As a philosopher, I annoy people in many ways. One of these ways is that I almost always qualify the claims I make. This is not to engage in weasling (weakening a claim to protect it from criticism) but because of my awareness of my epistemic limitations: as Socrates famously said, I know that I know nothing. People generally prefer claims made with bold certainty and can see expressions of doubt as signs of weakness and a lack of confidence. Another way I annoy people is by presenting alternatives to my claims/views and providing reasons as to why they might also be true/correct. Doing so has the downside of making matters more complicated and can easily confuse someone. A common response I get to such behavior is an exasperated “what do you really believe!?!” I then annoy the person more by noting what I think is probably true/correct but also noting that I can always be wrong. For the obvious reason that I can always be wrong. I also create annoyance by adjusting my views based on credible changes in the available evidence. This really seems to annoy people; one is presumably supposed to stick to one view and adjust the evidence to suit it rather than the other way. The origin story of COVID-19 provides an excellent example for this discussion.
When COVID first appeared in China, speculation began as to its origin and people often combine distinct claims without considering that they can be separated. One set of claims deals with the origin of COVID. The main claims here are that it is either naturally occurring or the virus was engineered in the lab. At this point, the best explanation is that the virus is naturally occurring. But since humans do engineer viruses, it is certainly possible that the virus was engineered. The obvious challenge is to provide proof for this claim—merely asserting it is not enough. So, at this point my annoying position is that the best evidence is that the virus is naturally occurring, but that new evidence could change my position. After all, I am not devoted to any particular origin but to the truth.
Another set of claims deals with the origin of the infection. Some claim that it entered the human population through a wet market. Some claim that it arrived via some other human-bat interactions. There is also the claim that it originated from a lab in China. All of these are certainly viable points of origin. We know that diseases can originate in markets and spread. We know that labs are run by people and people do make mistakes and can be quite sloppy at work. We know that humans do have interactions with animals and disease can spread this way.
In the recent past, I favored the wet market hypothesis because that seemed to be the best supported by the available evidence. Diseases do jump from livestock to humans, so this claim is plausible. Recently, however, the possibility that the virus leaked from the lab has gained more credibility. While there is not yet decisive evidence, this hypothesis is now credible enough to warrant serious investigation. I do not have a vested interest in backing any hypothesis; so at this point my annoying view is that I am unsure
The third set of claims deals with whether it was intentional or not. Some claim that the virus entered the human population by accident—that no one intended for this to happen. There are also claims that the virus was intentionally introduced, and the exact nefarious reason varies from hypothesis to hypothesis. Accidents are regular occurrences—things are literally always going wrong in the world. But we also know that there are people who intentionally do evil and that they have various reasons for doing so, ranging from making money, to getting more power, to seeking revenge, to all the other reasons people do bad things. As it now stands, there is little or no evidence that a malign actor intentionally introduced the virus into the population—but evidence could certainly arise. People have, obviously enough, done worse things. The malign actor hypothesis is an umbrella: one must also select specific evildoers as the culprit—though there could, of course, be many. As always, evidence is needed to support any claims.
It is important to distinguish between the different claims and to note that evidence that supports one claim need to support another claim often associated with it. A common mistake people make is confusing how conjunctions work with how disjunctions work. In logic, a disjunction is an “or” claim which is true when one or both of the disjuncts is/are true. For example, if I say that I will bring beer and tequila to the party, then my claim is true unless I show up with neither. Showing up with one or the other or both makes that disjunction true. In the case of a conjunction, both conjuncts must be true for the statement to be true. So, If I say I will bring hot dogs and buns to the party, then I must show up with both for my claim to be true. While it might seem like an odd and obvious mistake, people can treat a conjunction like a disjunction when they want to claim the conjunction is true. In some cases, people will do this intentionally and in bad faith. This has been done in the case of COVID.
As noted above, the lab leak hypothesis for COVID is gaining credibility. Because of this, some people might be tempted to conclude that this shows that the virus was manufactured. The person could think that because there is reason to believe that the virus leaked from the lab, then it is also true that it was manufactured. If it is true that the virus was leaked, then one part of the claim “the virus was manufactured and leaked” would be true, namely that it was manufactured. As such, someone might be tempted to take the entire claim to be true (or make the claim in bad faith). After all, if it were true that the virus was leaked, then it would be true that it was leaked or it was manufactured. But this would be a matter of logic; it would thus also be true that the virus was leaked, or unicorns exist. As always, it is important to determine which part of a conjunction is supported by the evidence—if both claims are not supported, then you do not have good reason to accept the conjunction as true. The last annoying thing I will look at is the fact that being right does not mean a person was justified.
So, suppose it is determined that the virus was leaked from the lab. Many of those who are devoted to this claim will take this as vindication that they were right all along. On the one hand, they would be correct: they were right all along, and other people were wrong. But ever since at least Plato philosophers have distinguished between having a true belief and having justification for this belief. One can be right for a variety of bad reasons, such as simply guessing or from prejudice. For example, a person who likes horror-sci fi might go with the lab leak because they like that kind of narrative. As another example, a racist might go with the lab leak because of their prejudice towards Asians. A nationalist might go with the lab leak because they think China is an inferior country. And so on. But believing on these grounds would not justify the belief—they would have just gotten lucky. As such, their “victory” is a matter of luck—they just happened to guess right.
One thing people often find confusing about critical thinking and science is that a person can be initially justified in a belief that turns out to wrong. The initial evidence can sometimes warrant belief in claims that are later disproved. Roughly put, a person would be wrong but have all the right reasons to believe. Some of this is because of the problem of induction (with inductive reasoning, the conclusion can always turn out to be false) and some of it is because humans have limited and flawed epistemic abilities. People who do not understand this will tend to think these good methods are defective because they do not always get the truth immediately and they do not really get that a person can be reasoning well and yet end up being wrong. Oddly, they often seem fine with methods of belief formation that are incredibly unreliable, such as following authoritarian leaders or unqualified celebrities. When the evidence does support them, they do not seem to get that this is how the process works: false claims, one hopes, eventually get shown to be false and better supported claims replace them. As such, the people who rejected the lab hypothesis earlier because of the lack of evidence but are now willing to consider the evidence for it are doing things right: they are adjusting based on the evidence. I suspect that some approach belief in claims like they might see religion: you must pick one and stick with it and if you just so happen to luck out and be right, then you win. But that is not how rational belief works.
What, then, about someone who believed in the lab hypothesis early on and was rational about it? Well, to the degree they had rational warrant for their claim, then they deserve credit for it. However, if they simply held to the belief without adequate justification, then their being correct would turn out to be largely a matter of chance and not the result of some special clarity of reason and evidence. To close, people should keep advancing plausible alternatives—that is an important function in seeking the truth. So those who kept the lab hypothesis going because they rationally considered it a possible explanation do deserve their due credit.