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Today’s episode is a big one.
It’s about the debate over media coverage of covid three years after a fateful March of 2020.
When it felt like the whole world was shutting down, we are revisiting two of the most contentious debates in this space.
Number one, the lab leak hypothesis, which is the debate over the possibility that covid originated at a laboratory in China and not as the official story went at a wet Market Mohan.
And number two, the mask.
Eight, which touches on a seemingly.
Simple question, do masks work, which turns out to be very, very, very hard to answer.
So why these topics and why?
Now the answer is that news in these domains simply won’t stop breaking last month.
The department of energy revised its prior assessment and announced that the coronavirus likely did emerge from a laboratory.
The FBI shares that assessment for other agencies and the National Intelligence Council have come to the opposite conclusion that covid likely started with natural exposure to an infected animal at perhaps a wet market.
So if you’re doing the lab leak math at home, the lab League Theory itself is still an underdog trailing 522 among these government institutions.
None of, which, by the way, have reached their conclusions with a high degree of confidence.
The lab leak is interesting to me for two reasons.
First, it’s a pretty important question.
How did a pandemic that has killed millions and millions and millions of people actually start?
That’s a biggie, not just because we don’t have perfect information or just because we don’t have perfect information.
Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be curious about this.
Remember as a poli-sci major at Northwestern, I think I took four separate classes about why World Wars one started and he answered every single class was like, no one’s really sure but there’s a lot of interesting theories that have informed Medical Science will.
If we take the LaBrie Theory seriously.
As I think we should, it should make us deeply skeptical about many policies that are active in the world, like, funding gain-of-function, research, sort of viral engineering, that should it escaped.
The lab could cause precisely the global catastrophe that we saw or perhaps something even worse.
The second reason the Lad Leak theory is interesting to me is that this is really in many ways a story about the media.
How I we the Press choose what to cover and choose who to listen to how we choose which stories are considered information and which stories are considered Miss information or disinformation for many months especially in 2020 and early 2021, a lot of journalists smart journalists trying.
I think, in many times, in many cases do the right thing, kind of assumed that the lab leak was a racist conspiracy.
See in fact, I know many prominent journalists and our Outlet simply said, scientists don’t take this seriously.
Neither should you.
But now in 2023, I think if we’re being honest, and if we’re really interested in the truth, the idea that the lab leak was merely discredit addresses conspiracy theorizing, that itself was a kind of misinformation It was a story that kept readers and audiences from appreciating the actual uncertainty of this important question.
Here’s another story that deserves a reappraisal and that is the media’s treatment of masks.
I think it’s fair to say the media and the science Community have been all over the place.
On this one.
In March, twenty twenty thousand.
She famously told us, we didn’t have to wear masks.
And then months later, of course, wearing a mask was a marker.
Maybe the marker of how seriously you took covid.
And some scientists very quickly seem to revise their estimation of the essential effectiveness of masks.
But then a few weeks ago in February 2012, 23, a meta-analysis of masking research published by the esteemed Health Organization.
Cochran was widely reported in the media is proving that actually masks do nothing or close to nothing and masks, man.
Mask mandates, do not work period, end of story, but as you’re about to hear, even that review even that summary of The Evidence is Only misleading something like what what are you supposed to do about all this?
Like the lab leak is neither a fact nor a myth masks work except very often they don’t and asking people to wear masks can work except very often, it doesn’t work at all.
Try to keep all this in your head and it’s a mess.
It is a mess.
Journalist sometimes like to clean up a story, make for a simple headline.
I think we need to be better at reporting on uncertainty, especially especially when there is a political or ideological undertow.
It is pulling us to one side of that story when we see a mess, we have to call it a mess.
So don’t trust people who in their handling of complex questions with imperfect data, do this trick with a manufacturer, simplistic answers with perfect confidence.
Trust people who get in the weeds.
Trust people who see the mess for what it is.
People who change their mind when the evidence changes.
Today’s guests are Dan and Burr science writer and editor at the Atlantic who has chronicled the ups and downs of the media’s relationship to the lab leak.
And Jason Abdullah, a Yale Economist who is conducted some of the more famous Trials of masking and who is you’re about to?
Hear is actually not only objected to the Cochran meta-analysis.
The famous Cochrane review but is actually talk to a member of the Cochran team and just maybe convinced him that he’s right.
I’m Derrick Thompson.
This is plain English.
Welcome to the podcast.
Thanks for having me before we start a brief story.
I don’t know if you remember this but I think you edited the first article that I ever wrote as a professional journalist.
No, sorry you were asleep.
I was an intern.
I was interested in.
Writing an explainer about how the government knows.
How many miles we drive every year, is this explainer, that you have any memory of having edited, I mean, Derek, I edited or written hundreds, possibly thousands of explainer columns of no impression.
Wait, it’s a good topic.
Congratulations to us both on producing that story.
Does the story hold up.
I believe it does.
And you know what?
Yeah, kind of connects to what we’re going to talk about today because it’s fundamentally about the question of epistemology.
How do we know what?
We know whether it’s miles that Americans drive on roads or exactly where a novel coronavirus originated?
So I I’ve I’ve been interested in this question for a while and you I think have been one of the most careful journalistic voices on piecing through the evidence on both.
As of this question and being really clear about what level of certainty we should have about answering this question, but I want to start with 2020.
When did you first start following the lab leak Theory?
When do you remember hearing about it having any emotional reaction to it?
So I remember hearing about the Work that had been done at the Wuhan Institute of virology, before I heard about the idea of the lab leak hypothesis actually.
And and so I think as you know, most people would, when they hear that in 2020, they go.
Wait a second, hold on.
How, How likely is it that this kind of research would be happening in Wuhan China of all places and now we’ve got this pandemic unfolding.
So actually that You know, the the blatant coincidence hit me first before I was aware that there is kind of this Shadow discourse happening about How likely it was.
And I will say I was totally tuned out on the politics stuff like I wasn’t aware of Tom Cotton, wrote an op-ed about, you know, things, the Chinese bio-weapon.
All of that stuff got fold in for me and I think also we could talk about this for the media got folded into this sort of like Trump versus the science narrative about you know, the China flu and how Trump was blaming all of these failures of his own Administration on China.
So I kind of slipped very easily into that story of like this was the thing that was happening, right?
In terms of the politics of it and that was disconnected from any underlying scientific truth.
But I still wondered about that coincidence.
And I thought, hey, that’s really Ali odd.
And then I think I kind of you know didn’t dig too deeply into it until the Nicholson Baker story came out in New York Magazine and I remember feeling relief that someone had, you know, done that story and gone big on it and then of course, that set off a bunch of angry reactions and we went from there.
But that was the at very end of December 2020, if I remember correctly and how would you characterize the media’s reaction to the lab League theory in 2020 and early 2021 say just before the baker piece comes out in New York Magazine and to my recollection, really crystallizes this sense that despite the fact that in the mainstream media, there hasn’t been much talk about taking the loudly Theory.
This idea that actually, there’s been a kind of Shadow discourse happening, where people have been poking around asking, can we find Smoking Gun evidence?
That this came from the Wuhan from wiv.
Yeah, I mean, my recollection as a an editor, you know, editing stories about the pandemic said, was that it was just incorrect, we just knew it was incorrect.
It was you know there’s almost like copy, paste, macro, you could put into a story If This Were If This Were an issue you know, scientists say this is not Case and particularly what I think was missing there and I take responsibility for this as an editor editing, covid stories at the time was deep thought about the different shades of what lab leak Theory or hypothesis could mean.
So again this was kind of all lumped together into the most extreme version of it.
That was easy to dismiss that had been dismissed in prominent venue.
Use by Leading scientists.
So and that would be the kind of the Chinese bio-weapon theory of this.
So once that was all swirling together in your head and the politics of it, made it very easy for that to be, you know, one’s notion of what lab leak meant.
It just was like, you just knew that was just a false narrative, one of many false narratives that were swirling around at that time.
And so, it was just not something to cover the baker piece.
I mean, Really goes into much more nuanced about like what what kind of lab accident might have been in play?
What was the research that was going on?
And even just the history that was, I think if you hadn’t been paying attention, you didn’t have this in your head about, you know, the lab accidents in recent years or the moratorium on gain-of-function Research that have been put in place during the Obama Administration.
So, I just thought it was incredible that baked or brought all that.
At to the four told the story of these arguments about, you know, the dangers of doing this kind of Urology work and just forced everyone to look at this.
I mean, still, I would say it would be another five months or so.
Before really the mainstream media was looking closely.
But that, that was the first one where it just, at least for me, I was like, okay, I need to actually go beyond my initial thought of hey that’s a weird coincidence, too.
Start taking this very seriously.
I’m really glad you pointed out that the media’s reaction to the lab leak early on was a kind of mess of conflation.
There’s all these things that you have to sort of keep in the air, that Trump was explicitly anti-china in a way that many liberals found to be racist number one, number two, that many Republicans were getting over their skis.
Suggesting that covid-19 o weapon and that it would also was a bioweapon that emerged my lab.
So right there, you have the conflation Ation of lab leak equals bio weapon plus slab, leak equals normal virus or you know, not engineered virus that comes out of a lab.
And I think that there was a liberal or mainstream media leading liberal eagerness to disprove the lab leak hypothesis.
That was basically just displaced.
Eagerness to reject Chinese racism and bio weapon rumors.
But this created a really weird discourse space I remember in the fall of 2020.
I was having a conversation And with my wife and her friends, remember we were in the bathroom, her friends were on speakerphone and we were just having a conversation at the end of like some Friday where my wife and I had made dinner together and they said we were talking about conspiracy theories.
They said, Derek what conspiracy theory do you believe?
And I’m not a conspiracy theorist like I just don’t dabble in them.
Theorists say that by the way, but go on.
And that you to set up my dad actually going to say very well.
I said, you know, I have a lot of time for the theory that this virus.
Came from a lab and the reaction was like, wait, we know you’re not racist but that theory is kind of racist and my feeling was a you already have circulated.
This will look, it’s not racist to say that a good candidate for the emergence of a bat coronavirus.
He is a local laboratory that said, he’s back.
Coronavirus is right?
I’m I’m not saying here’s the truth and the doubters were a bunch of idiots.
I’m saying we have a crime and this is a reasonable murder suspect that we should consider in the But it’s really interesting to think back to that period.
Remember just, just how strange it was to take the theory seriously.
So let’s continue The Tick.
Tock the baker article comes out in New York Magazine.
It inspires a pretty Fierce backlash among some people.
But in the months that follow this approach of, I want to describe this carefully, taking the lab leak.
Seriously without saying, I believe it to be true in any kind of like probabilistic more than 70% kind of way that became more common among certain journalists.
Would you agree?
I would, I mean, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind doubling back for just a minute because I actually in this last piece, I wrote about the lab leak this little behind-the-scenes thing, but I wanted to represent it as having been so politicized from the start that it was, you know, Democrats and Republicans disagreeing fundamentally on this question from the get-go.
And then I went back to find, you know, is there a speech that Chuck Schumer gay?
Gave and 2020 where he was talking about this.
And the answer was, no, this was something that Republican lawmakers were talking about a lot of Republican and conservative columnist and such.
But it’s not something that, you know, Democratic lawmakers were talking about.
This is was it was sort of like not Republicans versus Democrats but Republicans versus The media, basically, and then having been in the media at the time, we were taking our cues from the scientist, so, you know, I edit science, stories work with science journalists, who talked to scientists.
And so, I think what was happening was you were getting a lot of news stories that reflected the quote-unquote scientific consensus as probed by journalists calling a bunch of people who are scientists A prominent on Twitter, maybe but in any case and they were being told there’s no doubts here, we know where it came from and they were reporting that accurately.
And then it was the, you know, segments of society that are distrustful of, you know, Elite Authority, including scientist who are saying that we don’t know if we believe that.
So I felt like that was, I don’t know if this is worth bringing up but I actually, I thought it was interesting.
Then in writing my last piece about this, I realized I had distorted my, my own, my own memory of what had happened was distorted.
I thought it had been like overly politicized from the get-go.
I think, in a sense it was, but not in this, you know, explicit left, right?
It was like this, you know, deletes, right way, kind of which is, I think a little bit different and I think important as it plays out now, but we can go back.
I’m sorry to know.
There’s really interesting.
Let me just let me just let me just dig into that a little bit further.
What I said earlier.
Earlier, is that a lot of left-leaning people left of center people in the media might have conflated their insistence on rejecting Trump, racism and downplaying.
The odds that this was a bio weapon, they conflated that with discrediting a lab leak entirely.
You’re saying something that to my ear sense a little bit different which is that it’s not that the media was necessarily or exclusively.
Biased against Trump or insistent upon, just proving the, by the bioweapon theory.
It’s also that the media was taking their cues from scientists who were prominent for whatever reason.
Maybe they had the most Twitter followers, maybe they were, the co-authors of whatever was just published in the Lancet, the previous month.
But they were taking their cues from prominent scientists who were insisting.
That the lab leak was an improbable.
If not impossible Theory to explain, Explain the pandemic.
Is that right?
Yeah, I think that’s right.
And I agree with both parts of it.
I mean, I think this was over determined and that’s why you got this, you know, effective media blackout on the idea.
You had both the political inclinations were lined up with what scientists from fauci on down.
We’re saying and so easy to make the Judgment then if you’re you know, not being careful.
Have those scientists recanted in anyway.
I know that fauci in the last few months has said, at least something along the lines of we don’t know for sure whether this came from a lab.
We can’t prove for sure if that it didn’t come from a lab, he seems to have walked back his 2020 position a bit.
Is it your sense that that those scientists?
Now, talk about the question of the lab leak in a slightly different way than they did in 20, 20 and 21?
Yeah, I mean, I think for sure about she’s a great Ample, but other scientists to, there’s been a lot of cases of, you know, some new piece of information.
I remember when it came out that some of the key research that was being done at wiv was being done at biosafety level two instead of three or four, that led to some, you know, prominent scientist saying, hey wait a second here.
If I’d known about that or when the DARPA Grant proposal came out, this was a grant proposal that involve WI IV that was, you know, outlined experiments that sound in retrospect, pretty scary.
Now, there’s no indication that these experiments were actually done to be clear, but just to have this stuff on paper and official, grit documents, I mean, I interviewed scientists who are like, hmm.
Now I’m beginning to say, you know, at the very least there’s such a lack of transparency here.
Like, why wouldn’t this information have been put out there from the beginning?
It’s so clearly relevant to the question of pandemic.
Jen’s so I just in the course of reporting on this since whatever the beginning of 2021 I’ve heard scientists describe, you know, 11 said to me, the Delta is shrinking.
I remember that phrase, meaning the his assess probability of natural origin versus laboratory Arjun, he still felt.
It was more likely a natural origin, but the Delta is shrinking.
So I think about that as the overall trend since the beginning of 2021.
What I love about your coverage at the space is that I think you’re very good at pointing out how amazingly coincidental, both theories are both the lab leak Theory and the natural origin Theory.
And I want to just quote from your last article in the Atlantic because I think it’s something very important, something very important, very succinctly.
Quote if covid really started in the lab one position holds, then it would have to be a pretty amazing coincidence.
It’s Many of the earliest infections happen to emerge in and around a venue for the sale of live animals, which just happen to be the exact same sort of place where the first SARS coronavirus pandemic might have started 20 years ago.
But also if covid really started in a live animal Market, it would have to be a similarly, amazing coincidence.
In question happened to be across the river from the laboratory of the world’s leading bat coronavirus researcher, which happened to be running experiments that could in theory, make coronavirus has more dangerous.
Dan we are in the realm of like crazy unlikely Thing One versus crazy unlikely think to both of which require and extraordinarily unlikely roll the dice for them to cash out in a global pandemic, right?
And and we know for a fact that one of those two things is really just a coincidence.
Do we know for sure that it can either be only natural origin in Wuhan or a lab leak?
Is it conceivable that the actual origin of the pandemic is some Category 3 phenomenon, frozen fish Imports into China.
I mean, it sure it’s conceivable but I, I mean, I’m stuck on those two coincidences personally.
So I think it’s, it’s got to be related to one of those two things.
I would also say just, you know, while we’re stating where we stand on these things, you know, I’ve said in the past, At the fact that there are these two enormous coincidences that have to be reckoned with, does it mean that it’s necessarily?
The evidence is a toss-up, it’s a coin flip.
There are many other things to take into account and probably the most significant for me would be what’s the history of pandemics?
I mean, basically, every single one has started with a so-called national origin with one possible known exception.
So I mean, if you’re using that To to suck to judge.
The tie tie goes to Natural origin, right?
And I don’t even know if it really, if the evidence really is quote, unquote, tied otherwise.
But that’s just, that’s the backdrop here.
And I think that is also contributed to the attitudes and 2020 and attitudes today among scientists, right?
Like this is we know this story.
It’s a story we’ve heard before and the evidence is consistent with that story, so why not?
Aside from the fact that as you said, almost every pandemic for which we have a high degree of confidence in the origin, the story is always a human, excuse me, animal-to-human spillover.
Other than that, what do you consider the most persuasive facts or maybe even most interesting rumor?
It should make a reasonable person lean toward this pandemic started from natural spillover from a wild animal.
Okay, aside from that fact, which I do think is a very important if anything have got that, right?
Again, it go, it’s going back to that coincidence, this Market.
Why should it?
It’s this could have, you know, everyone agrees even people who think it started in a lab.
Everyone agrees that this Market was one of the first if not the first major cluster of infections, right?
So that’s fine.
You know, maybe a Just left work, infected with the coronavirus and then went to pick up some groceries at the market.
Like it’s by you can you can tell that story.
But again like what the this is a market where we have photos of these, you know, wild animals live, wild animals for sale from 2019 from a study that was a paper that was published subsequent much subsequent to the start of the pandemic there.
Many other places in this city where that first big out, Outbreak could have happened, you know, we don’t think about in the since then we haven’t fought in the u.s. about, you know, Market big markets as being a place as the place where super spreader events happened.
We think about it as, like, Conference Centers or concert venues, or restaurants, or bars, or airplanes or whatever those are the stories we keep hearing.
So, why was it a market selling live animals in Wuhan?
I That the most compelling part of this aside from again, the long history.
And on the other hand, what would you say is the single most compelling fact for most interesting rumor?
That might make a reasonable person.
May be careful here, either lean toward the lab League Theory, or dramatically increase in their own minds.
The odds that this was allowed leak.
I mentioned that our proposal before.
I don’t know how Youthful, that is in particular because again we don’t know that those experiments were ever carried out, but I do think as an it as an elaboration on the mere fact of their being research on bat coronavirus has in Wuhan 1,000 miles away from caves where closely related viruses were found.
And we know that, you know, samples were carried from those caves back to Wuhan.
So we have all that stuff.
We also have It’s evidence that experiments were being done at that institution to Tinker with the viruses and you know, see what happens.
What if you combine This Bat coronavirus with that one or with, you know, some element of the MERS virus.
So we just again, we don’t have any evidence that such experiments were done using viruses, that could conceivably be a precursor to tsar’s Cove to the one that caused the piano.
So there’s no direct evidence that research was being done of the type that could lead to the pandemic, but there’s lots of evidence that research that’s kind of in the realm of mixing and matching viruses was being done right there.
So, I find that just in again, going past the initial giant coincidence thing.
That extension of it, I find worrisome to say the least, I really like the way that you set up those coincidences and it We think, you know, Jon Stewart had a very famous segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where he put forth his theory for why he thinks the lab leak idea is probable and he said I’m butchering it but I think this is an okay summary if you hear that there’s an outbreak of chocolatey gooey goodness from Hershey Pennsylvania, you have to be an idiot to not rule in the fact that it came from the big Chocolate Factory at Hershey.
But what you’re saying is actually actually like it takes that joke metaphor and usefully edits.
It it’s more like we have an outbreak of gooey chocolaty goodness from the nation of Switzerland and like there’s many possible points of origin whether it’s lint or Nestle Toblerone.
There’s a bunch of different chocolate factories.
That would be absolutely ideal candidates for the origin of an outbreak of chocolate.
Who Enos what you’re saying is it seems to me whoo.
One has these two, these two points of origin, that one might reasonably rule in a research facility that researched exactly.
These kind of viruses and a wet Lab at what Market that we know from the history of pandemics is a plausible place of origin for viruses that spill over from a bat to a Pangolin to a human.
So I mean, I actually hadn’t thought of it in exactly these terms but it’s more like the After the outbreak came from Switzerland than the chocolate they operate came from Hershey Pennsylvania.
Yeah, I don’t think that got distracted by all the all the different chocolate manufacturers.
You mentioned but just a complicated, a little bit two things.
First of all, it’s not like there are 100 wet markets like the one on market in Wuhan there are there’s a small handful that were known to be trafficking in these sorts of animals.
So I think that’s Important to just to kind of build out in your mind and understanding of what kind of coincidence this would be if it didn’t actually start there.
Similarly, the Wuhan Institute of Neurology is not the only place in the city where potentially dangerous research might have been carried out.
In fact, though, the details are mysterious and classified it has been said or has been reported that when the department of energy updated, its assessment of the source of the pandemic and said with low confidence, that they think it’s a lab leak that had to do with some idea that it took place at a different lab, a branch of the Chinese CDC I think which is rather close to the market.
So this is what this sort of like a quality of this whole conversation is that as soon as you can sort of say, oh well they’re these two big coincidences and then everything gets Parts to step further and now it’s complicated.
Now, maybe it’s not this institution research institution, its this one which is not really across the river and so on and so forth.
I think that the overall structure of the debate is still the same two big coincidences, but I’m just bringing this up.
I don’t know how to work this, into your chocolate analogy, but I do think it starts to get pretty complicated, pretty quickly.
When you start adding in these other pieces of information.
Yeah, I’m going to stick with this, which then metaphor, because we’re basically saying is like there’s a bunch of Chocolate manufacturers in and in the analogy, right?
There’s a bunch of different possible Origins for this virus in the same city and that just makes it difficult, especially in the absence of anything.
Approaching a agreeable and open Chinese government to arrive at a final truth.
I want to bring in that as the last piece of evidence, do you consider the reluctance of the Chinese government to play ball?
A useful piece of evidence for either.
Side of this debate.
I don’t I don’t and I will say that from the beginning.
It has seemed to me, not great from China’s perspective, for the answer to come out in either Direction.
I mean, even as I, as we said before, like if Stars started 20 Stars One started 20 years ago, possibly through, you know, a wet market like this.
And now it’s happened to Again and this time, it’s killed millions and millions of people like, why the hell was this allowed?
Like who’s responsible for that?
So it’s not like the natural origin has the Chinese government off the hook for this.
So I know it seems to me that leaving it.
Undetermined is probably the best possible outcome as far as China is concerned.
So, I, that is always been my assumption for what’s going on here that there’s really No interest in resolving it one way or another, it doesn’t look good either way.
So why do it?
I let the studies happen put on your media, Professor hat?
You’re teaching a class at wherever, Colombia middle about the lessons that responsible young journalists should take from the lab leak fracas.
What’s the lesson that is a fantastic question.
And I think it goes back to you know there are some some easy lessons I could.
I’m tempted to draw but I really want to Grapple with the fact that again you’re a science journalist in summer 2020.
You want to know what’s the thinking on this and every scientist you call tells you the same thing.
Like what how are you supposed to arrive at the you know you then call Tom Cotton, like I just doesn’t make sense.
You want to report the science of this?
It’s really tricky and I would say because of that I’m and this may be self self interest here but I’m not, I have trouble blaming science journalists at least as much as maybe I ought to it just it’s it’s tough.
Like there’s a lot of interesting work on this was done by you know, this ragtag group of independent researchers communicating on Twitter.
Through, you know, Anonymous handles, like a zit putting on my journalism, Professor hat.
Am I going to tell students to reach out to, you know, lab leak, Seeker 10 on Twitter?
Like, we don’t know who the person is, you’re going to quote them.
Like it’s It’s Tricky.
I mean, I think the lesson here as far as I’m concerned is more about what we do next, which is continuing to cover this doing A journalism about the lack of transparency from the start about the lack of transparency that still exists not entirely due to, you know, a Chinese cover-up of some kind but also due to the lack of transparency in terms of what was happening here.
I mean, I think we’re going to find out in a couple days when these hearing start in the house.
There’s probably gonna be a lot of crazy shit thrown around at those hearings.
But I think there are are substantive questions about what ideas were taken, seriously behind closed doors and how those conversations related or didn’t relate to what was said in public by, you know, science officials within the administration.
And by scientists in the know, it’s a really interesting lesson.
One thing that I took from it is that It’s hard as a journalist to keep in mind, two things, one, your sources are smarter than you, they know more than you.
You have to rely on them.
But also they’re not smarter than God people with phds and fancy resumes are just people and people are wrong all the time and consensuses within Industries or disciplines can be wrong all the time and you can be captured by sources the same way.
We’re familiar with the That some writers are captured by Their audience, Their audience expects them to be atom of anti-trans.
And so, all they do is write this bullshit about being anti-trans.
I’m reminded of two different events that I’m not trying to directly analogize to the question of the lab league, but there are a lot of reporters around 2003 quite think we’re captured by their sources around the issue of the Iraq War and they reported that wmd is existed.
Because there were a lot of people in the Bush Administration Around the Bush Administration, who we’re going to tell them that.
And that is that What you are roster of sources was then you were just going to hear one message over and over and over again.
You could be captured by those sources to report that which was not true to a certain extent.
In my own the closer to home in my own sort of domain in economic analysis.
It was something close to an article of faith in mid-to-late 2021.
That inflation was just not a serious problem that it was going to go away very quickly that it wasn’t going to post much more problems.
People that it wasn’t going to get that high, that there were just just a few blips in terms of Supply chains, that everything was going to come down to normal relatively quickly.
And the next year, 2022, inflation and Rising interest rates were probably the most important phenomenon in economics and you could create a roster as a bank of really, really smart academic voices who for whatever reason, they’re rooting interest in Joe, Biden.
The fact they were little bit more, left-leaning, they were little bit more captured by mmt.
Just did not believe that the u.s. was anywhere near and inflation crisis and I think it’s really hard and important to remember that even the people that you talk to is sources, even they feel kind of like little Gods.
When you’re reaching out to them to dig yourself out of ignorance for peace.
They can be catastrophically wrong as well.
It might just be that an important piece of intellectual humility to keep on your older.
I think that’s exactly right.
I mean, I think there’s even a specific way, which this relates to science journalism so that if I if I were putting on my science journalism Professor hat which is a little different from just journalism, Professor General.
There is this way in which there is kind of an an ideology among science journalists that, that they hold in alignment with their many, of their sources that you should follow the science.
There’s, there’s an Elysian.
Small acid big-ass science, right?
And this gets, you know, really snagged on political divides as well, especially in recent years, but even leaving the politics out of it.
You know, there’s this the difference between science communication and science reporting can kind of fade and one can get confused about a, my is what I’m doing.
Good for science, as opposed to getting at the Truth one can forget that science, capital S science, which your sources are almost always representing, is an institution of its own accord that needs to be held to account that has its own motivations and its own biases.
So, I think, again, putting all the sub politics, aside, putting China out of it.
There was in the background, the sense that the idea that scientists cause the pandemic is bad for science.
That’s like a, you know, It’s in the same world as anti-vaccine sentiments.
It’s like Fanning the Flames of conspiracy theorists that say, you know, they don’t want us to listen to science and so it’s a science journalist.
You know, I think a lot of science journalists feel like that’s part of the mission of their job to to, you know, promote rational thinking and rational thinking in this case is aligned with, you know what the scientists are saying and what’s in the best interests of further study and like, I I think in 2020 probably there was an idea of in not science.
Got us into this mess but we need to be as sciency as possible to get us out of this mess.
Like we need those vaccines we need to figure out as soon as this is over.
We need to use science to figure out how to prevent the next one.
So the idea that the scientists were trying to prevent pandemics because that’s what you know the research were talking about was about.
They actually cause the problem I think it’s just sort of on this deep.
Level politics aside, when against the, the core beliefs and inclinations of most of the journalists who are covering their question.
So totally agree with you.
Breaking out of that mindset is crucial and not just in covering, you know, pandemic Origins.
But in doing any science coverage you need to understand that you’re, you know, it’s not a big business but it’s kind of like a big business in a lot of ways science is hard.
It’s a, it’s the simplistic but Really entirely true conclusion.
You cannot just be so much of a contrarian that you become a crank, but you also just cannot simply believe someone by virtue of the fact that they have credentials with more initials than you have.
It’s a very, very difficult thing to get, right?
The truth is changing constantly.
And that, at the end of the day, it’s what this episode is about Dan Amber.
Thank you so much.
Thanks a lot for having me, Derek.
That was Daniel engberg writer and editor at the Atlantic.
And next up, we have Jason a block of Yale University.
Jason Abbott, look, welcome to the podcast.
Good to be here.
Jason before we talk about masks, tell me a little bit about what it is that you study at Yale.
So I’m a professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management.
Most of my work is in the areas of Health economics and public policy.
So I do a lot of work about different ways that we can evaluate the quality of people’s choices and how we can design institutions, like health insurance markets, for example, in light, of the fact that people often might not be well, informed about what impact?
Choosing different health insurance plans would have on their help comes so questions of that nature when People to make mistakes.
How can we design institutions that still work well in light of mistakes, and what is your recollection of the conventional wisdom in 2020 around masks?
Because to me, when I think back and I do not pretend to have perfect recollection about that, incredibly chaotic here, this is a really chaotic question to answer my recollection.
Is that The Who and fauci came out initially in the middle of March and said, you know, masks not so sure that they work and then for some reason, Within three to six months, the fast that masks.
The fact that masks did work became an Article of Faith among people that share my general ideology, and proclivities.
And then later you have this backlash among people, some of whom are firmly in the science Community, who said, no, Max Ashley, don’t work at all.
And all you people covering your face or participating in some kind of Apocalypse called, what is your own memory of the pendulum swinging?
On the mask issue during the pandemic.
So I can tell you a few stories about what I what I was involved in in 2020 but I think the way you described it sounds about right at the pendulum.
Swung back and forth many times.
But basically my introduction to this I think in like March of 2020 when there were maybe a few dozen cases of covid in the United States.
One of my colleagues came up to me and was like, Jason, there’s this debate, you know, on Twitter about whether people should start wearing masks about covid.
Like what do you think about That’s in my initial response, was something like.
Well, you know, we probably should like in the sense that it says, super low cost thing.
It’s like, at the time, I didn’t realize, you know, covid-19 demick and this would go on for years at the time there was some possibility that’s like, oh there’s just going to be this wave of cases over the next six months and you know, maybe we should wear masks to do something about this.
And the idea was, well, it’s super low cost, it might be effective, why not?
So then I sort of started to look into it a little bit in March and April.
I looked at some of the existing evidence which I believe actually included an earlier version of the Cochrane report.
The Cochrane review which was an article, basically a summary article written in, there were several summary articles and I might, by the way, be misremembering whether it was a Cochrane review or or other other similar reviews but basically the upshot of those reviews was typically that like there’s been a bunch of studies of masking in hospitals and in what’s called Community settings and in hospitals they would do Things like oh, let’s randomize people to surgical or cloth mass or let’s randomize them to n95 or surgical maps and typically they would find yes.
When we gave people the higher quality Mass, they were more protective against in those cases like influence.
Then there were a community studies and the consensus and most of these articles at the time, was something like, well, Mass worn by people in hospitals work and Community.
Mask-wearing doesn’t work.
And that’s kind of a weird thing.
And it’s like, what does it mean?
To even say like, Community mask-wearing doesn’t work.
Like what were they basing that on and what they were typically basing that on were studies that would do things like, oh, you know, we went to a college campus and we wanted to see if Mass were protective against influenza.
So we did a randomized experiment where we took people in the intervention group and we sent them masks and we, you know, gave them instructions about how, you know, Mass can protect you against influenza and we said, hey can you wear this mask during the Flu season and typically, they would do those studies.
And they would find a, there’s no difference between the people we sent mass and the people we did send mass.
Now, when I looked at this initially, my reaction was like well it’s kind of a weird study because they don’t tell us how many people actually warm ass.
So given that mass were effective in hospitals, presumably they’d be effective in the community as well.
If people actually wore them and in these studies they just don’t wear them.
But of course now that we have this covid epidemic that’s going to Kill millions of millions of people.
You know, people will actually wear masks and that would be protective.
So I actually wrote this paper in March and April 20-21.
I was like, look, I don’t think that a lot of these existing studies actually tell us much about Mass.
So what we’re going to do is compare you know, countries with historical, mask Norms, like Japan or Taiwan.
And we’re going to see if covid is spreading at a different rate in those countries and the answer was yeah, it seems to be spreading more slowly.
The countries that have historical, Mass Norms, although, of course things are difficult.
Why is it difficult?
There’s many reasons.
One reason it’s really difficult is because those countries might be different in lots of other respects, right?
So it’s like in Japan, sure they wear masks but also maybe they do more testing.
Maybe do more contact, tracing all these things.
Like maybe they’re just more cautious and all these things could have led to a slower spread so it’s not totally clear that was attributed to mass but there was Some indirect evidence that was so, that was kind of early 2020 period.
I wrote that paper actually went to the Yale covid task force, my colleague, and I, and we were like, hey, why don’t we put out an announcement that suggests in light of this that, you know, we would recommend that people start wearing masks as covid, is spreading in the u.s.
So this was, I believe in late March of 2020 and the Alcove it task force.
There were two groups.
There were epidemiologists who were like, yeah, this seems like a pretty reasonable And then there were clinicians who were like, you Economist this is crazy, like the FDA would never approve this given the existing evidence.
We can’t recommend the people wear masks and the FDA would never approve it.
And also they would like but we know they’re important in hospitals and if you recommend everyone wear masks then we’re not going to be able to have mass for people in hospitals.
So we were like, okay what about if we recommend?
They wear cloth Mass so that the still have enough bastard people in hospitals, although surgical masks are really cheap to produce anyway so we got Got some people to sign on to like a statement, like everyone to wear cloth mask that was like April, 20, 20, I think by, you know, May or June like, it was this rapid shift in sort of the conventional wisdom about this.
Where all the public health agencies went from basically being like Oh, you know, were skeptical Mass to basically saying like, oh actually, this is something like we’re going to start recommending every word and that’s sort of like change the polarization.
And then for I’d say the next like, Year and a half, that was the conventional wisdom among Public Health agencies.
I still think that is mostly the conventional wisdom that they’ve kind of Public Health agencies.
If you talk to people like the World Health Organization or whatever, or the Center for Disease Control, they’re still pretty much yeah, Master probably pretty effective against covid.
Although I agree with you.
There are some people like the authors of the Cochrane report who are, you know, epidemiologists and legitimate scientists who have reached a different conclusion.
Although, we can talk about, let’s talk more about why Let’s let’s hold the Cochrane review for a few more minutes.
I want to ask you about this study that you did in Bangladesh.
Tell me about the study tell me briefly, why this study was importantly different than the community studies.
That you have just blasted in the last few minutes and what did you find in the Bangladesh study?
Okay, so there are a few major differences.
So basically what we did first of all is we went to Bangladesh.
We went to six hundred villages and in 300 of those Villages.
We did a really intensive campaign to try to get people to wear a mess.
So we sent over on mass we give information about math but then we also worked with a bunch of community leaders like imams and like Village leaders to try to promote mask-wearing and maybe most importantly of all we had people walking around in every village in crowded public areas.
And in Moss saying, hey, suppose you see someone who’s not wearing a mask walk up to them and be like, hey, here’s a mass.
Can you please put this on right?
So, it’s not like, they’re arresting them or something.
But they’re just applying social pressure to being like I can you please put this on and people say no they say no but like it’s There’s not that much militant resistance to mask-wearing so so most people say yes.
Okay, so you did this experiment.
How is this different from what came before?
First way is different, is we actually observed whether people were mass and crowded public areas so we can see if we change their behavior.
In our initial Pilots, we didn’t change their behavior very much because we just sent the Mast and gave them information and mask-wearing increased by something, like 9 percentage points, which actually High relative to other studies that I have done similar stuff.
There is one study in Kenya that sound like a one percentage Point increase from giving people information and handing out that.
So we’ve only got nine percentage Point increase.
Then we’re like we need, we need to do more than this.
So then we started doing the people walking around asking people to wear masks that got us to a 30 percentage Point increase.
Okay, so, that’s a pretty appreciable increase.
So what else is different about this study relative to all the other ones?
I was talking about including my own earlier study?
Well, it was randomized.
So I mentioned before the problem that it’s like Japan Taiwan excetera we see lots of mastering, but they might do lots of other things differently in these Villages and Bangladesh the 300 Villages where we did this campaign.
Those were randomly chosen, there’s one thing that systematically different different about those Villages which is we did this campaign to get a bunch of people to wear - okay so then we could see what the impact of mask-wearing and the answer is we saw basically a 10% decline in covid symptoms and we did blood tests to see if it was actually Actually covid and we also saw a 10% decline in what’s called symptomatic seropositivity.
So people who are symptomatic for covid and also their blood was several positive for company.
So what is 10% be?
By the way, how do we interpret that magnitude?
So we’re saying a 30 percentage Point increase in Mass fuse led to a 10% decline in Coal.
So how do you extrapolate that to?
What if everybody wore masks, right?
It’s not completely obvious.
But a back-of-the-envelope simple thing to do is just to like assume everything scales.
So, 30%, wearing mascots you 10%.
Maybe a hundred percent is about three times.
Maybe you got like a 30% decline in common infections.
Is a reasonable conclusion to draw from this study because I know that there are some Mass Skeptics that read your study and they say, okay, it took Jason and his team.
An unbelievable amount of money.
You guys got millions of dollars from give.
Well it took you an unbelievable amount of money extraordinary.
Mounts of enforcement like annoying amounts of enforcement, you’re there on the streets pointing at people saying up, mask up mask, and all of this, all of this only increased mask-wearing by 2030 percent.
I mean, that’s not that suggests that, the typical mask policy is not going to be very successful.
So do you?
How do you feel about the critique of this study?
That says That the effect size is not large enough to prove to us that the that the average mask mandate is going to do anything.
So first of all it’s a really good question.
So one thing we need to keep in mind is so one takeaway you might be like oh well it’s just impossible or it’s really hard to get people to where Matt’s but of course we know that there are some places where lots of people wearing masks.
So first of all it’s like Japan like almost everyone wearing that wears masks now.
Might say, okay fine in countries with historical Masters, it’s possible, but it’s just too hard everywhere else.
But even in the United States, there were places that had really, really high compliance with mass cubes.
There are places where 90% of people were wearing masks in 2020 and in 2021.
Now, it’s important to draw the distinction between.
Can you change behavior?
And how many people do with it?
So what is hard about doing this type of study that we did?
And what is diff major deficiency?
Of the earlier studies is getting people who aren’t motivated on their own to wear Mass to change their behavior that requires doing something.
Now, that something might be that you mandate Mass, you make it a rule with different kinds of enforcement, like, in the United States, a lot of States, mandated mask-wearing, what did that mean?
Well, typically, if they saw you in public, not wearing a mask, you know, it’s not like they’re arresting you and dragging you to jail immediately.
It’s kind of like this.
Ended thing that’s variably enforced, right?
Like maybe in the post office, they say, Hey, sir, please put on a mask and if you’re just adamant that you won’t, then they say please leave and they’ll kick you out, right?
So, those kinds of things do if you have a church or a post office or whatever public area and you ask people to please put on masks.
Most people actually comply with that, right?
So what we’re trying to do in these studies is to figure out the answer to two separate but both important question.
One question is just what would happen if people actually did comply?
And we’re - and then a second question is like what kinds of things are actually effective for, getting people to wear masks in practice.
So my answer to the second question.
First, is if people actually did wear masks?
Yeah, you probably get something like what we found in this study.
It’s if it’s in public areas, people were mass.
Now, that doesn’t mean you weren’t in 95 24 hours a day, right?
You go home.
You’re probably not wearing a mask, right?
What we see in the studies.
This 30 percentage Point increase in wearing masks in the mosque and wearing masks in the crowded market and things of that nature, right?
So if people wear masks in these public areas, but not necessarily at home or anything, you know, you get this 30% decline in covid in the medium term.
Now, what does that mean?
You know, that’s actually complicated because one thing we can revisit is okay.
You know, you have this 30% decline.
One thing that might happen is our was greater than one before.
For now, the rate of transmission is less than one.
And so, instead of covid spreading to everyone, it doesn’t friends.
Anyone could ever wear masks all the time or alternatively, it’s so contagious.
And still spread to everyone and then our math doing anything.
Let’s revisit that question, that’s an important question, okay.
So one question is, what are the long-term impacts of this 30% decline but the question, we posed a moment ago was What about other policies to try to get people to increase Masters?
And my answer is, well, it really depends.
It’s like if Alabama today said, hey, we’re recommending everywhere Mass.
Nothing’s going to happen, it does nothing right?
But on the other hand, if you know we have another respiratory pandemic and tomorrow you know in two years there’s new covid and New York state is like, hey, new covid is killing a tremendous.
Number of people, we recommend that everyone put back on mass, like probably you get reasonably High compliance at least among the people who aren’t politically resistant.
And there’s a further point, which is even today.
What about symptomatic?
People, if you’re Coughing and sneezing and you have to go out in public, maybe you should be wearing a mask.
What about the elderly people people with comorbidities?
Maybe they should still be wearing masks, so we definitely still want to understand if when you successfully but Iron Mask it works and I think our study strongly suggests in light of especially some additional other evidence from all the other studies that like, it probably does too rapid fire questions about this study before we get to the Cochran meta-analysis, which was the subject of all these new stories for the last few weeks.
Question number one, there was a difference in your study in the effect size for older people versus younger people.
It’s hard or at least my read of your study says that it’s hard to explain exactly what happened there.
Maybe older people are more conscientious because they were at higher risk.
But does that Gap make you concerned about confounders that you can’t explain in this study that something else happened.
It’s just not being captured by the variables that you’ve talked about.
Especially concerning, I agree with you.
You there’s many possible explanations.
We could give for why it happened include, many include have nothing to do with compounds or anything like that.
Like, it could be, for example, it could be elderly.
People were massive similar rates.
But what happened was that elderly people have like fewer social connections so wearing a mask is more likely to sort of cut off the transmission vectors and therefore their it has a bigger impact on their likelihood of getting covid.
Or it could be that elderly people are more vulnerable to Low viral loads and so and that’s Mast.
You know, turn low into nothing or whatever and then it prevents them from getting covid.
Or it could be that only people.
We actually couldn’t observe by age.
We could have in retrospect.
I wish we did, but we didn’t observe by age.
Whether the elderly people just increase masks used by more.
That’s certainly another possible explanation.
So but it’s an interesting finding because, you know, obviously the elderly bit bare the bulk of the morbidity and mortality from covid.
So, If it is generally true, for example, the explanation I gave earlier that elderly, people get infected by low viral, loads and mass prevent that.
Then that would be a huge thing to know.
But I think from the study, it’s hard to like, we would want, sort of multiple studies of this type before we concluded that yes, master definitely more effective in the elderly, or something like that.
Second, follow-up question.
When we say masks, most people are referring to a bunch of different things.
Some people wear bandanas, some people were cloth masks, some people were surgical masks, some people were n95, some people working It and 95s what is just briefly because I really do want to get to the Cochran stuff in a second.
What’s the difference is is is there a major difference between these categories that we use the noun mask 40 in terms of the effect with?
So in our study we had in 1/3 of the treatment Villages cloth mass.
And in 2/3 we had surgical masks, we find stronger evidence for the effectiveness of surgical masks.
Although both cloth and surgical masks appear to have reduced symptoms.
We We have a much more precise estimate for the impact on the blood test and covid, for surgical masks for cloth masks.
It’s actually, it’s just imprecise.
So, can’t rule out that.
They’re about as effective as surgical masks, but from other studies like studies and hospitals.
It seems like started, Go Master better also from just laboratory studies from people cough, into a, petri dish, in our study.
Originally the reason we did both Surgical and cloth surgical are actually cheaper but people at the time this was you know, 2021 especially in countries like Bangladesh, they sort of regarded, surgical masks is the cheap throwaway mass and so we were worried that people wouldn’t bother, they would wear the surgical masks once and throw it out and keep the cloth mask.
In fact, we found they were the surgical masks as much or more.
So it’s not really, that wasn’t really a concern.
So like if you can hire quality masks are more productive when you’re looking for protection, and by the way, another, another point I should make that, I realize we haven’t made yet.
We haven’t talked about like, what I think are the actual policy consequences of this or anything.
But just to be clear, I’m not saying oh Mass work.
Therefore, everyone should be wearing masks all the time everywhere.
They go everywhere in the world.
Like, there’s a different question of whether math mandates called for, you know, covid fatality rates are 20 times lower in the u.s. than they were in like July of 2021.
Their 40 times lower globally.
That makes a big difference to the cost-benefit analysis of when we need mandates.
But anyway, and we’re going to get to the difference between masks.
Do they work as a product and mask mandates?
Should they Implemented as a policy at the very end of our conversation.
But all right, let’s finally turn to the Cochran meta-analysis.
This famous or inFAMOUS meta-analysis that was reported in the New York Times.
Probably most prominently in a column by Bret Stevens.
And opinion columnist for the Times.
Under the headline, The Mask mandates did nothing.
Will any lessons be learned?
He quotes journalists saying that masks don’t make any difference.
He quotes co-authors of this meta-analysis saying that, Masks.
Make no difference.
None of it.
Tell me, let’s go into it this way.
What is the question that the Cochrane analysis was trying to answer?
And why do you think the studies that used don’t provide a high-quality answer to that question?
So there’s a difference between the question.
They were trying to answer and the question they did answer.
So it’s hard for me to speak to the question.
They were trying to answer answer from some of the quotes in the study and some of the quotes I’ve seen publicly from the author’s.
By the way, has a matter coats about that.
I’ve now spoken at length to one of the authors and I’m trying to speak to others so, well, we’ll get to that in a moment.
But but from their public comments, it seems like they wanted to get at this question of basically, our Mass effective against covid.
If a person wears a mask doesn’t make them less likely to be infected.
If a population wears the mask, does it slow this, or where’s Mass?
More doesn’t slow the spread of Coke.
That’s not the question, they answered because the vast majority of the studies that they are summarizing are the studies that I was talking about earlier which are the studies that for example, send people on a college campus mass and the a say please, like wear this mask during flu season.
Then they don’t check if you actually wear the mask.
And can I just jump in here because you pointed me to a couple studies that make this point, very, very clearly.
There’s a famous Danish study which was often used in the media to That mask interventions did not work when those researchers reached out to the participants.
They found that fewer than half of the masking group said, they quote wore the mask as recommended and quote, there is a steady in Uganda 2022.
That when researchers called The participants by phone, ninety-seven percent said, they quote, always or sometimes wore a mask.
But these are researchers also observed people in Uganda on the street.
And only one point one percent of the people they observed were Wearing masks correctly, that suggests that the share of people saying they wore masks versus the share.
Actually wearing them.
Correctly was a factor of 88 88 times more.
We’re likely to say on the phone, they were wearing masks than actually were.
It’s very difficult in studies like this, to know what you are actually measuring.
Because what you are measuring is a failure of adherence and a failure of self-reporting rather than a failure of a product in terms of policy will.
To that in a second.
But I was very motivated by that finding back to you.
So I totally would do, I would say there are three big deficiencies of the Danish study in this regard.
So so the first efficiency is exactly what you mentioned.
That it’s like probably yes, you know, whatever half the people said they were masked but you know, we know that self-reports vastly over State, the fraction of people who actually wear masks now, the second thing about the data, Is if you actually look at their bottom line, they find that there was like 18% Less covid in the treatment group than the control group right now.
That’s not a statistically significant difference.
You know, in science, we care a lot about statistically statistical significance, for good reason because if it’s an insignificant thing could have just happened by chance, but what you absolutely should not infer from that study is like, do the math didn’t do anything because just the best.
They have granted being very imprecise is pretty similar to what we end up arriving at in the Bangladesh study now.
Why is it more imprecise?
Well, because the sample size was much smaller and because probably they got a lot fewer people to actually wear masks.
So what’s the, what should we infer from this?
Well, if anything we should say, here is one very imprecise signal that suggests potentially similar effects to what we see.
The Bangladesh study not like oh Mass don’t work.
That would be a crazy inference to draw from this because even the in precise Point estimates suggest that massive word and of course the true effect would have been considerably larger if you think that only a small fraction of the people in the treatment group actually were Mass.
So that’s like the second deficiency.
The third issue with this study relative to our study in Bangladesh, is that it is only designed to figure out if Mass protect individuals It doesn’t tell you even in principle if Mass prevent symptomatic, individuals, or mass prevent infected individuals from transmitting, the virus to others, our study in Bangladesh where we increase Mass crying at the Village level identifies, the joint effect of math protecting individuals and preventing them from transmitting the virus.
So even in principle if all of the other problems were solved the study and Denmark can only get the protective effect which nonetheless it you know very imprecisely.
Just might be there.
But this highlights the end one of the and another answer to your question earlier.
Why is this hard?
Well, it’s hard because as common is covid, is most people over any several month, period are not infected with covid.
So if you do a study where you monitor people for a couple months it’s not like 70% of people are going to get covid.
It’s like, oh, you know, maybe one to two percent are going to get covid and then if you do an intervention such that you increase mask-wearing by even the 30 percentage points did We managed to get how much of that covid do you think you’re going to be preventing?
Well maybe you prove it prevent a tenth of that so now you’ve gone from one and a half percent to you know, a tenth of that 0.15 and then you actually have to do blood tests and not everyone is going to consent to have their blood drawn.
So now you get an even smaller number, so you need a really giant sample.
If you’re going to detect any impact of any policy select you’ve done the mask research, I have not you have now spoken to the Cochran.
I am so interested to know how that conversation went because at least in terms of their statements in the media, they seem very clear on what their position is, which is that masks don’t work, the end.
You’re telling me the exact opposite thesis.
So how did this conversation?
Go, okay, so I’ve now spoken to one of them and I’m trying to schedule a call.
There’s the lead author, Tom Jefferson who I have not spoken to yet.
Who is the main one making these remarks but I will, Will hopefully speak for them in the next few days.
Maybe we’ll we’ll do a two-minute addendum if you need an update on that but for the author that I did speak with.
So first the first, I’ll tell you the way expected the conversation to go before it went, which is when I was in grad school, I had a professor, Jeremy Houseman, and Jerry Hoffman told us the story where he’s like, when there’s a Nobel Prize winner, Clive Granger and he met with Clyde Granger and they have this technical dispute injury house was like, yeah, we had one of these long drawn-out academic conversations for iPad.
Them into the ground, right?
Like I was like, oh this is kind of, but in fact, it was the exact opposite.
So I talked to the guy for the Cochrane report, I was like, hey, here’s what I think the issues are.
And he’s like, yeah, those are really good points.
And I was like, oh, and I was like, would you be willing to co-author and editorial, like, making these points that sort of the, your, the Cochrane review?
I keep calling it, the cock report.
What does it stick with that?
I like that more, the copper report his because that, you know, it’s been misinterpreted in the Press coverage in it.
Kind of the conclusion that mass don’t work.
Just isn’t warranted given the studies you’ve included and he was like yeah sure I’d be happy to sign off that way.
This feels like breaking news.
This just like breaking news and author of the Cochrane report. / cock and meta-analysis is about to co-author and op-ed with you saying that the report broadly interpreted by the media and quoted by some of the lead, authors of the report saying, that masked man is to work.
He’s about to say, it didn’t actually show that.
I feel like that value happy.
Making such a big deal out of it where it makes me worried that he’s going to like, hear this podcast.
This is, this is coming up Tuesday morning, I think so.
That is, that is the right now.
We’re I said of a draft, we’re chatting more than five, so, hopefully, that’ll happen.
Well, it is a for, listen, it’s 2:37 p.m.
Eastern Standard Time on Monday, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.
And and if he responds that email by saying never mind, so give me a sense of what you think this.
Smartest mask critics, get wrong.
Because I’ll say this, I we emailed, I talked to an aerosol researcher Professor Jimenez about how masks actually work his Pursuit.
The fact that he’s very persuaded by the lab reports that look, if covid is an aerosolized disease and we know clearly that masks reduce aerosols going in and out Masters, they have to work.
This has to be an issue of it here.
Science rather than issue of of public policy.
So I wrote this up and I got a really nice response, frankly from some conservatives and some a Skeptics and I got what I would characterize.
As a really, not very nice response from some masks critics and mask Skeptics.
I would say there were two kinds of criticism of my attempt to synthesize some of your research.
One line of criticism, was that Perfect mask adherence in a community is kind of like telling everyone.
They have to just like like trying to like Banning sugar or like mandating the babies, eat broccoli, or mandating that people just sort of fast when the sun is out every single day.
It’s not that those things won’t be won’t like reduce weight.
It said it’s almost impossible to enforce.
So why are we even here?
Keeping in the Arsenal of public policy interventions, something that we broadly understand to be unenforceable.
Let’s start with that.
Do you agree with the contention that maybe masks work, but mask mandates don’t, and we should just acknowledge that that’s the state of the world.
So let me first draw a distinction between if everybody were mess, what mask mandates do, and what the studies in the Cochrane review do, which is the studies in the View it’s like, oh, we’re going to send people mass and get them information.
We know that that has very little impact on that humans.
What about mask mandates, mask mandates?
I would say that is one name for a wide variety of different things, that sometimes increased mask use, and sometimes don’t like when airlines are like, hey, please put on a mask and we’ll kick you off the plane.
They’re really good.
Getting people to wear masks when the post office is like a, please put on a master, will kick you out there really good at getting people to wear Mass if the governor of a state is like, hey, Hey, we’re recommending that everyone put on mass, you’re not going to get to 100%, right?
Like there’s going to be resistance depending on the state, you know.
It might be that you get in some states, very little effect and in some states more of an effect, like one study, I saw just a correlational study looking across States.
It has its own deficiencies suggested, maybe like a 25 percentage Point increase in mask wearing from Mass mandates, that’s comparable to what we saw from our intervention in Bangladesh.
So my view is not mask mandates.
Don’t do anything.
They sometimes get people to wear masks more, but, it’s hard like a national or a state level to suddenly change norms and get and get every person to wear Mets.
Now, there is nonetheless, the question of like, I think there are things depend on the underlying objective circumstances.
If there were new respiratory disease, that were five times as deadly as covid, I would predict, you know, people would see their relatives dropping dead.
They would want to do something about.
Now, might be, just because the way politics have worked at the US would be weird.
In Alabama, they still wouldn’t wear Mass.
But, you know, in most of the world, people would pretty rapidly, adopt Mass, if there were a situation like that with such high fatality rate.
So, I think the answer is, you know, ends on the circumstance.
It’s certainly possible sometimes to get people to wear masks.
And I mean, I don’t think the analogy would like vegetables is even not create maybe for infants.
It’s kind of weird, but it’s like, you know, we do research, we try to figure out what foods are healthy.
I bet that people eat a lot more vegetables than they would, if they There had never been any research showing that you know, vegetables were healthy and help you live longer and we have fewer heart attacks cancer and everything and it’s like you know that’s why we do the research to figure out what it does not because we think that tomorrow everyone is suddenly going to start eating only vegetables even and not even because we necessarily think they should do that because we want to know what should they do in different circumstances.
The other objection that I have heard from a Skeptics is that they look at a country like, say Japan.
And you talked about how you look at the covid, transmission rates in the West in Europe and in the US and you compare it to to Japan and Taiwan in 2000 and it’s not even close.
How much more was transmitting in the west but then Omicron comes around and Japan Taiwan Hong Kong.
They definitely had Omicron waves even despite the fact that it look, I’m not on the ground in Hong Kong Taiwan, but I’m guessing that there was still a decent amount of mask adherence.
Do you have like, even a stylized or in your head of how these things can?
Can both be true?
Because I often see this on Twitter and then I’m like, okay, so when I see an argument like this, my instinct is to be like, well, you know, let me look at the numbers and try to do a comparison.
So, it’s like, so then I like, look up the fatality rates and it’s like, Vastly lower in Japan, the United States, if you look at like how many people have died of covid?
I am trying to remember offhand, I probably get it wrong, but maybe it was like five times lower ten times lower something, in Japan than the United States.
So it’s like, are we saying that?
If everyone were massed no one would ever get covid.
Like know what the studies say is that it probably protects you.
And now we can come, we haven’t spoken.
Much about the question of the long-term consequences yet where I think.
Real use a lot of uncertainty about a number of factors of how of what the long-term consequences of more mask-wearing is.
But like I think the conclusion that hey, these East Asian countries, the gluten, we drew in 2020.
The East Asian countries had slower covid.
Growth is born out even more.
So today when you look at the long-term fatalities for the countries that had historical mask-wearing nerves, let’s get to that right now in the article that I wrote for the Atlantic, I concluded going through all this mask research by saying, you know, No, there’s still a cloud of uncertainty here but we have to make discrete and irreversible decisions sometimes even in clouds of uncertainty.
So I’m just going to tell readers what I’m going to do and what I’m going to do is especially during periods of high covid transmission that and I would not necessarily consider this moment.
You one of them I’m going to wear n95 masks in public indoor spaces.
Furthermore, I think that Washington d.c.
Northwest Washington DC, which is my neighborhood would probably benefit from a mask mandate because I have observed the social Norm of Wearing in my neighborhood.
And there are a lot of high quality masks worn, well in this area and I would expect that if more people wore, high quality masks, well, it would probably reduce levels of transmission with in this neighborhood.
Even as I suspect that you’re right, that mass media policies are not going to do much.
And you know, Alabama what are the risks?
What are some of the costs that are important to consider when we’re evaluating mask mandates as a public policy?
Because you know, you and I have both said a couple times now like this is not something that’s Ask free and I’ve written about, you know, all these debates about masks and schools, tell me about some of the costs that are most top of Minds to you when you think about masks as not a product.
But as public policy, let me first rewind to April 2020, where I was trying to convince the epidemiologists, the ones who were reticent to recommend mass for a one of the biggest arguments they made was.
Oh, if we recommend that people wear masks, they will think they’re fully protected, and they won’t socially distance.
And what we think they really need to do is socially distance which I thought was a very interesting argument.
Like, in Bangladesh, we actually found the opposite.
We found that in the Villages where we did the mass production, they socially distance more.
We think we can separate the effects with talk about that.
That’s a separate issue, but so, but I mean there’s it’s I think that’s an open question.
It might vary across context, there’s different effects that go in different directions.
I’d be surprised if the risk compensation were enough to outweigh the direct effect like in many settings.
Like with, like seatbelts and airbags.
This is something people have brought up in economics is called a peltzman effect that it’s like, oh, you know you because you wear a seat belt, you’re not driving this carefully because you know, you’re protecting its passing moral happy, that happens a little bit on the margin, but probably people are going to be safe for wearing seat belts and not wearing seatbelts so yeah.
Okay, that’s one thing.
But that was the big issue like during large covid, waves more generally.
What are the costs?
I mean, the biggest most prevalent cost is just it’s kind of uncomfortable to wear.
I don’t mean to be pooh-poohing that like it’s like how big would the benefit have to be for it to be worth, you know wearing a mask in first in like public areas.
Suppose you’re just going there for a few hours, right?
During the day you know you’re going to the mall or something and you’re gonna wear a mask in that mall.
It’s like well if you get the equivalent of you know, a hundred dollars worth of benefit, it’s probably worthwhile to do it.
You would probably do it for $100, but if you get three dollars worth of benefit, Maybe Be like, no, I’d rather be comfortable.
I don’t want to wear masks, so it is really important to magnitude of the benefits.
So when I was saying earlier, you know, fatalities from covid or 20 times lower than they were in July of 2021, you know, if the magnitude of the benefit was a hundred dollars in July 2000 21.
Now it’s five dollars.
So that changes things, right?
So my general view of public policy is a, we should do calculations to see if the benefits.
It’s the cost.
Now these calculations are very very hard to do as soon as You sit down and you try to actually quantify cost and benefits, but you find is you have to make lots and lots of assumptions for which you don’t have good data.
And one response that people have to.
This is anyone who doesn’t calculation everyone yells at them because everyone’s like, oh, look your assumption about X.
Y and Z is not supported and I disagree with you about this this and that.
But guess what?
The alternative to doing a calculation is making shit up and guessing and that is worse, that is even harder than making assumptions and trying to do a calculation.
So my You is, you know, we should sit down.
So what are the costs you talked about for elderly people for most people?
Maybe the biggest cost is just mask wearing is uncomfortable.
Now, the other in some settings what we worry about is communication.
So for example, if you’re wearing masks in classrooms, does that make it harder to speak at the teachers?
Wearing a mask and you’re not here them as well?
If the students wearing a mask are they less able to focus?
Like if you’re wearing masks in an indoor business areas of hard to focus.
So you’re less productive.
I honestly think we just have poor quality.
On these questions.
We just don’t know much about how big those costs are.
And then, of course, in younger children, you worried about various developmental things where again, we just have poor quality evidence and we don’t know much about the magnitude of the cost.
So I think we know more about the baggage through the benefits, but only in the medium term, the long-term benefits are hard to assess for reasons.
We can get injured.
Early in the episode, I had my colleague.
Dan Amber, who’s a science journalist, who’s written a lot about the lab leak.
And we talked a little bit about how the media’s treatment of the lab leak in the last three years is an interesting lesson for science writers and journalists in dealing with clouds of uncertainty.
Not ruling out candidates.
Not ruling out stories simply because they seem like they might be racist or it seems like it might give Credence to a side that you don’t belong to or that it seems like it might under cut the benefits of science.
It might have been hard for scientist in 2020 to say that actually maybe this pandemic started because of scientists making a mistake that might have been a hard thing for some people to admit.
I’d love to ask you a similar question, which is what you think the debates about masking reveals about the way science and scientific communication is conducted today.
Like, dude, you see ways in which This fight that we’re having now you and I.
But that we, as a country are having this way away that this fight is a microcosm of a really important story about how science Works in America.
It’s my view is, I don’t think there’s anyone making like, an obvious mistake.
My view is kind of felt like doing science properly is really, really difficult.
There are lots and lots of things you can get wrong.
And so when you have like a highly politicized top, Take like masking, the world is always just going to be flooded with bullshit and the signal from the like the actual signal from the truth is always going to be kind of weak.
And what happens is like maybe over the very long span of history.
As more research accumulates and everything, then eventually sort of, people figure out what’s, what?
But it’s just kind of the nature of things that like doing science properly is really, really difficult.
And there’s just a lot of subtle distinctions that are going to get lost in any political, Since you don’t journalist ever that is super hard job to so, so like it’s not something where it’s like, oh man, everyone’s being so stupid.
Why don’t they just do this?
It’s kind of like, yeah, that’s the way the world is going to be.
When you have a highly politicized issue, which is really, really hard to figure out what the truth is.
One thing I would say is there are certain communities that have like really good norms and it’s those Norms that sort of allow science to progress over the long-term.
Like there are communities where and I would say, like, I think, Like people who do I consider my field of being what’s called like applied microeconomics?
Like we try to do Empirical research and we try to design studies a sort of tease out the truth of things.
I think it actually has very good Norms, in the sense that if you go to a seminar in our field, of course, you know, everyone is political.
It’s not like people are perfectly objective and can get away from all the kinds of things you’re talking about.
But there’s just a norm that it’s like, you know, we’re really trying to figure out what’s true, right?
And so, if someone has sort of like a cow, Intuitive result on like a hot button political issue.
The questions aren’t like how dare you say this R.
I can’t believe you would say this.
It’s like the questions are really going to be focused on like technical questions of methods like make could you do this to maybe maybe you should do this additional check because it might suggest.
Whether this thing went wrong or you can get this additional data to try to do that.
So I think there are some communities like that and the more of those there are the better and like one thing journalists can try to do is to like figure out where those communities are.
Our and try to get a little bit of signal from those, but you guys, don’t have an easy job because, of course, you know, there’s a, there’s a very hard meta problem in the world of how do you decide who has expertise, and who you’re listening to?
And that’s hard to do part of me wants to make fun of you for, you know, like saying, like, you know, micro Economist: the world should be much more like the field of Economics at the same time, in all honesty and this is not just like, you know, blowing smoke up your ass.
I’m in a lot of different entities on Twitter.
I dabble in politics Twitter, I dabble in covid, Twitter.
I dabble in entertainment Twitter and media Twitter economics and finance.
Twitter is one of the best bubbles to be in and I don’t know why the people is that I follow in that space are so not perfectly on ideological.
But so curious about understanding problems with numbers like it’s a lot of people posting graphs.
Of the direction of used-car inflation and saying, what do you think that is?
And then there’s like a list of theories and some of them get retweeted and then someone’s like actually I don’t think that this Theory holds because as if you refer back to something that I have a luck wrote like 2020 it actually turns out that yacht like it’s a lot of numbers detectives that are kind of just trying to like be little, you know, numbers Sherlock, Holmes and solve numbers Mysteries and that that leads to some problems.
You know the economics Twitter misses a ton of shit.
And has a ton of problems, but it’s better in along this Vector.
I think that a lot of Alternatives communities.
Last question for you.
You said you know, starting this is hard figuring out exactly how masks work and how especially they work?
In community settings, it’s really hard.
What do we need?
More of for this question to be easy.
So I think one thing that I would like to generally, see more of in the world and I think that public health agencies, He’s as currently structured are not well, equipped to handle is sort of like rapid like rapidly funded but very large-scale experiments.
So similar to what we did in Bangladesh for Mass but it’s like there’s similar kinds of things you could do for ventilation.
And for all these other things that we really just have not done because like public health agencies are not equipped to do these in the short run and they’re kind of ill-equipped to do for them in the long run to.
So we, we got the funding for our experiment.
From a private funder.
Give well right.
And it’s like, you know, we managed to convince them.
It’s like they’re, they’re trying to do good in the world.
We managed to convince them that this was a useful source of funds, but it’s like if we tried to get that funding from the the National Institutes of Aging, the ni a, you know, it would have taken for year application or something like that before, any funds materialized.
So I think setting up agencies that basically encouraged to things like one is making decisions quickly.
So instead of being like you apply and and in two years you might get some funding being like there are certain types of problems where we need to respond more quickly and second funding more like large-scale projects instead of like 100 smaller projects.
So instead of like a hundred people being like Oh I need a hundred thousand dollars so I can spend this year doing I’m going to try to survey the survey people and do this sort of like I know it’s not the best study but at least it’ll be kind of suggestive doing more things which are like no we’re gonna get 100 people together.
To do the best possible study to really get the best data to answer this question.
I think that is like there are much higher returns to doing, like the large-scale ambitious thing to collect the right data and really answers the question you care about as opposed to writing.
Many, many low quality studies that don’t necessarily have date on the outcome, you care about and aren’t necessarily designed to answer the right question and then doing with the Cochrane review did and saying, oh let’s aggregate up 100 of those studies or something instead of Doing a handful of the studies that are really well designed to do that.
Yeah, more speed, less bullshit, more big, big studies.
That seems like a pretty interesting and promising formula for the future science.
Jason a black, thank you very very much.
Yeah, this is great.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you for listening.
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