In the past week, it’s suddenly become commonly accepted wisdom that congregational singing is dangerous. We’ve been told that singing together in church could lead to a “super-spreading event.” We’ve been warned that if we sing together in worship, we will expose ourselves to higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Except that none of that is verifiably true.
Does singing together spread COVID-19? The correct scientific answer is: possibly.
We have anecdotal evidence of people being infected after a choir practice. We have a study from 1968 on tuberculosis. However, a causal link between singing and the spreading of COVID-19 has not yet been scientifically established.
But you wouldn’t know that from how pastors and church leaders are talking about it.
Two weeks ago, TGC posted an article with the click-baity title “Is Congregational Singing Dangerous?” (Implied answer: yes.) This week, an article by Houston pastor Steve Bezner has been making the rounds. In it, Bezner claims: “Some studies have suggested that singing—yes, singing—spreads respiratory droplets further than coughing.”
Notice the key word: suggested. Apparently the mere claim that “some studies have suggested” is enough to count for empirically verified science in some circles. But hold on a minute… when you actually drill down into the details to learn what science has established, a different picture emerges:
- We know from the CDC that “the COVID-19 virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person… Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
- We know from a 1968 tuberculosis study published in the American Review of Respiratory Disease that singing aerosolizes more particles than merely speaking.
- We know that members of three choirs in three different countries contracted COVID-19 this spring after rehearsing together.
So, just line up the data: COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets; singing produces aerosolized particles, which are even smaller than droplets; choirs have gotten sick after singing together; therefore singing is dangerous! Case closed, right?
Except that’s not how science works. Correlation does not equal causation. As a researcher quoted in the Guardian article points out: “The evidence for a link with singing and spreading the virus may look compelling but is still anecdotal… Without data from comparably large groups who interacted in the same way but didn’t sing, it’s hard to be certain that the singing was responsible.”
In private correspondence, a pulmonologist who runs the COVID ward at his local hospital made the same point: “We know from news reports that churches have been identified as areas where concentrated transmission has taken place. Singing? Close proximity? Fellowship? We cannot tell which one is responsible.”
At least one researcher, in fact, claims to have evidence that singing ISN’T the cause of the choir outbreaks. Professor Christian Kähler of Military University Munich told the Guardian: “I have been studying how droplets and aerosols behave for decades, and I was very doubtful that musicians and singers were spreading the virus. So I decided to measure just how strong was the airflow from them… We studied singing in low and high frequencies… And based on the flow analysis we did of these performances… [we] found out that singing is quite safe. It was not the cause of the outbreaks of Covid-19 at these concerts. Air was only propelled about half a metre in front of a singer, and that is not far enough to cause the infection levels of these outbreaks.”
Now: we’re learning more about COVID-19 every day. It’s possible that further research will establish a definitive link between singing and spreading. But we shouldn’t act as if such a link exists when it doesn’t.
Some authors on this issue have done a fair job hedging their bets (“While the data is still coming in, it appears the path forward is wise caution… singing may generate more risk than normal speech,” writes Ken Boer at TGC). But others have made outright false statements (“the virus spreads through singing,” Steve Bezner claims). Part of the dynamic at play in this moment is the proliferation of secondary sources (blogs, Medium posts, Twitter threads, etc) where reputable sources (epidemiologists, biologists, infectious disease specialists) draw inferences and make their own conclusions in an attempt to offer their “expert opinion” on what we should do. Though at times these insights can be helpful, they’ve created a nebulous universe of pseudo-science where hasty and unverified conclusions are shared with frightening speed and presumed authority. For instance, in an article linked by Bezner, Erin Bromage, a Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, flatly assumes that the Skagitt Valley Chorale became sick through singing: “Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place.” Bromage claims to know that “deep breathing while singing” caused the infection in the chorale members, despite the fact that this has never been established. As the L.A. Times reports: “There is still much to learn about the choir outbreak, starting with the original source of the virus… the county official said she hoped that a study would be conducted someday to determine how the infection spread.”
In Bezner’s defense, he’s likely taking Bromage’s word for it and treating his assertion as an established scientific fact. But Bezner would have been wise to check the primary sources himself. And this is the problem I’m trying to address: a telephone game that’s leading to great confusion among church leaders. Bromage on his blog draws an unverified conclusion; Bezner on his blog assumes and amplifies Bromage’s assertion; a church planter I know reads Bezner’s blog and shares it with his church; and the average person in the pew walks away convinced that congregational singing is dangerous.