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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.

Confirmation Bias Masks Truth OR Confirmation Bias, Masks, Truth

30 Jun

Confirmation bias – the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. (Source: Britannica)

It shouldn’t matter what your political affiliation is when it comes to face masks. This is not about if we should go into lock down or not. It’s not about freedom (because there are lots of things we can’t do in a free country). This is simply about 1 question. Will wearing a face mask mitigate transmission of a dangerous disease that is killing a tremendous number of people?

If you’re not following the primary sources of information, like journals or medical news sites like STAT News, you might think that there’s divided science on this. But that’s simply not accurate. I have a running page on studies that have looked specifically at face mask use and COVID-19 that I’m keeping updated as new papers come out. As I note there, overwhelmingly these studies show how masks can help.

Some key reasons why people think the science is divided are simply because of the news sources they watch, the echo chamber they live in and confirmation bias. A person can avoid this by following non-biased news, really listening to and reading (not just passing over) the other side, and avoiding confirmation bias (which also just contributes to that misinformed echo chamber).

For example, the WHO changed their position on masks on June 5, and now advocate for usage of face masks by the general public. Yet, people still ignorantly write that the WHO opposes face masks on their social media posts. (I saw two today, June 30.) This clearly shows how people share things due to confirmation bias, and that they don’t even bother to look up facts. And it’s not just this. People continue to share old clips about Fauci, bogus posts about OSHA, old news articles, etc. All of these contain out of date or false information, yet it fits their bias, so without any research, they share it, and shout, “SEE!”

I want to illustrate a perfect example of this going on right now. I’ve seen this post shared recently many times by people who argue against masks. Masks Don’t Work: A Review of Science Relevant to COVID-19 Social Policy by Denis G. Rancourt.

I would bet that not a single person who I saw that shared it bothered to read even one of the studies (beyond perhaps looking at the abstract). Because I did, and what I found did not even remotely support Rancourt’s argument. In fact, one of the studies essentially says the opposite! So I encourage you to check them out, but if you’re interested in a quick overview, here’s what I found.

Rancourt’s claims are that “masks don’t work” and several studies “anchor” the “extensive scientific literature that establishes that wearing surgical masks and respirators (e.g., “N95”) does not reduce the risk of contracting a verified illness” all in the context of COVID-19 social policy.

So, is he right and are these studies relevant to COVID-19?

Jacobs, J. L. et al. (2009) “Use of surgical face masks to reduce the incidence of the common cold among health care workers in Japan: A randomized controlled trial”
Rancourt’s comment on this paper is, “N95-masked health-care workers (HCW) were significantly more likely to experience headaches. Face mask use in HCW was not demonstrated to provide benefit in terms of cold symptoms or getting colds.”
My review: The study only has an “n” of 24, so that’s not very convincing, a fact acknowledged by the authors if someone reads the paper and not just the abstract. And yes, the mask group experienced more headaches (29% v. 9%), but come on, if you wear an N95 tightly for 12 hours, I’m not surprised some people might have a headache from a mask compressed against their face and bands around their head. But this is nothing like being asked to wear a surgical mask when you go in the grocery story. But more importantly, this study doesn’t even measure the more relevant metric for COVID-19, namely if viral transmission can be reduced FROM someone wearing a mask. Rather, it only measures if viral transmission was reduced TO someone. That’s not the main reason the public is being asked to wear masks. Also, this study, unlike so many of the recent studies, doesn’t have info on COVID-19, because it wasn’t around then. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is different. So, how is this study even really relevant to the crisis today?

Cowling, B. et al. (2010) “Face masks to prevent transmission of influenza virus: A systematic review.”
Rancourt writes on this review, “None of the studies reviewed showed a benefit from wearing a mask, in either HCW or community members in households (H). See summary Tables 1 and 2 therein.”
My review: First off, this study is looking at influenza, a completely different virus, with a vastly different R0, so note that again, we’re not really comparing apples to apples here. But his statement is not really consistent with the content of the paper. While the authors state there’s not a lot of data to support the prevention of a person being infected, they do acknowledge there is a little, and indicate that the current body of information isn’t really conclusive. Hardly “none show a benefit”. And remember, that’s the transfer TO part only there. Importantly, these authors also looked at the transfer FROM aspect and they noted that there IS some evidence to “support the wearing of masks or respirators during illness to protect others”. This is clearly in favor of the “yes, wear a mask” position and goes against his view. Rancourt left that reference out. It’s like he’s counting on people not looking these up.

bin-Reza et al. (2012) “The use of masks and respirators to prevent transmission of influenza: a systematic review of the scientific evidence.”
Rancourt only offers a quote from the paper, “There were 17 eligible studies. … None of the studies established a conclusive relationship between mask/respirator use and protection against influenza infection.”
My review: Like the study above, this one primarily looked at influenza, different R0, different transmission mode significance. Yes, there were 17 studies about influenza looked at, and there was not conclusive benefits found with that virus. Still, the authors did note they found, “evidence of reduced rates of influenza-like illness if household contacts consistently wore the mask or respirator.” So, wearing a mask properly may help protect someone from getting influenza in certain circumstances. (But again remember this is only the TO part of the equation.) However, the most important thing to report about this study, BY FAR, is that the researchers here also looked at SARS-CoV-1 (a virus much more similar to SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19). They specifically state, “SARS is an unusual acute viral respiratory infection with a very different epidemiology to almost all other respiratory viral infections. It is fundamentally different from human influenza.”  Rancourt conveniently leaves that part out. Furthermore, in the paper the authors note that 8 of the 9 studies they looked at on SARS, “found that mask and ⁄or respirator use was independently associated with a reduced risk of severe acute respiratory syndrome.” In other words, masks worked for SARS! The fact that Rancourt left this out is ridiculous and shows that he is selectively mining quotes to meet an agenda. This is not science. It’s politics! 

Smith, J.D. et al. (2016) “Effectiveness of N95 respirators versus surgical masks in protecting health care workers from acute respiratory infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”
Rancourt only offers a quote from this paper, “We identified six clinical studies … . In the meta-analysis of the clinical studies, we found no significant difference between N95 respirators and surgical masks in associated risk of (a) laboratory-confirmed respiratory infection, (b) influenza-like illness, or (c) reported work-place absenteeism.”.
My review: How is this helping his case? This study doesn’t even look at infection rate baseline. It’s just a comparison of one type of mask to another that showed that there wasn’t much difference. It was a waste of time to read this paper in the context of facemask use and the general public for COVID-19 mitigation. Why did he even include it? Perhaps because he’s counting on your confirmation bias.

It sure is ironic that the people calling others sheep are actually the ones that are following their media source like sheep, without bothering to look up the facts.