Face mask experiments and asking the wrong question

Photo by Griffin Wooldridge on Pexels.com

A little while back I mentioned a study looking at cases of COVID-19 among families with children in the home. I observed that the study was being used by people to push conclusions that it did not and could not make.

Something similar has been happening with a Danish study about mask wearing. The study observed that people wearing masks were statistically no less at risk from COVID than those who did not wear masks. That’s very interesting but despite the way it has been seized upon by anti-maskers, it does not debunk the claimed benefits of mask wearing because the mask is meant to prevent you from spreading the virus not from catching it. Of course, this does not prove that masks are effective. It just means we have not yet disproved the claim.

In the big scheme of things, whilst some people have made mask wearing their personal hill to die on, I suspect most people will not be too worried if we find out that covering our mouths and noses had minimal effect. Compared to having to self-isolate, close down your business, stop church attendance and socially distance, this minor inconvenience is probably the least of our worries.

But what I wanted to pick up on again here was how we study, experiment and report evidence.  I’ve noticed a few complaints on social media to the affect that it is unfair on the research team that they are getting negative press. The defence seems to be that their scientific reputation and methods are impeccable. I’m sure that is true. However, your reputation can be brilliant, your methods impeccable, your research out of this world in terms of its accuracy but if it asks and answers the wrong question then none of that matters.

This can happen in all walks of life.  I have talked here before about the painful experience of watching a solicitor preparing an immigration case and following the processes scrupulously.  However they got nowhere because they failed to ask the questions that mattered. I’ve also watched consultants at work designing new business systems, processes and organisations. The results were shiny and impressive but failure to get to grips with the real issues would always make their work a waste of time.

Of course this can happen in Christian life too. If we ask the wrong questions in our Bible study then all the careful following of good methodology won’t save our sermon. Similarly, failure to get to the real issue prevents effective pastoral care.

So before you go any further, make sure you are asking the right question.

Postscript: The Spectator have just published this response article with questions about the Danish experiment

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