This article was originally published by RealClearScience on September 23, 2023. It is republished here with permission.
A recent CNN interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci made crystal clear that the “experts” who want Americans to mask up again for a new variant of COVID-19 don’t pay any attention to the evidence that masking didn’t work the first time around.
CNN reporter Michael Smerconish asked Fauci about the 2023 Cochrane review that assembled the evidence that masks didn’t stop COVID-19 spread. The Cochrane review—Cochrane reviews are the gold standard for assessing the effectiveness of health interventions—put its results in understated language: “The pooled results of RCTs [randomized controlled trials] did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the use of medical/surgical masks.”
Fauci’s reply was that, “There’s no doubt that masks work. … there are other studies.” But this answer makes no sense, and his confidence is unwarranted. Dr. Tom Jefferson, the lead author of the 2023 Cochrane review, explained why:
Fauci is saying that masks work for individuals but not at a population level? That simply doesn’t make sense. … he says there are ‘other studies’…but what studies? He doesn’t name them … It might be that Fauci is relying on trash studies … Many of them are observational, some are cross-sectional, and some actually use modelling. That is not strong evidence. … Once we excluded such low-quality studies from the review, we concluded there was no evidence that masks reduced transmission. … There is just no evidence that they [masks] make any difference. Full stop.
The National Association of Scholars came to the same conclusion as the 2023 Cochrane review in its report The Confounded Errors of Public Health Policy Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Confounded Errors used a novel statistical technique, p-value plotting, to evaluate specific claims made about the benefit to public health outcomes of these responses. We found persuasive circumstantial evidence that lockdowns and masking had no proven benefit to public health outcomes. Our study also suggested that the entire system of epidemiological modeling and policy recommendations, which grossly overestimated the potential effects of COVID-19 and also overestimated the potential benefit of lockdowns and masking, suffers from endemic frailty because it depends on using bad statistics and arbitrary models.
It's not just that the COVID-19 health policies the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended, and many states and localities therefore required, were ineffective. It’s not just that the next COVID-19 recommendations they make are just as likely to do no good. It isn’t even just that Americans suffered catastrophic losses to their liberty and their prosperity for fruitless policies. It’s that the entire way we conduct public health policy is just about guaranteed to produce health policies that are useless at best and counterproductive at worst.
Americans must hold their experts accountable. They must systematically reform the government’s use of epidemiology and mathematical modeling in public health policy.
NAS in its Confounded Errors report made a series of recommendations to the CDC about how to fix its work. At the technical level, the CDC should:
- Require pre-registration of mathematical modeling studies.
- Require mathematical modeling transparency and reproducibility.
- Formulate guidelines that make explicit that modeling should tell policymakers how much the experts don’t know, so that policymakers know they can and should make decisions themselves.
Confounded Errors also made recommendations directly to policymakers and the public, because CDC policy should not be formulated only by epidemiologists and public health professionals. CDC policies during the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly and unnecessarily harmed American prosperity and, above all, liberty. American citizens and their representatives should determine guidelines for CDC policy to ensure that public health policy does not abrogate our freedom again. Confounded Errors recommends that:
- Congress and the president should convene a commission to mark out areas of private life which cannot be subject to public health interventions.
- This commission’s rules should explicitly limit the scope of public health interventions to physical health, narrowly and carefully defined.
- Public health interventions should receive explicit sanction from both houses of Congress before they go into effect.
Confounded Errors more generally recommends that American policymakers formulate rules to reduce government experts’ arbitrary power to skew the rationales for public health interventions. Government experts now are free to keep choosing modes of analysis until they come up with a specious justification for a policy they like. Radical activists in federal bureaucracies therefore also are free to make policy, unrestrained by law, prudence, consideration of collateral damage, off-setting priorities, our elected representatives, or public opinion. We must reduce or eliminate these government experts’ arbitrary power to preserve our liberty and our republican self-government.
The failures of government COVID-19 policy, after all, also are the failures of every aspect of “scientifically-informed” government policy and regulation, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration to the follies of “diversity” policy based upon the scientific nullity of implicit bias theory.
All that is for the long run. Right now, we should put the brakes on the instinct to reimpose mask mandates and lockdowns. The public and policymakers should start asking now: Did any of this work last time around? The answer appears to be "no", so let's not let the so-called experts bounce us into policies that never worked and never will.
David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars and a co-author of The Confounded Errors of Public Health Policy Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.