MINOT, N.D. — There is a faction in the news media that would like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held in South Dakota last month despite the ongoing pandemic, to be the "superspreader" event researchers at San Diego State University have said it was.
Bikers are a largely white, mostly male and quite Trumpy demographic. They're prone to scoff at the perils of the pandemic and eschew things like masking and social distancing, which makes them the perfect villains in some ideologically compromised quarters of the news industry.
This is why, when those SDSU researchers issued a report linking the Sturgis event to more than 260,000 cases of COVID-19, so many in the news media couldn't help but suspend the skepticism which should be inherent in their professions and pounce.
The headline was everywhere last week, but the report's findings, whatever political narratives it perpetuated, should have been approached with more caution. As it stands now, millions of Americans now likely believe that the Sturgis rally made more than a quarter of a million people sick, based on a preliminary report, written by economists, not medical experts, that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
I urged skepticism, if not outright dismissal, and some criticized me for that.
Experts are beginning to weigh in, and they aren't buying what the SDSU report is selling.
"There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of these findings, and the 266,796 number itself should raise serious believability alarm bells," warns Jennifer Dowd, deputy director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford, in an article for Slate, which is hardly a publication with right-wing sympathies.
The issue is the methodology, says Dowd.
"The Sturgis study essentially tries to re-create a randomized experiment by comparing the COVID-19 trends in counties that rallygoers traveled from with counties that apparently don't have as many motorcycle enthusiasts," she writes. "The authors estimate the source of inflow into Sturgis during the rally based on the 'home' location of nonresident cellphone pings. They use a 'difference-in-difference' approach, calculating whether the change in case trends for a county that sent many people to Sturgis was larger compared with a county that sent none. They looked at how cumulative case numbers changed between June 6 and Sept. 2. While this approach may sound sensible, it relies on strong assumptions that rarely hold in the real world."
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an adjunct professor of epidemiology at UCLA, called the estimated $12.2 billion economic cost of infections from the rally "absurd."
"Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are raising doubts about a study that estimated that a massive motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, last month led to more than 260,000 new cases of coronavirus nationwide," CBS News reports.
The doubts raised have to do, again, with the methodology SDSU used. Problems like failing to take into account that Sturgis attendees were probably more likely to get tested after the event than the broader public, something which would have contributed to more positives among their numbers.
The issue wasn't that the SDSU study made the news. It should have. It's research from a credible source related to what is the most important story in America right now.
The problem is, for reasons ranging from ideological bias to a rampant need for link clicks, the findings of the report were touted uncritically by many reporters.
That was wrong — a real failure.
Worse, it undermines the public's trust in both scientific research and reporting about that research, which is a point Dowd makes in the conclusion of her piece.
"Exaggerated headlines and cherry-picking of results for 'I told you so' media moments can dangerously undermine the long-term integrity of the science — something we can little afford right now," she writes.
Based on the data, it's a near certainty that the Sturgis rally accelerated the spread of COVID-19, and that's something the public needs to be aware of, but it's challenging to get the public to take that fact seriously when the news media is busy dunking on the deplorable with sensational spread numbers based on thin-gruel science.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.