All Commentary
Friday, October 1, 2021

Education Secretary Touts Mask Study—Gets Rebuked by Senior Author of the Study

US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona this week cited research out of Wisconsin to claim masks had led to lower COVID transmission in schools, prompting a response from one of the study's authors.

Image Credit: Flickr-Alliance for Excellent Education-Allison Shelley | CC BY-NC 2.0

On Monday, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona touted new academic research to show that masks have been effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

The study focused on seventeen schools in Wood Country, Wisconsin that were analyzed from August 31 – November 29, 2020. Researchers concluded that mask-wearing was high and COVID-19 transmission was lower in the school than in the general population.

“A Wisconsin study found that schools that required masking had a 37% lower incidence of COVID-19 than the surrounding community,” Cardona claimed on Twitter. “Let’s be data-driven and follow the science when it comes to protecting our students in schools.”

Cardona’s tweet caught the attention of Tracy Beth Høeg, an epidemiologist and physician resident at the University of California-Davis, who worked on the study cited by Cardona.

“Secretary Cardona, I was the senior author of this study,” Høeg replied. “Our study is not able to give any information about the role masks played in the observed low in-school transmission rates. We had no control group so [we] don’t know if the rate would have been different without masks.”

Cardona had not responded to Høeg’s reply as of Thursday afternoon.

The Science of Masks

Masking students has become one of the hottest political topics in America. While the vast majority of businesses have abandoned mask mandates, and Americans attend sporting events with tens of thousands of people mask-free, many school districts around the country continue to impose mask restrictions on children.

New York magazine recently noted that the science on masking children in schools “remains uncertain,” noting that many European countries have foregone mask mandates—including France, Italy, the UK, all of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—and the results have not been dire.

“Conspicuously, there’s no evidence of more outbreaks in schools in those countries relative to schools in the U.S., where the solid majority of kids wore masks for an entire academic year and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” wrote journalist David Zweig. “These countries, along with the World Health Organization, whose child-masking guidance differs substantially from the CDC’s recommendations, have explicitly recognized that the decision to mask students carries with it potential academic and social harms for children and may lack a clear benefit.”

Moreover, the CDC’s own research indicates that masking children may not be effective. A large-scale study the department published in May, which analyzed approximately 90,000 elementary students in Georgia last winter, found no statistically significant difference in schools that required students to wear masks compared to schools where masks were optional.

“The 21% lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional,” the CDC said. “This finding might be attributed to higher effectiveness of masks among adults, who are at higher risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection but might also result from differences in mask-wearing behavior among students in schools with optional requirements.”

The CDC study is not the only research to cast doubt on the efficacy of masks.

A peer reviewed study published last month by the Southern Medical Journal concluded that mask mandates did not reduce COVID mortality, hospitalizations, or cases in Texas’s fourth largest county.

A recent large-scale analysis from Bangladesh currently undergoing peer review also was inconclusive.

“The Bangladesh mask study does not show a statistically significant difference in the efficacy of cloth masks vs surgical masks,” Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff recently observed. “Based on the confidence intervals, both could be around 0% or both could be around 20%.”

An abundance of medical literature suggests the benefits of masks are uncertain at best, yet many school systems continue to mandate them despite potential tradeoffs in learning and socialization—and the fact that children statistically have less to fear from COVID-19 than the flu.

Masks and the Anatomy of State

This of course invites an important question: what is the purpose of forcing masks on children if they are ineffective and children have little to fear from the virus?

The answer to that question can perhaps be found in the writings of economist Murray Rothbard. In his celebrated 1974 work Anatomy of the State, Rothbard argues that the state’s existence is predicated on convincing the general public that its role is not just legitimate, but necessary.

To this end, Rothbard contends, the state enlists a class of individuals—whom he refers to elsewhere as “court intellectuals”—who work hand-in-hand with the government to convince the public it is a benevolent force working in the public’s interest, not its own.

“Since its rule is exploitative and parasitic,” Rothbard writes “the State must purchase the alliance of a group of ‘Court Intellectuals,’ whose task is to bamboozle the public into accepting and celebrating the rule of its particular State. The Court Intellectuals have their work cut out for them. In exchange for their continuing work of apologetics and bamboozlement, the Court Intellectuals win their place as junior partners in the power, prestige, and loot extracted by the State apparatus from the deluded public.”

Secretary Cardona can talk about “data-driven” studies, but he’s not actually following science.

For starters, as Høeg observed, there was no control group. And there’s the additional fact that science cannot guide humans in the realm of value judgments.

“[T]here is no such thing as a scientific ought,” Ludwig von Mises observed in his work Planned Chaos, echoing a famous argument by David Hume. “Science is competent to establish what is.”

By using public school systems to coerce children into wearing masks they don’t actually need, Cardona and other bureaucrats appear to be simply “bamboozling” the public into believing a convenient fiction: that their benevolence, knowledge, and very existence is protecting our most precious resources—our children.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.