence community still has no consensus about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Four of the eight intelligence agencies lean toward a natural origin for the virus, with "low confidence," while two of them – the DOE and the Federal Bureau of Investigation – support a lab origin, with the latter having "moderate confidence" about their conclusion.

But at the end of the day, the origin of the pandemic is also a scientific question. Virologists, who study pandemic origins, are much less divided than the U.S. intelligence community. They say there is "very convincing" data and "overwhelming evidence" pointing to an animal origin.


The Sunshine Imperium: The militarism of Ron DeSantis


FOUR YEARS into his unjustified imprisonment at Guantánamo Bay, Mansoor Adayfi met a young member of the Navy’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps who claimed to be his ally. “I saw a fucking handsome person,” Adayfi recently recalled in an interview with Mike Prysner, an Iraq War veteran turned peace activist. The dashing military lawyer had piercing blue eyes, white teeth, and dimples. He was armed only with a notebook, and his name was Ron DeSantis. “I’m here to ensure that you are treated humanely,” he pledged, according to Adayfi. Desperate and with few other options, Adayfi confided in DeSantis. He later regretted it. “When he turned his face—his true face,” he explained, “it was a shock to us all.”

The Republican Party’s great post-Trump hope for 2024 first touched down at America’s torture palace in March 2006. He was just twenty-seven. At the time, the prison’s sordid tactics were facing unprecedented scrutiny: the month DeSantis arrived in Cuba, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. In that case, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former bodyguard and chauffeur to Osama bin Laden, argued that the military commissions set up to try him and other Gitmo detainees violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. In a momentous five-to-three decision, the court took his side.

In response, military brass rushed to defend and improve their practices. Ultimately, however, they focused more on rhetoric than redesign. DeSantis was then a junior prosecutor, meaning he was probably assigned boring clerical duties like processing security badges and drafting legal memos. But his main mission was ensuring that detainees were treated in line with applicable laws and regulations. “[He] would have been more in damage control mode than anything else,” estimated Moe Davis, the former chief prosecutor of the Guantánamo military commissions. Tom Fleener, a former defense lawyer at Gitmo, told me that “Ron knew where the bodies were buried, so to speak.” But “all the people around [him] were pitching the party line.” Fleener then ticked off this doctrine’s key claims. “It was, ‘We never grabbed innocent people. These are dangerous people who’ve committed unspeakable acts. These are enemy combatants. They can’t be released. We didn’t torture anybody. All our interrogation tactics worked. The information gleaned was true.’”

Fleener paused to take a breath. “Those were the standard mantras back then,” he explained. “All of it was false.” The facts were that many innocent people were being shackled, screamed at, beaten, and sexually assaulted at Guantánamo. Some died. Others were coerced into making false confessions.


ACE & PEN America Release Defending Academic Freedom Resource Guide


Over the past several years, higher education leaders and free speech advocates have grown increasingly alarmed at the rise of what PEN America calls educational gag orders: legislative restrictions on discussions of race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 classrooms and on college campuses. PEN America has tracked nearly 300 bills, introduced in 44 state legislatures, have sought to restrict the teaching of such topics. Since 2021, nearly 100 such measures have specifically targeted college and university campuses.

These measures are a direct threat to the culture of open inquiry that underpins colleges and universities as a pillar of our democracy. Academic freedom is under siege, and college leaders have an important role to play in defending free speech for all on their campuses. That’s why today, PEN America and the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for the nation’s colleges and universities, have released a new resource guide that gives college and university leaders the tools and resources they need to defend campus free expression from legislative attack.

The new resource guide, Making the Case for Academic Freedom in a Challenging Political Environment: A Resource Guide for Campus Leaders, provides an overview of the trends that are unfolding and the forces that shape them. It offers specific guidance to presidents, chancellors, and other campus leaders, explaining how they can address these issues with a range of audiences, including lawmakers, trustees, and community members. A brief, downloadable overview provides easy-to-use guidance for faculty and other university stakeholders.

The resource guide includes insights drawn from public opinion research ACE commissioned last year. The survey findings demonstrate broad bipartisan agreement that elected officials should not restrict what is taught on campus, and that it is important to preserve academic freedom and free expression in higher education.


COVID deniers claim a new study says mask mandates don't work. They should try reading it


No paywall


The mask critics are now touting what they seem to think is evidence for their claim that mask mandates don’t work. It’s a meta-study — that is, a compilation — of studies on physical interventions against the spread of respiratory viruses. That includes chiefly masks of various types and hand-washing.

The anti-maskers jumped right on the study soon after its publication on Jan. 30 by the usually trusted Cochrane Library, asserting that it proved that masking didn’t work against COVID-19. Leading the triumphal parade was Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist and certified member of the “don’t confuse me with the facts” crowd.

Stephens surfaced the other day with a column purportedly based on the Cochrane study and headlined, “The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Be Learned?”

He wrote, “Those skeptics who were furiously mocked as cranks and occasionally censored as ‘misinformers’ for opposing mandates were right. The mainstream experts and pundits who supported mandates were wrong.”

A few things about this.

First, one lesson about Stephens that many people learned long ago was that he doesn’t do his homework.


A "weaponization of government" trope explainer (long, but really good read)


The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government began its business this week. The hearings were not been especially interesting, replaying old grievances of how Trump had been mistreated, with a star FBI whistleblower who turned out to have left government in the last century.

What is more interesting is the way in which the idea of “weaponization” itself has emerged and been, well, weaponized.

The creation of the new subcommittee represents the formalization of a new trope that has quickly become part of the partisan language of government, serving as a linguistic shorthand for an array of imagined misdeeds, in the way that “woke” or “CRT” has come to do. The word “weaponization” is intended to evoke a pavlovian response that short-circuits actual engagement about evidence: you know the narrative already, so no need to critically assess the specifics.

As it is used, “weaponization” appears to mean an inappropriate use of government resources to target people for unjustified partisan purposes. But “weaponization” by who? And against who? As the Stefanik example above makes clear, there is no effort to employ it even-handedly: the implication is that the federal government is coming for conservatives. (Stefanik is a member of the committee, along with notables such as Matt Gaetz, who was investigated for sex trafficking by one of the agencies the committee will investigate). So where does the trope come from?


Trump campaign paid researchers to prove 2020 fraud but kept findings secret


No paywall

Former president Trump’s 2020 campaign commissioned an outside research firm in a bid to prove electoral fraud claims but never released the findings because the firm disputed many of his theories and could not offer any proof that he was the rightful winner of the election, according to four people familiar with the matter.

The campaign paid researchers from Berkeley Research Group, the people said, to study 2020 election results in six states, looking for fraud and irregularities to highlight in public and in the courts. Among the areas examined were voter machine malfunctions, instances of dead people voting and any evidence that could help Trump show he won, the people said. None of the findings were presented to the public or in court.

About a dozen people at the firm worked on the report, including econometricians, who use statistics to model and predict outcomes, the people said. The work was carried out in the final weeks of 2020, before the Jan. 6 riot of Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump continues to falsely assert that the 2020 election was stolen despite abundant evidence to the contrary, much of which had been provided to him or was publicly available before the Capitol assault. The Trump campaign’s commissioning of its own report to study the then-president’s fraud claims has not been previously reported.

“They looked at everything: change of addresses, illegal immigrants, ballot harvesting, people voting twice, machines being tampered with, ballots that were sent to vacant addresses that were returned and voted,” said a person familiar with the work who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private research and meetings. “Literally anything you could think of. Voter turnout anomalies, date of birth anomalies, whether dead people voted. If there was anything under the sun that could be thought of, they looked at it.”


Twitter Kept Entire 'Database' of Republican Requests to Censor Posts


No paywall

WHEN THE WHITE House called up Twitter in the early morning hours of September 9, 2019, officials had what they believed was a serious issue to report: Famous model Chrissy Teigen had just called President Donald Trump “a pussy ass bitch” on Twitter — and the White House wanted the tweet to come down.

That exchange — revealed during Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing on Twitter by Rep. Gerry Connolly — and others like it are nowhere to be found in Elon Musk’s “Twitter Files” releases, which have focused almost exclusively on requests from Democrats and the feds to the social media company. The newly empowered Republican majority in the House of Representatives is now devoting significant resources and time to investigating this supposed “collusion” between liberal politicians and Twitter. Some Republicans even believe the release of the “Twitter Files” is the “tip of the spear” of their crusade against the alleged liberal bias of Big Tech.

But former Trump administration officials and Twitter employees tell Rolling Stone that the White House’s Teigan tweet demand was hardly an isolated incident: The Trump administration and its allied Republicans in Congress routinely asked Twitter to take down posts they objected to — the exact behavior that they’re claiming makes President Biden, the Democrats, and Twitter complicit in an anti-free speech conspiracy to muzzle conservatives online.

“It was strange to me when all of these investigations were announced because it was all about the exact same stuff that we had done [when Donald Trump was in office],” one former top aide to a senior Trump administration official tells Rolling Stone. “It was normal.”


Tyre Nichols Was Killed By Black Police Officers Because the Whole System Is Racist


In America, we routinely witness white police officers murdering Black people, though these crimes are rarely called murders. Thousands of people may spend months, sometimes even years, protesting and demanding that officers be charged for the killings we saw them commit. But those officers are very seldom prosecuted or convicted, and even when they are — even after they’ve been convicted — some segments of white America will still find a way to defend them.

We recently saw five Black Memphis police officers get charged with murder just 19 days after they killed 29-year-old Tyre Nichols — before we saw the video footage, before we protested and marched all over the country. This time, many in the media insisted, the footage would show the most brutal police assault we’ve ever seen. Everything that played out before — and after — authorities debuted the video of the vicious attack that led to Nichols’ death heightened anticipation, as if it was the long-awaited release of Dr. Dre’s Detox, and is a testament to several things most Black people have long known.

First: There doesn’t need to be a white person in the room for white supremacy to function. Second: Although white supremacy wholeheartedly welcomes Black cops (and any other Black person who wants in) to be its agents, it will never protect you as it protects its own. Third: Diversifying police departments doesn’t address the fact that policing is as systemically racist as it is innately violent. All too often, hiring more Black and brown officers just provides us with the privilege of being brutalized by people who look like us.

As James Baldwin wrote, “Black policemen were another matter. We used to say, ‘If you must call a policeman’ — for we hardly ever did — ‘for God’s sake, try to make sure it’s a white one.’ A Black policeman could completely demolish you. He knew far more about you than a white policeman could and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform, whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that, though he was Black, he was not Black like you.” Or in the words of N.W.A, who put it simply: “But don’t let it be a Black and a white [cop], cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top, Black police showin’ out for the white cop.” The danger posed by the Black police officer is well known and documented across the Black community.


The Two-Decade Red State Murder Problem


Republicans have made crime a major selling point over the past several elections. In 2020 and 2022, they ran ads accusing Democratic candidates of wanting to “defund the police”– a position held by only a handful of fringe Democratic officeholders. In October 2022, one-quarter of ads from Republican candidates and PACs focused on crime. Republican-aligned Fox News aired, on average, 141 segments on crime across weekdays in the two months leading up to the midterms. In the week after the midterm, their coverage of violent crime dropped by 50%.

In March of 2022, we released a report that found murder rates in 2020 were 40% higher in Trump-voting states than Biden-voting states. In this follow-up report, we studied homicide data going back to 2000 to see if this one-year Red State murder epidemic was an anomaly. It was not. Despite a media narrative to the contrary, a wide and widening Red State murder gap has spanned the past two decades.

In this study, we collected homicide data from 2000 through 2020 for all 50 states from the Center of Disease Control Wonder’s National Center for Health Statistics Mortality Data. Data is based on death certificates collected by state registries and provided to the National Vital Statistics System. We chose CDC data over FBI data because it’s more up to date and does not rely on voluntary reporting from counties and states. All states are required to report mortality data to the CDC; they’re only encouraged to report crime data to the FBI. The United States Department of Justice has acknowledged that CDC data is more accurate. (There were four states with several years of missing data–New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. In these instances, we relied on FBI numbers from the Uniform Crime Statistics.)1 To allow for comparison, we calculated the state’s per capita murder rate, the number of murders per 100,000 residents, and categorized states by their presidential vote in the 2020 election, resulting in an even 25-25 state split.

We found that the murder rate in Trump-voting states has exceeded the murder rate in Biden-voting states every year this century. Cumulatively, overall murder rates since 2000 were on average 23% higher in Trump-voting states. For the past 21 years, the top 10 murder rate states have been dominated by reliably red states, namely Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri. Even when we removed the county with the largest city in Trump-voting states (and kept them in for Biden-voting states), murder rates were still significantly higher in these red states.


How Republicans Fed a Misinformation Loop About the Pelosi Attack


No paywall

WASHINGTON — Within hours of the brutal attack last month on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the speaker of the House, activists and media outlets on the right began circulating groundless claims — nearly all of them sinister, and many homophobic — casting doubt on what had happened.

Some Republican officials quickly joined in, rushing to suggest that the bludgeoning of an octogenarian by a suspect obsessed with right-wing conspiracy theories was something else altogether, dismissing it as an inside job, a lover’s quarrel or worse.

The misinformation came from all levels of Republican politics. A U.S. senator circulated the view that “none of us will ever know” what really happened at the Pelosis’ San Francisco home. A senior Republican congressman referred to the attacker as a “nudist hippie male prostitute,” baselessly asserting that the suspect had a personal relationship with Mr. Pelosi. Former President Donald J. Trump questioned whether the attack might have been staged.

The world’s richest man helped amplify the stories. But none of it was true.


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