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An Autopsy of COVID-Science

An Autopsy of COVID-Science

This morning, Google prompted me with this story:

“Oh interesting,” I thought. Maybe, in spite of the Danish mask study and Ivor Cummins’ research on anti-COVID measures generally, they found some new data suggesting mask-wearing actually does something to impede the spread of COVID-19. To date, I haven’t seen any compelling research which suggests this.

After clicking the link — which had been proffered to me — I was surprised to find that SCIENCE wasn’t claiming that consistent mask-wearing helps with COVID, but with mental health:

Since the emergence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), universal masking has been implemented in many countries.

Wearing face masks or coverings can help reduce the risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, as they prevent infectious respiratory droplets’ entry. At the same time, it prevents droplets from reaching people when the infected sneeze, cough, talk, or breathe.

A team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh, UK, found that wearing face-covering promotes mental health. Those who wore face coverings or masks most of the time had better mental health and well-being than those who did not.

Incredulous, I decided to investigate.

The study that this journalist was linking was titled “Face covering adherence is positively associated with better mental health and wellbeing: a longitudinal analysis of CovidLife surveys.” This study was so unthinkably stupid that I think it is worthwhile to go through its main points in detail.

Let’s begin with the abstract:

Face masks or coverings are effective at reducing airborne infection rates, yet pandemic mitigation measures, including wearing face coverings, have been suggested to contribute to reductions in quality of life and poorer mental health. Longitudinal analyses of more than 11,000 participants across the UK found no association between lower adherence to face covering guidelines and poorer mental health. The opposite appears to be true. Even after controlling for behavioral, social, and psychological confounds, including measures of pre-pandemic mental health, individuals who wore face coverings “most of the time” or “always” had better mental health and wellbeing than those who did not. These results suggest that wearing face coverings more often will not negatively impact mental health.

Let’s put aside the presumption that masks actually do effectively reduce the spread (they say in their introduction that this requires high participation rate, which is understandably unlikely amongst a general population that has been so persistently lied-to by “experts” like Dr. Fauci. Call it a cost of short-term expediency). The claim is that unlike social distancing (which they acknowledge is damaging to personal well-being), mask-wearing seems to have no impact on psychological health. In fact, there seems to be a positive correlation between wearing a face-covering and well-being.

Notice that they say that this study controls for pre-pandemic mental health.

Data Collection and Study Sample

UK residents aged 18 years and over were eligible to take part in the CovidLife surveys2. Data were collected via the Qualtrics platform. Data collection for Survey 1 commenced on 17 April and closed to new responses on 7 June 2020. This period overlapped with the first period of UK-wide ‘lockdown’. Survey 2 data were collected 21 July to 17 August 2020. This corresponded period when the UK government made face coverings mandatory on public transport and in many shops. More than 18,000 individuals responded to Survey 1, and of those that shared their email contact address, more than 11,000 returned to participate in Survey 2.

What’s missing from this?

Any data related to pre-pandemic health.

In the questionnaires that subjects filled out, they were asked about their pre-pandemic mental wellness, but this kind of retrospective question-and-answer will color the way that people answer, relative to how they feel in the moment. For this reason, the study isn’t even really longitudinal; it looks at an apple (retrospective), then orange1 (present), then orange2.

That this is putting aside more general concerns about the scientific validity of self-reporting.

It also turns out that their one critical variable isn’t mask-wearing in the sense of people not wearing masks, and then having to. It’s compliance with the face-covering mandates:

In a response matrix, participants were asked about various government guidelines: “Have you been following the government guidance on” and a list followed. The particular prompt under study was “Wearing face coverings on public transport and in shops”. Participants could respond “Always” (coded 4, n = 10,180, 92%), “Most of the time” (coded 3, n = 592, 5%), “Some of the time”, (coded 2, n = 172, 2%), and “Never” (coded 1, n = 120, 1%).

Look at that distribution: 92%, 5%, 2%, and 1%.

What do you think the odds are that averages derived from those kinds proportions are going to be meaningful?

I’m no statistician, but I’d bet the answer’s a lot closer to 0% than 100%.

But I don’t want to get distracted by statistical questions that I’m probably not qualified to opine on. Maybe you can get meaningful inferences from 2% of a sample group. I don’t think it matters.

The critical point — the thing that gets to the heart of this whole study — is that their metric wasn’t fundamentally mask-wearing.

It was compliance.

Have you been following the government guidance on wearing face coverings on public transport and in shops?

The study was attempting to measure the mental health effects of compliance or non-compliance with a mandate which carries a risk of financial and legal repercussions for failing to obey. How could the stick on the other end of this behavior not have an important role in (a) who complies and (b) the effect it has on the non-compliant?

Of course someone worried about retribution is going to experience different levels of well-being than someone who is on the right side of the law.

And — as my wife observed — a certain class of morally self-righteous types will report higher feelings of well-being for “doing the right thing,” in a way that has nothing to do with mask-wearing specifically.

I actually have an interest in the psychological effects of mask-wearing, because I have a pet-hypothesis that mask-wearing might produce an uncanny experience, where humans appear as slightly more “humanoid” and ambiguous, in terms of our ability to quickly distinguish them as friend or foe. This hypothesis could be total junk, but I am convinced it is worth testing.

To run such a test, I think we would need to take two samples from a single population and run them through otherwise ordinary life. One group voluntarily wears masks (perhaps they are told it is to test long-term breathing effects of wearing masks), and one does not. We might measure for biological signs of stress (e.g., cortisol) rather than self-reporting questionnaires. And all of this would be done in a context without threat of illness, the law, or social ostracism. Only that way could we isolate the psychological effects of the masks themselves, and not the variety of extra variables that pollute the integrity of studies like this one.

But, of course, this is not what Altschul et all have done. Their study measures the effects of compliance vs non-compliance, not face covering vs non face covering. It may indicate that any negative psychological effects of face-coverings are less than those of other anti-COVID measures (such as lockdowns and quarantine), but that’s kind of obvious, and even presumed in the way this study was set up. Their sample just went from being locked down (survey 1 – April & June) to being relatively more free, but in masks (survey 2 – July & August).

Given the direction of freedom being experienced, what are the odds that mask-wearing wouldn’t feel fine by comparison?

I’d guess probably about 100%.

And that doesn’t tell us anything about what masks, by themselves, do to our mental health.

I think all of this is to say that people who tell us to “trust the science” regarding COVID-19 measures don’t understand science at all. They probably haven’t even read Karl Popper, let alone Thomas Kuhn. They mistakenly believe that science is a collection of facts, rather than a process — one which involves intense criticism. Criticizing scientific opinion is not just not opposed to science — it is at the heart of the scientific method.

All of this seems to indicate two things: First, the “science” behind anti-COVID measures seems to be mostly garbage (remember, this article was pushed to me by Google; I’m just taking what they throw at me). And second: those who say we should “trust the science,” who try to deride skeptics as “anti-science,” and who claim to speak on behalf of science, are — like their censorious counterparts — almost invariably the least scientifically literate.

PC authoritarians have a very low verbal-cognitive ability. And that’s a correlation — an effect size of 0.4. That’s quite high.

Christine Brophy

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