You could not mask the fact that this face mask study probably didn’t deserve to be published in a scientific journal in the first place. On May 12, 2023, a journal named Frontiers in Public Health issued a retraction of a very flawed publication that had made a bunch of unsupported claims about wearing face masks. This article was initially published on April 5, 2023 but over the ensuing month faced a lot of criticism from scientists and public health experts, you know the kind of people who can tell a good quality study from garbage. This thing formerly known as a publication had claimed that face mask wearing could somehow cause what the authors had dubbed as “mask-induced exhaustion-syndrome (MIES) and down-stream physio-metabolic disfunctions.” Not only that. This publication-no-more had also asserted that “several mask related symptoms may have been misinterpreted as long Covid-19 symptoms.” That may sound alarming, except for one itty-bitty-gigantic-how-did-this-thing-even-get-past-editorial-review-in-the-first-place problem: the article did not really provide that little thing called sound scientific evidence to support its claims.
Indeed, the Frontiers in Public Health retraction notice specifically said, “Following publication, concerns were raised regarding the scientific validity of the article. An investigation was conducted in accordance with Frontiers’ policies. It was found that the complaints were valid and that the article does not meet the standards of editorial and scientific soundness for Frontiers in Public Health; therefore, the article has been retracted.” The notice continued by saying, “This retraction was approved by the Chief Editors of Frontiers in Public Health and the Chief Executive Editor of Frontiers. The authors did not agree to this retraction.”
What kind of concerns were raised? Well, how about Eric Burnett, MD, a hospitalist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, deeming the article “absolute nonsense,” and Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist who calls himself a “Health Nerd”, describing the article “absolutely filled with basic errors?” Yeah, those would probably qualify as concerns. For example, if your boss had told you that your work was “absolute nonsense,” that probably would not have qualified as a good performance review. And if your significant other were to describe you as “absolutely filled with basic errors,” you might want to hold off on that joint down payment for a vacation home.
When something is described in such absolutes, it shouldn’t take too much time to investigate. I detailed for Forbes on April 29 many of these shall-we-say fruity concerns. For example, even though the article called itself a systematic review, it seemed to “cherry-pick” studies that supported the authors’ point-of-review rather than include or at least acknowledge the numerous studies that have provided evidence supporting the use of face masks. Such “cherry picking” is not sound science. Heck, you could probably find at least some evidence to support any point of view, such as your boss is actually a reptile, you are being mind-controlled by a can of soup in your cupboard, or sweater vests are good things to wear. Real systematic reviews, though, are supposed to objectively look at and consider the totality of studies that have been published.
The article had also in many ways “compared apples with oranges.” We’re not talking comparing real fruit, which would have been a weird thing to do for an article on face masks. Rather, the study had combined studies that had looked at different things under very different circumstances and, thus, weren’t very comparable. This included studies that measured oxygen levels, carbon dioxide levels, heart rate, and other values in people wearing face masks while exercising strenuously and then somehow trying to make these findings apply to what might happen to people going about their regular daily activities. If going about daily activities were the same as exercising strenuously then who would really need gym memberships, right? It should already be clear that wearing a face mask while exercising strenuously is not the same as wearing a face mask while going shopping or being at your workplace, assuming that don’t work on an actual treadmill or tend to pant excessively around others. Thus, it shouldn’t have been too surprising that those exercising vigorously did experience some changes in oxygen levels, heart rate, respiratory rate, and skin temperature while wearing face masks.
Of course, even if you were to experience some small changes in such measurements wouldn’t mean that face masks were necessarily causing real harm. For example, just because your heart rate, respiratory rate, and skin temperature may go up when you see BTS in concert, doesn’t mean that should just say no to BTS. If wearing face masks were so risky as the article claimed, why haven’t there been more problems among surgeons and cosplayers all these years?
Even though this article is technically gone-baby-gone, it still remains available on the Frontiers in Public Health website as of May 24. It does include the following warning: “A retraction of this article was approved in: Retraction: Physio-metabolic and clinical consequences of wearing face masks -Systematic review with meta-analysis and comprehensive evaluation,” along with a link to the Retraction Notice. However, one does have to wonder whether this warning is strong and clear enough. How many people will notice the Retraction Notice, realize what it means, and understand how flawed the article was in the first place? This shouldn’t-have-been-a-published-article has already been viewed/downloaded 219,817 times, while the retraction notice has only been viewed around 19,441 times as of May 24. Anonymous social media accounts and people like Jeffrey Tucker, who helped organize the Great Barrington Declaration and founded the nonprofit Brownstone Institute for Social and Economic Research, have already had over a month to push this article. If you are wondering what Brownstone can do for you, Gavin Yamey, MD, MPH, MA, the Hymowitz Professor of Global Health and a Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, has called the Brownstone Institute “an extremely anti-mask, anti-vaxx right wing think tank,” on Twitter.
Even though this article is now a “dung” deal, so to speak, the big question is how much longer-term damage may be done or “dung” by this article. Even after a journal retracts an article, it can continue to live on like a zombie in the words of Tim Caulfield, LLB, LLM, Professor of Law at the University of Alberta, on Twitter:
As Caulfield indicated, conspiracy theorists may simply blame the retraction on something like the Deep State rather than the article being deeply flawed.
Again, it’s unclear how this article had made it through editorial review at this journal in the first place. This wasn’t just a simple oopsies, as the article had numerous flaws and made very strong unsubstantiated claims. It does make one wonder what kind of quality control measures have been in place at the journal. Frontiers in Public Health is still a relatively new journal, established in 2013 when the number of new health and medical journals began surging after more and more people had realized how profitable running such journals can be. And like anything in life, whether its journals, Karate Kid movies, apps, or pizza, whenever there’s more and more of something, quality can suffer. After all, more journals doesn’t mean that more quality science is being done. Therefore, publishing an article in just any journal listed on PubMed doesn’t carry the same weight and meaning that it may have a decade ago. Instead, these days everyone’s got to be more discerning about the quality of the journal, its track record as to what kind of papers it has published, the rigor of the journal’s review process, and the backgrounds, expertise, and experience of the journal’s editors and reviewers. Pushing the frontiers of science doesn’t mean letting a paper so flawed get through one’s editorial gates.