‘Follow science’, we keep hearing, but sometimes scientists and the media present results in a misleading way. Consider a new study from Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative, conducted in collaboration with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Researchers examined the effect of a “test to stay” approach to school children identified as “close contacts” by Covid-positive people. Test to stay excuses these children from getting quarantined if they test negative for the virus. The primary conclusion of the study was that testing to stay is a good way to get away from prolonged quarantine.
It is reasonable and useful. But the researchers spiced up their report with rhetorical twists aimed at misleading readers into other, less well-founded conclusions that were mostly unavoidable products of their own study design. One of their primary conclusions is that “in schools with universal masking, test-to-stay is an effective strategy.” It encourages readers to assume that test-to-stay does not work without forced masking. But since they did not study any unmasked schools, this conclusion is unfounded. An honest report would have either said that or not mentioned masking at all.
Duke’s Press office reinforced the unfounded conclusion in its January 4 study summary: “Children and staff who repeatedly test negative for COVID-19 after contact with a person with the disease can safely remain in school if universal masking programs is in place. ”The media took this press release and added an additional layer of falsehood.Raleighs WRAL characterized the investigation as a defense of forced masking, while the study presented to document the dangers of youth sports: “Athletics was the source of 50% of all COVID-19 school transmission found in the study.”
True, ABC researchers found a higher transmission rate during sports. But it was solely a product of how scientists defined Covid “exposure.” Students were only considered exposed if they were exposed during the interaction with an infected person. In mask-required schools, it only happened during lunch and sports. If a transmission took place in a masked classroom, the definition did not count it as a close contact. And the study found only three sports-related positive out of 352 tests. Combined with the three lunch-related positives, the six total positives resulted in only 1.7% of the maskless exposures ending in a Covid-19 positive contact.
An honest summary of the study could have said, “There is a low transmission rate of the virus among students, even when detected for lunch or during sports.” But a summary like that would not have reinforced the politically acceptable message from the public health authorities today, and therefore unfounded points had to be designed to fit the narrative.
This is not the first for the ABC collaboration and the Duke Press Office. In July, they made a series of bold claims about the effectiveness of masking children in schools based on a study that did not include an unmasked control group. Scientific communication should be limited to the communication of science rather than to the manipulation of human behavior.
Mr. Bhattacharya is a professor of medicine at Stanford and a research assistant at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Mr. Nicholson is director of Advance Access and Delivery, a global health nonprofit organization and former researcher at Duke.
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Published in print on January 12, 2022.