You know that face mask study that Tucker Carlson featured on his FOX News show? The one that was originally published as research letter in JAMA Pediatrics? Well, fuggedaboutit. JAMA Pediatrics has retracted the study.
If you were watching the July 1 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, you would have heard Carlson claim that this “study confirms that masking children wasn’t simply unnecessary and probably counterproductive. Masking children was legitimately dangerous for the children.” Did he say “dangerous?” Again these are masks on the faces of children and not possums or poop. It’s not as if children have never worn masks over their faces before the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. There is this thing called Halloween, for example. Carlson, by the way, has about as many medical degrees as your average alpaca: zero.
Meanwhile, that same day Alex Berenson, who is doesn’t appear to be either a medical doctor or an alpaca, tweeted the following:
Did he call a face mask a face diaper? There are big differences between the two. For example, face masks should be doody free. Diapers may even have double doody. Face masks should be pee free as well, unless you are doing something really wrong with your face mask. Or your face, for that matter.
Regardless, what got Carlson and Berenson so excited about the study? It supposedly “measured” the carbon dioxide content of air inhaled by 20 girls and 25 boys when they were wearing face masks versus when they were mask-free. They were all within the six to 17 year age range.
The authors claimed that those wearing face masks were inhaling carbon dioxide levels “deemed unacceptable by the German Federal Environmental Office by a factor of 6.” They wrote that these levels were “reached after 3 minutes of measurement.” The authors concluded that their results “suggest that children should not be forced to wear face masks.”
Wow, that sounds striking. Why then aren’t surgeons passing out after they wear surgical masks for several hours? Or what about Halloween? Will kids in ghost costumes or any other outfits that cover their noses and mouths be saying “trick or air, I need air?”
Here’s the thing though. When you say you measured something in a scientific paper, you need to be prepared to describe how exactly you did so and provide evidence that you actually did what you say you did. You can’t just say, “take my word for it.” Scientific papers aren’t like dating sites where you can say whatever you’d like. If you say that you “don’t like drama” in a scientific paper, be prepared for someone to challenge that assertion.
Apparently, folks in the medical and scientific communities questioned this research letter, which incidentally isn’t the same as a full scientific paper. And when the JAMA Pediatrics editors asked the authors to respond to these questions, it seems like the authors weren’t able to offer adequate answers.
In an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics, an Editor (Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH) and the Interim Editor in Chief (Phil B. Fontanarosa, MD, MBA) explained why they chose to retract the research letter. They mentioned numerous scientific issues regarding the study methodology, “including concerns about the applicability of the device used for assessment of carbon dioxide levels in this study setting, and whether the measurements obtained accurately represented carbon dioxide content in inhaled air, as well as issues related to the validity of the study conclusions.” They also emphasized that the authors were not able to “provide sufficiently convincing evidence to resolve these issues.”
A closer look at the research letter reveals some “huh” statements too. For example, the research letter began by saying, “Many governments have made nose and mouth covering or face masks compulsory for schoolchildren. The evidence base for this is weak.” Yet, they didn’t provide much evidence to support this statement. This is not the case. Studies have shown that face masks can help block respiratory droplets and that face mask use has been associated with lower Covid-19 coronavirus infection rates. The authors also describe their own study as “well-controlled,” which is sort of like describing yourself as awesome, sexy, or talented to your date. Instead, you have to offer the details of the study to the readers so that they can conclude whether the study is indeed “well-controlled.”
All of this is a reminder that the results from one study alone are never enough to draw strong conclusions. A scientific study needs to be replicable. In others, other scientists should be able to repeat the study in different ways and garner similar results. That’s why it’s important to have multiple researchers looking at the same scientific question. Each study can then add to the evidence that, in turn, guides what to do.
Will Carlson now use one of his shows to tell his audience that the JAMA Pediatrics study that he touted has now been retracted? Will he then explain the concerns about the study? Will Berenson do the same with his tweets? Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen. After all, holding your breath for too long may actually increase the carbon dioxide in your bloodstream.