Manipulating Scientific Conclusions

There’s an old saying that statistics don’t lie, but you can lie with statistics. The same can be said about scientific research. If you have predetermined conclusions, you can manipulate the study results to confirm those conclusions.

A perfect example of this is a study done recently by Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative. Jay Bhattacharya and Tom Nicholson explain in an article published recently in The Wall Street Journal. They say the study was conducted in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Researchers examined the effect of a “test to stay” approach to schoolchildren identified as “close contacts” of Covid-positive people.

Test-to-stay excuses these children from quarantining if they test negative for the virus. The study’s primary conclusion was that test-to-stay is a good way to move away from lengthy quarantine. So far so good.

But the researchers also filled their report with rhetorical sleights of hand aimed at misleading readers into other, less well-founded conclusions that were mostly inevitable 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.” The assumption from that conclusion is that test-to-stay fails without universal masking. But since they studied no unmasked schools, this conclusion is baseless. The authors say “An honest report would either have said so or not mentioned masking at all.”

To make matters worse, Duke’s Press office amplified the unfounded conclusion in its January 4, 2022 summary of the study: “Children and staff who repeatedly test negative for Covid-19 after contact with someone who has the illness can safely remain in school if universal masking programs are in place.” (emphasis mine) This statement is not supported by the research design.

The media took this press release and added a further falsehood. Raleigh’s WRAL characterized the study as a defense of forced masking while pitching the study as documenting the danger of youth sports: “Athletics were the source of 50% of all Covid-19 school transmission found in the study.” This statement is demonstrably false.

It is true that the ABC researchers found a higher rate of transmission during sports. But that was entirely a product of how the researchers defined Covid “exposure.” Students were counted as exposed only if they were unmasked during the interaction with an infected person. In mask-mandatory schools, that happened only during lunch and sports. If a transmission occurred in a masked classroom, the definition didn’t count it as a close contact. And the study found only three sports-related positives out of 352 tests. When combined with the three lunch-related positives, the six total positives resulted in a mere 1.7% of maskless exposures ending up with a Covid-19 positive contact.

Dr. Bhattacharya says, “An honest summary of the study might have said: “There is a low transmission rate of the virus among students, even when unmasked at lunch or during sports.” But a summary like that wouldn’t have reinforced the politically acceptable message of public-health authorities today, and so unfounded points had to be fashioned to fit the narrative.”

It is clear these researchers were looking to reinforce their predetermined conclusions and therefore they summarized their study results to be sure they fit. Apparently, this isn’t the first time for the same ABC collaborative. In July, they made a series of bold claims about the efficacy of masking children in schools based on a study that didn’t include an unmasked control group. This is clearly a faulty study design by people who are more interested in political persuasion than science. The authors of this article conclude: “Scientific communication should limit itself to the communication of science, rather than to the manipulation of human behavior.”

2 comments

  1. Another great article. Thanks. Dr. Bob

    Comment by David Godfrey on January 31, 2022 at 8:48 am

  2. Thanks for your encouragement. We all must be diligent in scrutinizing “scientific conclusions.”

    Comment by Robert Roberts on February 2, 2022 at 9:36 am