Aussie Life

Aussie Language

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

‘Gain of function’ is a chilling new expression—well, new to most of us—that has entered our language as a result of investigations into where the original coronavirus came from: a wet market or a lab leak? But where does this shiver-down-the-spine expression ‘gain of function’ come from? And what does it mean? The expression seems to go back to 2011 when two groups in different universities were experimenting on bird flu (specifically H5N1) to find out if they could force it to change its host population from birds to mammals. They succeeded. They managed to make ferrets catch the disease in an airborne form. They intended their work to help develop vaccines and therapies. But other scientists immediately saw the danger. These laboratories were making whatever virus they worked on more pathogenic, more transmissible, and increasing the range of possible hosts. In the process this expression ‘gain of function’ was coined—to explain that the viruses being worked on would gain all these additional functions. Because of the amount of controversy in the academic world over fiddling with viruses in this way there were symposiums held on gain of function (or GoF as they now called it) in 2014 and 2016. All of this was going on without any of us knowing anything about it. Some scientists called this work ‘appallingly irresponsible’, unjustified in risk/benefit terms and (quote) ‘engineering doomsday’.

Who actually coined the expression ‘gain of function’ I have not been able to discover, but its big promoter has been Dr Anthony Fauci—who in 2012 published a paper in which he argued that the benefits of the research were worth the risks. Surely it’s only a matter of time before ‘gain of function’ research is banned by international treaty?

You’ve often come across the charge that the ABC news and current affairs programs are being made by ‘activists’ rather than ‘reporters’. It’s a point David Flint has made on the penultimate page of this magazine; and Maurice Newman (himself a former chairman of the ABC) has made the same point in these pages. Since 1917 the word ‘activist’ has meant someone who ‘advocates or engages in action, specifically that undertakes vigorous political or social campaigning’ (OED). So what makes a person an ‘activist’ is campaigning. Does the ABC run campaigns? Ask George Pell or Christian Porter, I suspect they know the answer. ‘Reporter’, on the other hand, is an even older word, recorded from 1400. Long before the coming of the news business it meant simply ‘a person who gives or brings back an account of an event, situation, or fact’ (OED). What has been lost in the ABC (and too much of the media these days) is the old skill of ‘reporting’—conveying untarnished facts without any spin, so the consumers can make up their own minds. Linguistically the case is clear: reporting has been sacrificed to activism—as any Guardian, Nine Newspaper or ABC staffer would quickly discover if they tried to question climate hysteria.

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Contact Kel at ozwords.com.au

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