As if face masks weren’t already a controversial enough topic… A recent study designed to provide a methodology for testing masks has suddenly morphed into the centerpiece of a raging debate about whether neck gaiters — much beloved by runners and others for their comfort and ease of use — are effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19. We blame this brouhaha on a click-bait headline in The Washington Post.
According to its authors, the original study, “Low-cost measurement of facemask efficacy for filtering expelled droplets during speech,” was designed to “demonstrate a simple optical measurement method to evaluate the efficacy of masks to reduce the transmission of respiratory droplets during regular speech.” They chose a number of common varieties of face coverings and masks and tested the number of droplets that could be observed when someone wearing one speaks.
The Washington Post wrote about this very preliminary proof of concept and gave it a misleading headline: “Wearing a neck gaiter may be worse than no mask at all, researchers find.” Which of course was designed to generate clicks and sell ads.
Within days, runners and scientists struck back. Runner’s World tried to clarify the story: “…this study was meant as a demonstration of the technique for testing mask effectiveness, not as a systematic study of all mask types, study author Martin Fischer, Ph.D., associate research professor in the Department of Chemistry at Duke explained.” And a Science News article, “4 Reasons You Shouldn’t Trash Your Neck Gaiter Based on the New Mask Study,” also pointed out the flaws. Within days the controversy itself was news.
The point is that The Washington Post’s headline writers took the results of a very preliminary study and made them seem like proven fact. This is how disinformation spreads. We expect better from a major newspaper that has won over two dozen Pulitzers. For that reason, the headline writers at The Washington Post are this month’s Measurement Menace of the Month. ∞