by John Ellis
Depending on which media sites you consume, the recently published Danish mask study is either confirmation that mandatory mask laws are pointless, or it is reflective of epistemological gaps in publishing protocols, even in prestigious science journals. While only recently published, the study has been making noise for months now. At least, it’s created chatter among many of the epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists, and other medical and infectious disease experts I follow on Twitter. Those who had been privy to preliminary drafts began ringing the warning bell of severe methodological problems immediately upon the first whisperings of a study that was purportedly going to create a sea change around the understanding of the efficacy of face masks at preventing the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Sure enough, after the study was published, antimaskers immediately began crowing. And, like the experts warned, even a non-scientist like me could sail Titanic-sized refutations through the highly problematic methodological gaps. Unfortunately, in discussions with those who downplay the pandemic and who doubt the efficacy of masks (for a variety of self-serving reasons), those refutations, like their namesake I deliberately chose, quickly hit the iceberg of confirmation bias and sink. Tragically, like the real Titanic, preventable deaths are the result.
The Danish mask study is inundated with methodological errors (which you can read about by clicking here – please, pretty please read it) that most non-scientists can be excused for not recognizing; I sure didn’t. However, I believe that it is beyond the pale that so many are so willing to overlook the study’s heavy reliance on self-reporting. In short, and resorting to somewhat snarky, colloquial language, the researchers handed out masks, gave instructions, left the subjects to their own devices, and then later asked for a report. “Did you wear a mask, oh paragon of honesty and virtue that we know you to be?”
Of course, human nature being what it is, which is why self-reporting is generally frowned upon within the world of scientific research, a large cohort of those who ended up with COVID swore they wore a mask. I’m sure some of them even promised to pinky-swear, although that’s not recorded in the study’s report. And I’d like to pause and take this opportunity to insist that I have never taken Buzzfeed’s “Which Friends Character Are You?” quiz in a way in which I know my answers manipulate the quiz to ensure I get Joey. More importantly to the point at hand, almost every single person I know who’s gotten COVID insist that they did what they were supposed to do, including wearing a mask. The dirty little secret is that I know for a fact (via my own eyes as well as the tattle-telling of others) that their commitment to wearing a mask when out and about was less than stellar to the point of being abysmal if you ask me. And, yes, friend who had COVID, I’m likely talking about you if you’re reading this.
Look, it should be obvious to anyone with a high school diploma that self-reporting is problematic, at the best. Down right deceitful, at the worst. In a study of masks, there are far too many variables and confounders that self-reporting and self-policing of adherence can’t account for. You don’t have to be a research scientist to understand that. How many people with their mask below their nose believe that they’re doing it right? Sadly, though, many college educated adults appear to have next to zero understanding of methodology and epistemology. How else to explain the embrace of an interpretation of the study that flies in the face of the growing mass of other research, the general consensus of the experts, and common sense. It’s either that or they are willfully ignoring the truth in order to serve their own desires, and that gets called something else. What’s more, I suspect that the antimaskers didn’t even read the study (which, to be fair, does acknowledge flaws) that has as one its conclusions that masks are a necessary tool in slowing the spread of the virus. Masks work. Even that highly problematic study admits as much. But, as we all know, it won’t matter. Your next-door neighbor, cousin, and neuroradiologist all know better than the collective wisdom of the community of infectious disease experts begging all of us to wear a face mask.
This is going to be a long winter.
P.S. I’m begging to you click the link I included above. This entire article exists for the sole purpose of helping disseminate the article in that link to as many people as possible. Well, that and to blow off some steam.