Dangerous Ideas

Political science's "lab leaks" and the harm they've caused

Greetings, subscribers! I hope you haven’t felt neglected by my only semi-planned absence—but in the time I’ve been gone, I’ve put eight article and chapter manuscripts under review, which ironically means I have more time to spend with you now.

I’m writing because you may be interested in a new article of mine at Foreign Policy:

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.

Read the whole thing — and help it go viral.