How to do Bad Science Reporting

18 Jul

Recently, on a segment of her show, “Ingraham Angle”, Laura Ingraham discussed some papers in the context of COVID-19. She started with schools and case counts, but then spent the majority of the time talking about masks. You’re probably tired of hearing about face masks, but please read on because this is about far more than just masks. It’s about the integrity of reporting.

Here’s the full segment if you’d like to watch.

Ingraham says, “I’m not telling anyone not to wear a mask.” But then she goes on to misrepresent and quote mine from sources while she implies that masks don’t help. It’s like your friend in high school, that says, “I’m not one to gossip, but did you hear what she said about so and so?”

Ingraham asks, “What about the actual data?” Well, if she really looked at what’s been published on the subject, overwhelmingly the papers say masks reduce the spread of COVID-19. I have a page here where I’ve been tracking and summarizing what’s been published. Ingraham even mentions one of those I reviewed, but she totally misrepresents it. This suggests that she’s either scientifically illiterate, or even worse, she did it on purpose.

The first study she mentions is from 2015, entitled “A cluster randomised trial of cloth masks compared with medical masks in healthcare workers” by MacIntyre et al. She highlights this line from the study abstract: “[T]he results caution against the use of cloth masks. This is an important finding to inform occupational health and safety.” The she tilts her head and says, “hmmm…ok” as if she’s sleuthed some big insight. The fact is there’s not much really relevant to COVID-19 and public use of face masks here. Why?

  1. First, this study was before SARS-CoV-2 was an issue. It’s not looking at that virus. It’s looking at others, that have different properties, including different transmission routes.
  2. The study did look for a number of viruses in the testing, including 4 other common coronaviruses. Guess what? The results showed that 85% of the viruses found in those wearing masks were Rhinoviruses. In fact, not one single instance of any of coronavirus was found.
  3. This study involves the use of masks in a healthcare setting, not public use.
  4. This study was only comparing two types of masks and it did not evaluate masking versus not masking.
  5. This study was looking at the risk of transmission TO a healthcare worker. The main reason people in the public are wearing masks is to prevent transmission FROM asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic persons. The study didn’t consider that at all.

It’s completely irresponsible for Ingraham to report on this study without that context.

Next she turns the the WHO and uses an old quote from their website that says that (at the time) they believed there was no benefit to healthy persons wearing a mask with regard to COVID-19. The WHO, based on the developing science, has changed their position. She neglects to mention this.

Then she goes after Fauci and that interview he did back in March saying people shouldn’t wear face masks. Again, this was before a multitude of studies that caused Fauci to change his medical opinion. Does Ingraham not believe in scientific advancement?

Finally, she discusses a study from April 2020. She uses it to argue against masks, but in fact, this study indeed showed a benefit that wearing a surgical mask reduced transmission of alpha coronaviruses from infected individuals. That’s not terribly significant (because the study didn’t look at COVID-19), but it’s a small contribution to the ongoing research showing that masking does reduce transmission. But Ingraham quote mines the following: “Among the samples collected without a face mask, we found that the majority of participants with influenza virus and coronavirus infection did not shed detectable virus in respiratory droplets or aerosols…For those who did shed virus in respiratory droplets and aerosols, viral load in both tended to be low”. Then in a snarky tone, she says, “Wait…what?” The way she says it makes it sound like people don’t need to be wearing masks for COVID-19. But what she neglects to tell you is that this quote is NOT in reference to SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and COVID-19. In fact, SARS-CoV-2 was not looked at directly in this study. The “confirmed, known infections” that she’s referring to, as if it’s some sort of bombshell, is NOT COVID-19. It’s influenza and alpha coronaviruses. We know that SARS-CoV-2 behaves very differently and is transmitted far differently than those viruses. Additionally, some other studies that have actually looked at COVID-19 cases, show high viral shedding in individuals. If this doesn’t make you mad that she was so deceptive, then you’re clearly coming to this with motivated reasoning and not being truthful.

In sum, this is one of the most irresponsible and ignorant pieces of scientific reporting that I’ve ever seen. It’s pandering to her base, and just trying to stir people up to get them to come back tomorrow night. What is especially sickening is that the cost could be people’s lives.

Ingraham calls Ronald Reagan one of her heroes and influences. I’m certain he wouldn’t have condoned this kind of behavior.

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