October 28, 2020 Reading Time: 2 minutes

On October 23, Nature Magazine published a study that claimed a national mask mandate would save 130,000 lives. It read in part:

We find that achieving universal mask use (95% mask use in public) could be sufficient to ameliorate the worst effects of epidemic resurgences in many states. Universal mask use could save an additional 129,574 (85,284–170,867) lives from September 22, 2020 through the end of February 2021, or an additional 95,814 (60,731–133,077) lives assuming a lesser adoption of mask wearing (85%), when compared to the reference scenario.

The study led to more than 100 headlines around the world, and a statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci in favor of a national masking. It immediately became political, with the Democratic presidential candidate once again leaning in favor of having the police enforce a face covering for all American citizens. 

Then AIER’s Phil Magness had a look at the study. Incredibly, he found a simple statistical error at the heart of the paper, one that affects its entire set of claims and its conclusion. Magness wrote as follows at AIER:

The IHME group recently published a new paper in the top science journal Nature where they claim that “the national [US] average for self-reported mask wearing was 49% as of 21 September 2020.” The citation for this figure however goes to the IHME’s own website, where they list a much higher 68% mask compliance rate for September 21st. By all appearances, the IHME paper’s conclusion is based on a simple typographical error that led them to severely understate the level of mask use in the United States.

Magness cites data and surveys showing that even that figure is too low. A long-running survey of mask use trends by the pollster YouGov, for example, suggests about 75 to 80% of Americans regularly wear masks in public – a pattern that has persisted since July. Regardless, the IHME’s 49% figure is either a typo or a case of astonishingly poor peer review practices at a top scientific journal.

As a result, Retraction Watch was alerted and wrote an editorial: “You might say that a bad stat traveled halfway around the world before the truth got its mask on.”

Here is one case in hundreds over this year, when hastily reviewed papers with simple errors drive media frenzies that feed directly into political outcomes, paradigmatic cases in which the appearance of science overrides the real thing in ways that injure the rights and liberties of people. 

Here is the Magness letter to the journal:

Magness-Nature-Medicine-letter

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