Science hocus-pocus on a blackboardImage: Meet (Shutterstock)

A current paper argued in a magazine called Medical Hypotheses that maybe we shouldn’t wear masks. It cites years of research before we understood the pandemic, and their arguments don’t hold together. But it looks like a scientific study, and it’s been shared on social media and by some news sites like it was a study.

For experts in the field, and for those who have kept pace with research on COVID-19 over the past year, the paper’s claims are clearly unsupported and its reasoning is not new or interesting. It is mainly a repetition of claims that have been debunked time and time again (including here at Lifehacker).

But a lot of people shared it because it looked like a legitimate study. It was often referred to as the “Stanford Study” or the “NIH Study,” and the fact that it was published in a peer-reviewed journal seemed to give it credibility. So let’s look at why these signifiers aren’t actually relevant.

What is the difference between a study and a journal article?

Scientific journals publish a wide variety of articles. Many of them describe a study that I would define as an experiment or a series of experiments trying to answer a piece of a real question. A clinical trial of a drug or vaccine is an example of a study. A statistical analysis of disease rates in a population is another. A laboratory experiment with test tubes and microscopes is another.

G / O Media can receive a commission

However, journals also publish other things, such as reviews that collect previous research and comment on similarities and differences in their results. They also publish opinion and editorials that could certainly make a science-based argument for or against a public health recommendation such as the wearing of masks.

There are also magazines that are, shall we say, weird. The one in which this recently published anti-mask paper appeared is called Medical Hypotheses, and while this is an peer-reviewed journal, it is not about publishing empirically solid studies. It says of itself:

… Medical Hypotheses was therefore born and still exists today to openly consider novel, radical new ideas and speculations in medicine and to open the field to radical hypotheses that would be rejected by most conventional journals.

Getting on PubMed doesn’t make something an “NIH Study”.

The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, maintains a database of articles published in medical and health-related journals. This database, known as PubMedis a helpful tool for finding articles and sharing abstracts.

However, if you didn’t know, you can follow a link to a PubMed abstract, find there is a large NIH logo in the corner, and assume the paper was published by the NIH or one by the NIH. However, the NIH only runs the database. Very few of the 32 million citations describe the research actually carried out by the institute.

It is also not a “Stanford study”

There are Stanford scientists who have published somewhat questionably motivated research on the pandemicbut that is not the case here. A common tactic used in disinformation campaigns (like the one around) Planemia) is to rely on a person’s previous job title or their association with people or institutions with whom they may have interacted in the past, even if that affiliation is no longer correct or relevant.

In the case of this anti-masking paper, the author stated that he was a member of the “Department of Cardiology, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health System / Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, USA”. But according to Stanford itselfApart from a year as a visiting scholar in 2016, the author is not affiliated with Stanford.

These Red flags did not point out the many people who shared the study, even on multiple local news sites, According to a Reuters Fact Check Report. A popular post from a conservative website used the phrase, “A recent Stanford study published by the NCBI and listed under the National Institutes of Health,” which is doubly wrong. If they had read something further, they would have known better. Sometimes people share things they want to believe in rather than things that are actually believable.