By Paul D. Thacker

A silly preprint uploaded a few weeks back underlined how scientists and scicomm writers easily fall for “research” that tickles them in their political privates. With an authoritative title, “The Efficacy of Facemasks in the Prevention of COVID-19: A Systematic Review,” a preprint found that only 7% of mask wearers got COVID, while 52% of those without masks did.

The preprint, which had not been examined by outside experts, proved too delicious for those promoting masks, such as science writer Maggie Fox, and quickly took off on social media.

A week later, science writer Laurie Garrett stumbled across the preprint and gave it signal boost to her followers.

And then … reality.

After the preprint had been heavily circulated on social media, British Pediatrician Alasdair Munro knocked apart this house of cards noting that the manuscript failed to provide even a basic level of scientific credibility and may even have been a hoax. Some of the numbers referenced in the tables did not appear in the text, and one of the studies that was supposedly about mask use and COVID-19 was published back in 2004.

None of these are high level, expert errors. These are the fundamentals. Anyone who claims to understand systematic reviews on any level should immediately be able to see that it falls short of the most basic scientific standards.

Without naming anyone, Dr. Alasdair noted that the study was widely shared on Twitter by the following: 

  • An ex-director of the World Health Organisation (90,000 Twitter followers)
  • A professorial member of a U.K. based scientific political activist group (200,000 followers)
  • A Pulitzer prize winning science journalist (260,000 followers)
  • Health minister for a large western European country (1,000,000 followers).

Alasadair Munro concluded the obvious: either these people do not know how to appraise systematic reviews, or they shared the preprint without reading, because it flattered their ideological preconceptions.

Lab leak = Naughty narrative

After figuring out how to address the pandemic, the most important question is how the pandemic started. Once again, preprints have been critical for scicomm writers seeking evidence that direct the public’s gaze away from a possible lab leak in Wuhan, China.

As I previously pointed out, science writers at NatureScience Magazine, and the New York Times science desk hopped all over a preprint released last September that argued the virus most closely related to COVID-19 was found in Laos, far, far away from Wuhan, China

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