The Science

MIT Researchers Find That ‘Skeptics’ Value Data Literacy and Scientific Rigour

Throughout the pandemic, governments have claimed to be following “the science”. But of course, many aspects of “the science” were never settled. 

The WHO, as well as the UK Government, initially told us not to wear face masks. They then decided that face masks were essential. Countries like Australia and New Zealand introduced border controls in early February. Meanwhile, UK scientists were advising against port-of-entry screening. Researchers predicted there would be 96,000 deaths in Sweden by July. But as it turned out, there were less than 6,000. 

Of course, many people have been sceptical of “the science” (by which I mean the officially endorsed science) from the very beginning. And of course, they’ve formed communities online with other like-minded persons. (I suppose Lockdown Sceptics would be one example of such a community.) 

In an unpublished paper, researchers from MIT sought to understand how the users of these communities obtain, analyse, share and curate information. Surprisingly (to them), they found that users place a premium on data literacy and scientific rigour. 

The study used a mixed methods design. First, they analysed a large sample of pandemic-related tweets sent between January and July 2020. Second, they employed ethnographic methods to study users on “anti-mask” Facebook groups. (Note that the researchers use “anti-mask” as a “synecdoche for a broad spectrum of beliefs: that the pandemic is exaggerated, schools should be reopening, etc.”)

In their analysis of Twitter data, the researchers found that sceptics “share the second-highest number of charts across the top six communities”, and that they are “the most prolific producers of area/line charts”, while sharing “the fewest number of photos”. They also found that such individuals “often create polished counter-visualizations that would not be out of place in scientific papers”.  

In their study of “anti-mask” Facebook groups, the researchers found that users “value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over “expert” interpretations”, and that “their approach to the pandemic is grounded in more scientific rigor, not less.” 

“Most fundamentally,” the researchers write, “the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution.” They note:

While academic science is traditionally a system for producing knowledge within a laboratory, validating it through peer review, and sharing results within subsidiary communities, anti-maskers reject this hierarchical social model. They espouse a vision of science that is radically egalitarian and individualist.

According to the researchers, “anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries,” and data literacy is “a quintessential criterion for membership within the community they have created.”

Based on these descriptions, one might assume the paper was written by a cadre of undercover sceptics. But the researchers make clear they are “not promoting these views”. Overall, it’s a fascinating study which is worth reading in full

New Article by ex-New York Times Science Writer Claims Lab Leak Theory Is More Plausible Than Natural Origin Theory

The former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade is no stranger to controversy. Now he has written a long essay arguing that the “lab leak” hypothesis is more plausible than the “natural origin” theory.

As readers may be aware, there are two main theories for SARS-CoV-2’s origin. One maintains that the virus originated in bats, and then jumped to humans, most likely via an unknown intermediate host species. The other states that the virus originated in a lab, but then accidentally escaped, perhaps due to inadequate safety protocols.

At the start of the pandemic, the lab leak hypothesis was dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by many scientists and much of the mainstream press. Since then, however, more and more evidence has emerged that casts doubt on the alternative, natural origin theory.

Back in January, New York Magazine ran a long essay by the journalist Nicholas Baker, which tentatively argued the lab leak theory could be right. Then in March, Undark ran a piece by the science writer Charles Schmidt, stressing that the virus’s origin is very much an open question. At the end of March, The Telegraph ran a similar article by the author Matt Ridley and the biologist Alina Chan. (Indeed, Ridley is writing a book on the pandemic’s origin called Viral, due to be published later this year.)

In his new essay, Wade adopts a more forceful tone. Though he acknowledges “there is no direct evidence for either theory”, he maintains that the lab leak theory provides a far better explanation of the available facts. As Wade notes:

It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses.

By contrast, there are several pieces of evidence that the natural origin theory has great difficulty explaining:

No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats. No intermediate host has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals. There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did. There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved. There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else. There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other beta-coronavirus possesses, nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons. 

Though some scientists claim we may never pinpoint the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2, the debate will no doubt continue over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, Wade’s essay is worth reading in full.

Government Evidence on Masks is Weak and a Mess

Matthew Sweet has written in UnHerd about the importance of following footnotes in studies to find out if the references actually say what the studies claim they say and genuinely back up the argument being made. He suggests this indicates whether or not the study should be considered reliable.

One of his examples is the mask study by Dr Baruch Vainshelboim, now retracted, that I wrote about yesterday. He says a number of the footnotes are misrepresented (this criticism was part of the retraction notice).

If Dr Vainshelboim did misrepresent the papers he cites he would not be the first. As noted yesterday, a recent peer-reviewed study in PNAS claimed surgical masks filter out 95-99% of aerosol droplets. Yet the two papers it cites to back up this claim say nothing of the sort. One concludes: “None of these surgical masks exhibited adequate filter performance and facial fit characteristics to be considered respiratory protection devices.” This is not to defend Dr Vainshelboim’s misrepresentation of course, but to highlight the double standards applied to those who challenge political orthodoxies.

Today I thought I would follow Matthew Sweet’s advice for the Government’s own evidence. We learned yesterday that face masks may continue after June 21st, with no indication of when the mandate may be lifted or what conditions may trigger it. What scientific evidence is this seemingly permanent coercive public health measure based on? After all, the real world evidence for masks preventing outbreaks is feeble, to say the least, as Yinon Weiss has dramatically illustrated.

The Government has often been slow to publish evidence for its supposedly scientifically based interventions. But in January its scientific advisory group SAGE published a paper in which it set out its current evidence on masks. This included an important admission that masks give no real protection to the wearer, saying: “They may provide a small amount of protection to an uninfected wearer; however, this is not their primary intended purpose (medium confidence).” They say they are “predominantly a source control”.

Face coverings worn in public, community and workplace settings are predominantly a source control, designed to reduce the emission of virus carrying particles from the mouth and nose of an infected person. This may have measurable benefits in reducing population level transmission when worn widely, through reducing the potential for asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people spreading the virus without their knowledge. Analysis of regional level data in several countries suggest this impact is typically around 6-15% (Cowling and Leung, 2020, Public Health England 2021) but could be as high as 45% (Mitze et al., 2020).

This is the key paragraph in terms of providing evidence for the effectiveness of face masks, and on closer inspection it is a mess. It says: “Analysis of regional level data in several countries suggest this impact is typically around 6-15%.” Yet the 6-15% figure comes from the Cowling and Leung paper, which is not an analysis of regional level data but an editorial article drawing on a December 2020 review paper by Brainard et al. The Brainard paper reviews 33 studies including 12 randomised controlled trials (RCTs), but none of these is an analysis of regional level data.

The Mitze paper actually is an analysis of regional level data, but only in Germany not in several countries. It was submitted in July 2020 and is based on data from the decline of the spring wave. As infections were falling then anyway it is very hard to distinguish the possible effect of masks from natural decline. In any case, the mask mandate in Germany did not prevent the winter surge, as the graph above depicts.

Journal Retracts Study Showing Masks Don’t Work Claiming Science “Clearly Shows” Masks Work, But Fails to Cite Any Evidence

The peer-reviewed study “Facemasks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis” by Dr Baruch Vainshelboim has been retracted by the journal Medical Hypotheses on the instruction of the Editor-in-Chief.

The study argues that neither medical nor non-medical facemasks are effective in blocking transmission of viral and infectious disease such as SARS-CoV-2, and that in the long run they are likely to damage individual health.

The retraction notice reads:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.

Medical Hypotheses serves as a forum for innovative and often disruptive ideas in medicine and related biomedical sciences. However, our strict editorial policy is that we do not publish misleading or inaccurate citations to advance any hypotheses.

The Editorial Committee concluded that the author’s hypothesis is misleading on the following basis:

1. A broader review of existing scientific evidence clearly shows that approved masks with correct certification, and worn in compliance with guidelines, are an effective prevention of COVID-19 transmission.

2. The manuscript misquotes and selectively cites published papers. References #16, 17, 25 and 26 are all misquoted.

3. Table 1. Physiological and Psychological Effects of Wearing Facemask and Their Potential Health Consequences, generated by the author. All data in the table is unverified, and there are several speculative statements.

4. The author submitted that he is currently affiliated to Stanford University, and VA Palo Alto Health Care System. However, both institutions have confirmed that Dr Vainshelboim ended his connection with them in 2016.

A subsequent internal investigation by the Editor-in-Chief and the Publisher have determined that this article was externally peer reviewed but not with our customary standards of rigour prior to publication. The journal has re-designed its editorial and review workflow to ensure that this will not happen again in future.

If there are errors in the paper, the question is why these were not picked up and addressed with the author prior to publication in the usual manner. If some were missed and subsequently came to light, the journal could have asked for revisions to the paper to address the criticisms. That it chose to retract it completely suggests the move is political (though the allegations of dishonesty in affiliations may have played a part). There is no indication in the notice of any correspondence with the author in the matter.

The strangest criticism is the first: “A broader review of existing scientific evidence clearly shows that approved masks with correct certification, and worn in compliance with guidelines, are an effective prevention of COVID-19 transmission.” This is just a restatement, without references, of mask orthodoxy. Given that Dr Vainshelboim had provided a wide range of references in his review of the evidence, a rebuttal should surely have come in the form of a similar rigorous academic exercise, marshalling further evidence, not a bald 28-word sentence about what the evidence “clearly shows”. This is not the way robust academic research happens or science advances. The editors could have published a response, or another study drawing on further evidence that comes to a different conclusion. That they instead retract the article on account of criticisms from unnamed correspondents, drawing on unspecified evidence, is a disgraceful way to treat peer-reviewed scientific research and the scientists who produce it.

What exactly is this uncited evidence that “clearly shows” masks reduce transmission? Certainly not the only randomised controlled trial, Danmask-19, which found no significant protection for the wearers of surgical masks. And certainly not the real-world evidence comparing countries or states with mask mandates to those without.

Seven Peer-Reviewed Studies That Agree: Lockdowns Do Not Suppress the Coronavirus

Many people still struggle to accept the idea that lockdowns don’t have any appreciable impact on Covid cases and deaths. After all, it’s obvious, isn’t it, that keeping people apart will stop the virus spreading?

Tom Harwood, formerly of Guido Fawkes now of GB News, tweeted a typically incredulous response to the idea: “Cannot understand how some can claim ‘lockdowns don’t work’ with a straight face. As if stopping people from mixing wouldn’t hit transmission? Sure argue the cost is too high, imposition on liberty too extreme, just don’t invent a fairytale denying the basics of germ theory.”

Even some die-hard lockdown sceptics will say that lockdowns work, in the sense of suppressing transmission for a time, but they just delay the inevitable so are pointlessly costly.

The models churned out by university academics and relied on by the Government to set policy all assume lockdown restrictions work, and even claim to quantify how much impact each intervention makes.

But what does the data say? What do the studies show that actually look at the evidence rather than just making a priori assumptions about how things “must surely” be?

There have been at least seven peer-reviewed studies which look at the question of lockdowns from a data point of view, and all of them come to the same basic conclusion: lockdowns do not have a statistically significant relationship with Covid cases or deaths. Here is a list of them with a key quote for ease of reference.

Many of these studies attribute a large part of the drop in infections and deaths to the voluntary measures introduced prior to the legally-enforced restrictions. However, this is typically introduced as an assumption with no robust evidence provided in support of it, and with no consideration of the other possible reasons that infections might have fallen, such as seasonality or growing population immunity. On the rare occasion that rigorous analysis is applied to this question as well, as with Savaris et al in their article in Nature looking at whether people staying at home (measured using mobility data) is associated with Covid deaths, the finding is similarly negative. Voluntary measures make little difference either.

This may seem to defy “the basics of germ theory”, as Mr Harwood put it. But it doesn’t, it just means we need to understand better how the virus is getting round.

Liberal Britain is the Most Serious Casualty of the Pandemic

Fraser Nelson has been a somewhat fickle friend of sceptics. Broadly sceptical until the autumn, the Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist backed the third lockdown and the Spectator‘s output has been noticeably more pro-lockdown since, though with some welcome exceptions (such as Rod Liddle, who travelled the other way, and Lionel Shriver. And of course, Toby).

His column in today’s Telegraph, though, is a cracker, and more reminiscent of the Nelson of old.

Boris Johnson, he writes, is a man with regrets. He has “started to tell friends that he was let down by his own liberal instincts. That he hoped for too long that Britain could, like Sweden, fight the virus through consent rather than diktat – getting through this without abolishing basic freedoms. His fear at the time was irreversibility. If sacred principles were jettisoned in an emergency, would they ever be restored? Might he end up unleashing something he’d struggle to control?”

Fraser notes that Covid levels are now so low in Britain that the Prime Minister could have declared the emergency over already. Instead, we have the renewal of the Government’s emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act for another six months.

It’s no good looking to Labour for opposition. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is more keen on the new restrictions than the Tories (though it was good to see a few Labour MPs defying the party whip and voting against the extension yesterday, alongside the Lib Dems).

The Government won the vote easily. But in biosecurity Britain, who’s really in charge? Increasingly it seems the scientists, and then only those willing to parrot the Official Narrative. Even ones we thought were discredited, like Neil Ferguson, seem to retain their place at the table. Fraser writes:

Big announcements continue to come via people like Prof Neil Ferguson, who still seems to have a Rasputin-like hold over the Government. Earlier this week, he said he thought it may be unwise to book any foreign holidays this summer. This is big news, because what he thinks today tends to become Matt Hancock’s policy tomorrow. “We’re run by scientist groupthink,” says one minister. “But that won’t change until the polls change.”

Ah, the polls. Scourge of the sceptics’ cause, the rock on which all our carefully crafted arguments founder. Boris Johnson this week was heard speaking in disturbingly demagogical terms about public sentiment on lockdowns, as though people are doing anything other than reflecting back the fear instilled into them by a year of unremitting pro-lockdown propaganda orchestrated by the Government. He told MPs:

My impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this. Human beings instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and nasty to them. They can see, collectively, that Covid is a threat. They want us, as their Government – and me as the Prime Minister – to take all the actions I can to protect them.

These are words that should haunt all who love liberty and who cling desperately to the belief that we still live in a liberal state whose laws safeguard our basic freedoms from Government overreach.

“As a Scientist, the Most Striking Moment was When Whitty and Vallance Stood in Front of a Graph They Knew To Be Wrong”

A senior research scientist for a pharmaceutical company (who wishes to remain anonymous) writes with his thoughts on where we are now.

1. Assumed solutions

As someone who has spent a career in drug R&D, the thing that led me to lockdown scepticism was the realisation that we had moved from evidence-based medicine to one of “assumed effectiveness”. This is where we are today. Lockdowns (and mask wearing) are assumed to work and all arguments as to the effectiveness start from this point. This means that the “evidence for” is constantly overplayed whilst any “evidence against” is dismissed or explained away. This is why the Swedish or Floridian approach needs to be better than lockdown, it is not simply good enough that it had similar outcomes for a lower price. From a medical intervention perspective this is simply lunacy; why would you give your patient a drug with more side effects than an equally effective one with fewer? 

The most striking moment to me as a scientist was when Whitty and Vallance stood in front of a graph they knew to be wrong in order to justify going into the second lockdown. This was the point they lost any shred of credibility.

The real tragedy is that as a result of assumed effectiveness of lockdowns, Government thinking has never moved on and we have learned nothing. What is there to learn when you already have the best solution to the problem?

2. A disease with no symptoms

The dictionary definition of a disease is: a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury. To have a disease is to be ill, yet the most striking feature of COVID-19 is that apparently one in three people can have this disease but be perfectly healthy or, to use the new vernacular, asymptomatic. Perhaps most of us also have an asymptomatic broken leg too?