Analysis, Charles, Life Advice, Political Discussion & Analysis, Popular, Social Behavior
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Against Masks

The great social argument of this instant is whether everyone should now, because of the Wuhan Plague, be required to wear face masks, and if so, under what circumstances. Today, therefore, I will offer a complete analysis of mask wearing, something I have seen nowhere else. True, I normally disdain writing about transitory matters, which this likely is, but the Plague and the varied reactions to it in the policy realm say much that reflects light onto broader and more permanent topics, and this is particularly true of masks, arguments about which condense matters of greater import.

There are rational reasons to wear masks, and there are rational reasons not to. My threshold point is that mask proponents, at this moment ascendant in the ruling class and in the media-visible populations of the country, rarely, if ever, discuss those reasons. In part, this is because they are not challenged. Among the chattering classes, left and right, mask opponents, or those suggesting a more nuanced approach than universal coerced mask wearing, are afraid to speak out because of the mob. For the most part, opponents are therefore not heard, simply seen, refusing to wear masks in locations where many other people are wearing them. When we do hear from opponents in the mass media, it is no accident, because this is the image our media wants to portray of mask opponents, that all of them, except the author of this article, are fat, unattractive people from America’s heartland, who shriek incoherently about their freedom and rant at thin, handsome, well-spoken shop workers. There is almost never any actual discussion.

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The purported goal of mask wearing is to maximize personal safety, in the form of good health, of society’s members. As with nearly every policy connected to the Wuhan Plague, “arguments” by those demanding mass social action consist mainly of surfing waves of emotivism, fueled by the pleasant sensations of consuming and disseminating panic porn. Proponents of mask-wearing never offer any type of cost-benefit analysis. Instead, they offer unfocused yet fierce emotion of various types, usually buttressed with bromides such as “spread love, not germs” (a sign I saw today), claims such as “science shows,” without any knowledge of or reference to actual science (that is, they offer a mystery cult version of scientism), or self-focused non sequiturs such as “I want to be part of the solution.” Some, especially on the Right, say mask wearing “is for the common good,” which is merely a sophisticated-sounding way of begging the question. If pressed further, proponents usually clam up or become angry, but if not, they offer third-hand anecdotes, or phrases such as “it can’t hurt, and it might help.” They invariably completely ignore costs, and if cornered, explicitly deny there are any costs. Thus, whether by government functionaries or a grocery-store Karen, demand for universal mask wearing is not reasoned, but visceral.

My aim here is to impose rationality—delineate the costs and benefits of masks, and to examine the reasons that make mask wearing a good or bad idea. Of course, that mask proponents resolutely refuse to engage in such a rational discourse is not a promising sign. They can’t even get their story straight—to this very day, despite pressure, the World Health Organization (corrupt, but no more corrupt than the Centers for Disease Control, and less attuned to hurting Donald Trump at any cost) says only the sick, or healthy people tending to patients, should wear any type of mask. This conflict is not surprising, since as is often pointed out, there is still a great deal we don’t know about the Plague. Rather than this engendering modesty in those who demand mask wearing, they instead claim certainty at all times.

The divide over masks only partially maps onto left-right divisions. Yes, the Left at this moment universally favors mandatory mask wearing, but much of the Right does too, swept up in the herd mentality and, as always, unwilling to stand firm against Left demands. Who on the Right does not favor mask-wearing, and why, isn’t especially clear. Trump doesn’t, but he hasn’t offered a coherent reason for not doing so—either it’s a gut feeling or he thinks it reduces Presidential gravitas, I imagine. Some libertarians just object to any reduction in their freedom, a rational position, but not one that says much about masks specifically. Rusty Reno, the editor of the prominent magazine First Things, was viciously attacked by a mob of right-wing literati when he rejected mask wearing as cowardly, including by Rod Dreher, whom the Plague has revealed as an unstable and gullible hysteric, not the leader in the face of hardship many thought he was. Reno retreated, post-haste, presumably afraid he would lose his job. None of this is a coherent argument against wearing masks, however.

The declared aim of mask wearing is to reduce the chances of transmission of the Wuhan Plague. On this basis, three general scenarios exist in which one might wear a mask. We can call these High, Medium, and Low, tied to the general likelihood of disease transmission. The High scenario is where one knows himself a carrier of the disease, or cannot avoid repeated close physical contact with those who have it, or is in ongoing close physical contact with those at high risk of death if they contract the disease. Examples include families with someone sick at home, hospitals that are actually treating virus patients in the part of the hospital they are treating patients, and nursing homes. Medium is where nobody is in close physical contact or is known to carry the disease, and interaction is transitory. Examples include stores such as Costco and restaurants, as they are currently set up. Low is where nobody is in any other than indirect, transitory contact with other people. Examples include outdoor exercise—walking, biking, and so forth.

Underlying this framework is that we have learned much about the disease over the past five months, and perhaps the key fact relevant here is that only two groups of people in the general population have any material risk of death from the Plague. (True, the disease is supposedly sometimes very unpleasant in any sufferer, but usually not, and often completely asymptomatic. And death is the focus here.) The first is people over seventy; the median age at death in developed countries for all deaths is around eighty. The second (significantly overlapping the first) is people with certain health debilities, mostly respiratory and cardiovascular, but including obesity. This last is the most important for policy reasons, since so many Americans are obese. But in America, obesity is ignored by politicians and the press, both deathly afraid of conveying stigma, which might constitute the dread sin of “fat shaming.” Nonetheless, the stark truth is impossible to deny at this point: anyone not in these categories, that is, anyone healthy (or unhealthy but without these specific health problems), is at low risk of hospitalization and very low risk of death.

Exactly how low the risk is for healthy people is hard to tell at this point, both because much is still being learned and because the figures are distorted for, and used for, political purposes. It approaches zero, however. Do yourself a favor. Find a news article about a survivor (or, if you can find it, a fatality) that is about a person under fifty claimed to be otherwise “healthy.” In the vast majority of cases you will find one of three things. First, the person was unhealthy, and that is admitted in the body of the article, but downplayed. Second, the person was obese, but it is never explicitly mentioned, and usually can only be seen from pictures. Third, the person was a male homosexual, and whether he was immune compromised is never asked or answered. There are exceptions, just as there are with any respiratory illness, all of which can and do kill completely healthy but unlucky people. (The Spanish Flu infamously did exactly that.) But for the Plague, they must be very rare, because any that could be definitively shown would be widely covered by all mainstream news outlets, and go viral on social media.

If you tell these facts to vociferous mask proponents, they will almost always simply deny them. This is of course the classic reaction of those in the grips of an ideology, or of a cult—facts that contradict their beliefs are either ignored or twisted to reinforce their beliefs. Instead, they will emote, and then personalize, saying that either they, or people they love, are at risk, so therefore we must act as if everyone is at risk. Again, not a promising sign for the possibilities of rational discussion.

It is not just individuals who emote in this fashion, though. A few days ago the New York Times had as its entire front page a long list of names of some of the dead, with only a headline, that these deaths were an “incalculable loss.” Using the front page in this fashion had never been done before, not even for 9/11, and the reason it was done now is clear—to signal that the opinion-setters of the country demand that we bathe in the emotion of fear, and not dare to inquire into the facts. Certainly, the Times’s readers are already cowering, so there is no change there—but now all the media in the country who take their marching orders from the Times will parrot the same line for the foreseeable future, including the overtly false statement that the loss is “incalculable.” It is true that the emotional cost may be high for the families of the dead, if they had family, or family that remembered their existence. But the societal cost is objectively very low. The vast majority of the people listed were already close to the natural end of their lives, and would not have contributed anything notable to society had they lived longer—especially since nearly three-quarters of them had been warehoused, out of sight and out of mind, in nursing homes by their now-bereaved relatives, or by the state. The truth may be unpleasant, but it’s still the truth.

What about non-death long-term consequences of the Plague? We are now regularly treated to breathless media attention to one or another debilitating “syndrome” supposedly linked to survivors. Last month it was lung scarring; a few weeks later it was strokes. Both those are largely forgotten, and today it is a variation on Kawasaki disease, a systemic inflammation, supposedly appearing in children. It is quite plain that all of these are simply the usual occasional knock-on effects of sickness, especially respiratory illness, on the unlucky or already unhealthy, exaggerated and highlighted to give political cover to those who want the Wuhan Plague to be seen as more dangerous to the healthy than it really is. These syndromes are as real as Morgellons disease—that is, they’re not real, merely a delusion (in this case, unlike Morgellons, manufactured by those with propaganda aims to delude others).

A mother who knows that literally zero children in America without some major existing health problem have died from the Plague (in fact, it appears children die from the regular flu at a higher rate than from the Plague) will press for school re-opening much more than a mother who has read that her child may suffer a debilitating follow-on illness as a result of the Plague. She will ignore, out of caution, that this latest claim follows the same pattern as other scare articles now forgotten. I will bet you money that in two months we will hear nothing at all about this supposed inflammatory syndrome, it having become clear it was nothing at all, but we will have heard of more than one other such syndrome not heard of now. But coordinated news stories, designed to psychologically manipulate the populace, will have accomplished their political purpose of running cover for those who benefit by exaggerating the impact of the Plague.

Before we get into reasons for and against masks, it is also important to acknowledge that the legal and social requirements with respect to masks have changed dramatically over the past two months. Such whipsawing is usually a strong sign of something lacking an underlying rational basis. Ten weeks ago anybody who showed up in public with a commercial mask was shamed for wearing it. We were lectured that such masks were to be reserved for so-called frontline workers only, who desperately needed them, while they offered no benefit to the average person outside of a hospital environment, who showed his evil selfishness by wearing one, because he was a “hoarder,” denying “heroes” a fighting chance to live. To further discourage mask wearing, we were hectored over and over that wearing of most commercial masks was a complicated task only for experts; anyone else was doomed to fail, and be worse off than before. If it was clearly a homemade mask, the wearer might escape opprobrium, but was regarded as silly, since everybody knew that cloth masks offered no benefit to anyone in Medium and Low situations, as our media and government instructed us (and as the WHO still does). Wearing a cloth mask was thus something done by those who ignored expert advice, but was socially tolerated as an understandable quirk.

Today, though, we are told Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. In the current iteration of social stigma that now requires masks in some areas of the country, any mask is acceptable, even a sloppily-fitting cloth mask. Most people now realize that the virus is far too small to be stopped by any mask, high-filtration or not. Instead, to the extent they pause to focus on details while demanding everyone wear masks, they claim that masks stop virus-carrying droplets from entering the air, or perhaps they stop those droplets from being breathed in. That’s not really true, because any but a close-fitting mask doesn’t really contain sneezes and coughs any better than coughing or sneezing into one’s elbow. In fact, sneezing in a loose-fitting cloth mask creates Venturi-effect jets out of either side of the mask, hurling droplets far father than they would go otherwise. If everyone always wore commercial N95 masks when out, it would change the calculus a little, maybe. But they don’t, and they won’t, because such masks are uncomfortable (and cause new health problems when worn for a long time). Cloth masks are all that will be worn by most people for more than a few minutes, so that is what we are talking about when we talk about masks.

What is more, as with the so-called six-foot rule of “social distancing,” there is little or no scientific evidence that masks, tight or loose, reduce transmission of the Plague, with the sole exception of commercial masks combined with other protective equipment (such as gowns, gloves and face shields) in High scenarios. Air-carried droplets in casual contact are likely not a relevant vector of the disease’s transmission, just as asymptomatic transmission appears rare at this point. Most, or even almost all, transmission appears to occur in High scenarios. But I am not primarily interested in parsing scientific evidence, which is frequently updated, and will continue to be for a long time. Nor am I going to conduct an analysis of all policy questions related to the Plague, such as contact tracing, or testing, or ponder at length why, to what end, permanent mass social control is the goal of those pushing lockdowns. I am interested in reasoning about masks, so I am going to list reasons in support and in opposition, and analyze the substance and weight of each.

Note that, to the extent “authorities” and “experts” tell us to wear masks, they are entitled to no deference whatsoever. The same “authorities” have been wrong on every important aspect of the Plague, from it not being a problem at all; to hospitals being overrun (we were assured they would be nationwide, even with the lockdowns); to the infection fatality rate (currently estimated by the CDC at 0.3%, and heading lower, while we were assured it was as high as five percent); wrong about the deaths that would occur when the state of Georgia reopened; wrong that China was lying about the number of deaths; wrong that a massive wave of death would hit Sweden, which did not lockdown at all. When those pushing precautions have proven themselves repeatedly wrong, always to the side of gross exaggeration, as a result imposing massive costs on society through their errors, it is only rational to discount, or better, ignore, their latest demand for us to take action at no cost to them, until conclusive proof is first offered, which it never is.

Let’s start with possible reasons mask wearing should be mandated. I note there are a few narrow situations where nearly everyone would agree it is appropriate to wear a mask. All High scenarios (except perhaps uncomplicated elder care) are of this type; the discussion here therefore relates to Medium and Low scenarios—in other words, to any situation of normal social contact. Moreover, even in a Medium or Low situation, if you know your cousin, thirty years old and completely healthy, is an extreme hypochondriac, and he is present, it is perhaps a nice gesture to wear a mask, although one should not reflexively cater to mental illness, so some thought is still required. Beyond these, though, what possible reasons are there everyone should be required to wear a mask outside the home?

First, we cannot rule out that masks will reduce transmission to some degree. What that reduction might be is unclear; some argue qualitatively that countries where mask wearing is common, such as South Korea, have experienced less-severe outbreaks, although many other variables are also in play, and I am not aware of any analysis that shows mask wearing reduces transmission in Medium and Low scenarios. There is no evidence that those with the disease, but asymptomatic, reduce transmission by wearing masks, or are even significant sources of disease spread, even though that possibility has a certain surface logical appeal. Still, this is a rational, but weak due to lack of evidence, reason to advocate universal mask wearing.

Second, universal mask wearing may lead to lockdowns in those states where they are still active being ended sooner, because such demonstrated social compliance with government commands is something authorities can indicate as a reason to end a lockdown they already want to end, but need a scientific-sounding reason. That this is a sad commentary on our society is irrelevant; it’s a possible benefit of everyone wearing masks. Again, it’s a weak reason.

Third, if everyone has to wear masks, then a sick person doesn’t feel like he’s identifying himself as sick by wearing one, and is more likely to do so, entirely eliminating the most likely (if still unlikely) vector of transmission in Medium or Low scenarios. Logically, this is true, and a fairly strong reason, but the number of people who know themselves to be sick who are choosing to leave their homes is probably very small, so this is again a small benefit.

Fourth, one can rationally argue that the precautionary principle suggests everyone should wear masks. In essence, as applied here (a bit outside of its usual usage), this is the idea that when costs are unknown but may be enormous, it is wise to avoid any chance of those costs. However, the costs of the Wuhan Plague are not unknown; there is still much we do not know, but we do know precisely who is at risk, and what the maximum theoretical death toll is, and it is lower than previous pandemics that passed largely unremarked, such as the 1968 Hong Kong Flu (during which Woodstock was held) or the 1957 Asian Flu (sense a pattern in disease origin?) To be sure, ten weeks ago, when we could not quantify the costs, wearing a commercial mask was probably a sensible precaution—right at the time we were told it was socially unacceptable to wear any but crude masks. But we now know more, so we are not dealing with the possibility, say, that the Plague may kill twenty percent of the population, or ten percent of children, or pregnant women, all of which would be costs vastly greater than the costs we are actually experiencing. That mask proponents resolutely refuse to make such distinctions undercuts their demands. Thus, what this claim has devolved to is merely a claim we should ignore cost-benefit analysis, by assigning an essentially infinite, and unquestionable, value to vague benefits. It is a way to seem rational while never departing from the warm comfort of the swamp of irrationality, and is no reason to wear masks.

Fifth, it appears that a high percentage of the population is in favor of requiring masks. This is meaningless and not a rational reason to support masks. That public policy should be decided by direct sampling of the opinions of the ignorant and manipulated public is dumb.

That’s it. Five reasons can be found to wear masks in Medium or Low scenarios, some weak, some not reasons at all. OK, let’s look at the other side of the coin, possible reasons why we should refuse to mandate the wearing of masks in Medium and Low scenarios.

First, anyone clear-eyed recognizes that mask requirements are not something arising organically among concerned citizens examining the facts. Rather, they are yet another abrupt ruling class dictate, from the people who for decades now have force fed us a multitude of destructive poisons, from neoliberal globalism to Drag Queen Story Hour. All of those dictates have been justified only by the benefits they have brought to the ruling class, either in lining their pockets or imposing their vision of a new society on the rest of us. Without the strictest proof, why should we believe coerced mask wearing to be any different, or justified in any way?

The same people who now present Greta Thunberg as an expert on the Wuhan Plague are those leading the charge to require masks, which reinforces the visceral recoiling from their commands. Even in healthcare, the ruling class has lied to us for decades, from their initial reactions to the Plague (such as accusing Trump of racism for wanting to limit travel from China in January) to their decades-long pretense that AIDS is a risk for heterosexuals. The reason for these lies is that for the ruling class, health care is wholly subordinated to their political agenda. Only one example is needed to prove this here—in April, at the height of the Plague in New York, Dr. Anthony Fauci, while demanding total national lockdowns, was asked whether people should still use sex-hookup apps like Tinder and Grindr. His immediate and reflexive response was not “The government should mandate those apps be made inactive during the Plague,” which would have been coherent with his other demands. Rather, it was “If you want to go a bit more intimate, then that’s your choice regarding a risk.” In other words, ensuring that no harm came to the leftist dream of total sexual emancipation without consequences was more important to the man in charge than the supposed national crisis. What was instinctively crucial to him was preserving the Left social vision, not saving lives. This clown is the man who now tells us we must wear masks, though presumably not when cavorting with tonight’s third Grindr hookup.

Second, wearing a mask contributes to unseemly national hysteria, that is evidenced most notably by the total failure of our rulers and the chattering classes, and much of the rest of America, to engage in any rational discussion. It also contributes to hysteria’s close relation, the safetyism that has emasculated more than a generation of Americans, who as a result didn’t notice, or refused to notice, when “flattening the curve” was baldly changed into a totally different, and likely impossible, but safety-oriented, goal, “defeating the virus.” Refusing to wear a mask is refusing to participate in and contribute to, instead pushing back against, this hysteria and safetyism that has been so destructive of American virtue and ability to achieve. The very fact someone declines to wear a mask, especially in a place like Costco where walking through the parking lot is a far higher risk than contracting the Plague, is a rebuke to the hysterics and a blow for rationality and courage. It’s not quite Rosa Parks—but it’s not that far off, either.

Third, wearing a mask dehumanizes each of us in our social interactions, further destroying the already tissue-thin American social fabric. This crucial point was made recently by the Shenandoah Valley organic farmer Joel Salatin, speaking on Joe Rogan’s podcast. As a society, we need and crave social closeness, in the normal course and even more under the pressure of threats like the Plague. Masks destroy social closeness, further eroding already nearly disappeared social trust and social capital. We already see plans to make small children wear masks in school, an unfathomably corrosive idea for the same reason. Refusing to wear a mask is refusing to help pound yet another nail into the American coffin.

Fourth, enforced mask wearing is very obviously, for many pushing them, from the government to the local Karens, merely a manifestation of the pernicious human impulses to have power over and control others and to feel superior to others. Last week Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, shrieked on Twitter, “I’ll keep saying it for as long as it’s necessary to say it: Wearing a mask is about RESPECT.” This gives the game away; he means not actual respect, which is earned, but cowering at his power and his dictates, combined with giving into the social pressure he whips up and encourages. Refusing to wear a mask is refusing to participate in and contribute to the social control that blue state rulers love so very, very much.

Mask wearing in America has an analogue in the United Kingdom, where (following WHO guidelines) the government does not suggest universal mask wearing and there is little social pressure to wear masks. Instead, another instrument of social control is used. For the past three months, in England everyone in the country is forced by social pressure to leave his house every Thursday evening at 6 p.m. to clap and cheer wildly for the abysmal National Health Service, worshipping its workers, for no reason that is given or apparent, as national saviors. It is all very much like North Korea or East Germany, without (so far) those refusing to comply with the latest dictates being taken out and shot. That the instrument of social control is a different one in other countries undercuts any possible arguments in favor of universal mask wearing, while at the same time revealing, yet again, the goal underneath requiring the actions.

Fifth, Americans used to value their liberty. True, this was always an ordered liberty, until modern times, and an excessive focus on liberty, based on Enlightenment errors, was probably the original snake in the American garden. And libertarians who claim a free-floating liberty to never take any action that they do not feel like taking, which today for some is refusing to wear masks, do not have a sound argument. Absolute liberty in health matters has never existed in America, and although it is true that the idea that the police power includes the power to unconstitutionally prevent the movement of the healthy is a radically novel idea, mask wearing in the abstract is not a significant constraint on the individual’s liberty, and not a powerful argument against wearing masks.

Nonetheless, refusing to knuckle under to demands to wear a mask is a condensed symbol of resistance to Leviathan, that today crushes all Americans not part of the ruling class, and such signaling rejection of coercion is both understandable and a virtue, and a good reason to refuse to wear a mask in Low and Medium scenarios. Enforced mask wearing, like extended lockdowns, is also a front in the ongoing war between the invisible classes and the professional-managerial elite, where the latter relaxes and benefits at the expense of the former, in this case ordering food from Grubhub instead of having to go to McDonald’s. Wearing a mask is surrendering to the elite, and a defeat in that war, which will further encourage their bad behavior.

Fifth, enforced mask wearing is pseudoscientific, with little or no evidence it actually achieves the supposed goal of health. I discussed this above, when discussing possible reasons to wear masks, so no need to repeat myself.

And there you go, five very strong reasons to refuse to wear masks. I think it quite clear that the balance of reasons for and reasons against universal mask wearing in Medium and Low scenarios suggests mask wearing should not only not be required, but be strongly discouraged in those scenarios. Basic hygiene and not licking doorknobs, or embracing strangers, should be encouraged instead. And if as a society we decide to worry about the Wuhan Plague more than previous pandemics, and insist on spending massive resources to combat it, actions should be targeted. Most of all, people at high risk should stay home, to the extent, and only to the extent, they value reducing their risk of sickness or death more than they value being able to go out and live their lives. (Or, for those who are more comfortable with government orders, old people should be barred from leaving their homes, and everyone else should do as they please.) Sick people, old or young, should stay home, not put on masks and then go out, and we should spend the necessary money to ensure they are adequately supplied, not print trillions to placate those made unemployed by hysteria.

No doubt, in this digital age where the cycle of public policy has sped up to a blinding pace, mask wearing will soon disappear as a matter of consequence, superseded by other arguments tied to the Plague, or to other events entirely. Maybe those events will be the disappearance of the Plague, as Farr’s Law (though not really a law, any more than Moore’s Law) would suggest. Maybe they will be new disasters, murder hornets or the like. Maybe it will be whether schoolchildren, at zero risk from death, should wear face shields and not come near to others, come August, on penalty of the schools not re-opening. Maybe the riots will begin and the cities will burn. The Plague has exposed our lack of social resilience, but that doesn’t mean we need to deliberately kneecap it by mandating universal wearing of masks.

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58 Comments

  1. laura mcginley says

    I don’t think of S. Koreans as particularly obese people & working age people in offices per S. Korean data did reflect transmission of Covid-19 based on spacing—probably much like the meat packing plants outbreaks—not limited to the U.S.

    I am inclined to suspect we have lots to learn about this virus & would not dismiss a face mask as a terrific imposition on adults.

    Where do you find the stats of asymptomatic transmission —it seems a nasty possible feature re
    mask rejection.

    • Charles says

      The link on asymptomatic transmission was an NIH study. But cruise ships have shown the same thing. It also makes sense–if asymptomatic transmission were common, given the high percentages of asymptomatics, the disease would be far more widespread.

  2. Daphne Patai says

    One question: why do you say China did not disguise the numbers of people infected with Covid-19?

    • Charles says

      I meant not their initial coverup, but their subsequent death counts after the Wuhan lockdown. These were widely criticized as fictitious, but appear to be accurate. (I predicted in February that, as with SARS in 2009, there would be wild rumors, of such things as crematorium overload–and there were, including allegations tens or hundreds of thousands of bodies were being burned in open fields. All false. Such rumors are a universal thing, of course–the classic example is in wars–but made worse by the internet.)

  3. brendan says

    You hit the nail on the head with Dreher. It’s shocking how badly he has reacted under this pressure.

      • Jaspreet says

        Allow me to second both sentiments — loudly, albeit without enthusiasm…. I still look at his TAC page almost every day, because he continues to cover important subjects that others often won’t touch — but his opinions and points of view increasingly make one cringe. Perhaps he’s always been like this (I only started reading his blog in June 2018, and still haven’t picked up his books) — whatever the case or cause, there are many reasons these days to skim rather than read the blog….

  4. Carlos Danger says

    Excellent piece. I had thoughts along the same lines, but none so coherent and cogent.

    We’ve seen this kind of thing before. This mask wearing is just like the 55 mile per hour speed limit that lasted through six presidential terms from Nixon to Clinton, though it never had any real justification. And the prohibition on alcohol that was a farce for 13 years.

    These things are part moral crusade, and part practical measure. They are subject to mission creep and make it impossible to balance risk and reward. They don’t let us use our own judgment, but instead punish us all as sinners.

    The numbers make wearing masks look silly. Fewer than 1% of the population is infected and spreading the Covid-19 disease. Fewer still are asymptomatic. Fewer still fail to keep their distance from other people for the 10-minute periods that matter. Fewer still fail to cover their coughs and sneezes.

    So wearing a mask might stop the spread of the Covid-19 disease, but only in the rarest of cases. More than 99.99% of the people are wearing masks to no good end. Measures that force the healthy to wear masks or to stay home miss the target.

    It is the sick who should be targeted. Not because they are bad people who should be socially shunned. But because they need medical help themselves, and they need to be kept from infecting others. The sick should be diagnosed, their contacts traced, and quarantined.

    The always been the focus in an epidemic. Masks and lockdowns have never been used except for the sick and the vulnerable. They never should be used on the healthy.

    That’s why I had to laugh at Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel. There was no medical reason for Donald Trump to wear a mask when he talked to reporters at the Ford plant. And she knew it. So she blabbers about obeying the law, and about how Ford executives somehow should have forced Donald Trump to wear a mask.

    Come on, woman, you’re the attorney general for the state of Michigan. If it’s that important you should have sent law enforcement to cite the president for breaking the law!

    Your real beef is clearly not that people were endangered by the president’s masklessness. It’s that he would not kowtow to your pressure to signal his virtue. Virtue-signaling is what’s important to you, not accomplishing something.

    We all want to fight the virus. Rules forcing us to wear masks don’t help. It’s like what Thomas Edison said about rules. A new hire at his laboratory asked what the rules were that he should follow. “Hell!”, Thomas Edison said, and spat on the floor. “There ain’t no rules around here. We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.”

    • Carlos Danger says

      One can find articles on this online that purport to present science but instead present opinion. This one has a glaring factual error that makes me wonder about the rest of its facts:

      “After evidence revealed that airborne transmission by asymptomatic individuals might be a key driver in the global spread of COVID-19, the WHO recommended universal use of face masks.”

      That’s false. The WHO has never recommended universal use of face masks.

      As the WHO has noted, there is no real evidence that the virus spreads through trace aerosol virus (that is, virus floating in the air). Instead, the evidence suggests that droplets passed during close contact over a period of several minutes with an infected person are the primary vector of transmission.

      The authors of the article you cited advocate the universal wearing of masks and the widespread testing of the healthy population in an effort to find hidden carriers of the virus. They don’t even attempt to weigh the costs and the benefits of those measures. And they offer no evidence to suggest that either measure would be effective, let alone cost-effective.

        • Carlos Danger says

          I’m sure the authors of the article meant the CDC instead of the WHO.

        • Carlos Danger says

          The WHO has today changed its advice to recommend the wearing of fabric masks by healthy people. As it admits, there is no scientific evidence to support this change in advice.

      • Carlos Danger says

        I looked at some of the references cited in the article you cited, and was disturbed by the fact that at least one didn’t say what it was said to say. Specifically, the article says: “Surgical mask material reduces the likelihood and severity of COVID-19 by substantially reducing airborne viral concentrations (13).”

        But if one looks at reference 13, one finds an article called “Simulation of the clinical and pathological manifestations of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in golden Syrian hamster model: implications for disease pathogenesis and transmissibility” that says nothing of the kind.

        What gives?

        I did enjoy reading the article about hamsters, though, as it gave some interesting information. For example, here’s something I had not thought about:

        “Though it was likely that the challenged animals were continuously shedding a high viral load in respiratory droplets which served as the most important portal of transmission, they might have also shed virus in their faeces as demonstrated by viral load study and N protein expression in the intestine. Hamsters are hindgut fermenters that eat their own faeces, a feeding behaviour called coprophagy, to recover nutrients digested in the hind-gut but unabsorbed. Thus, faecal-oral route of transmission could not be excluded in this model as well as in human.”

        Hmmm. So some hamsters may get the Covid-19 disease by eating the, um, feces of other infected hamsters, and this fecal-oral route of transmission might also occur in humans? Seriously? So the CDC needs to update its guidelines to warn us against eating other people’s, um, feces?

        Then I remembered that more than 40% of the world does not have access to a toilet, so the advice to be careful around feces might be important to many. (I read Rose George’s book “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters” years ago and the subject has been of interest to me ever since.)

        It is easy to forget what conditions many people live in. Brazil, for example, has become a hot spot for Covid-19 disease. Some blame it on Jair Bolsonaro and his poor response to the epidemic. More likely is the problem of the living conditions in the favelas and the fact that many of the poor have no option of not going out to work.

    • Charles says

      I agree generally with what Carlos says. In general, as I note among benefits, masks may in fact reduce transmission, and there is an intuitive and qualitative sense that must be true. There appears to be little or no scientific evidence for that at this point, though, and much qualitative evidence against. My larger point, though, is that unless the benefit is extremely high, this benefit does not outweigh the reasons against, in Medium and Low scenarios.

  5. Dave says

    I agree with your central premise here, that the debate about whether to wear a mask has taken on a deeply partisan cast – which is, of course, not the best lens through which to make any public health decision. However, it should be kept in mind that 1) there is a broad national consensus in favor of wearing masks in limited circumstances – as you note, only a small number of conservative Republicans object; 2) poll data suggests that the vast majority of the public doesn’t view it as a burden in any way; and 3) the traits you associate with mask proponents (“not reasoned, but visceral” “they instead claim certainty at all times”) are of course equally prevalent among those who object.

    I also agree that a cost/benefit analysis is the right way to think about this. Any rational public policy will involve allowing some spread of the virus, which inevitably means deaths; and it will also involve some limits on social and economic activity, which constrain liberty and entail economic costs. We can’t get risk of transmission to zero; nor should we take no action at all to stem the spread of the virus. Any useful policy will strive to minimize costs and maximize benefits – but it is bound to be messy. We are struggling with incomplete information about the nature of the virus, limited resources, and a divided public. We will have to take a few steps forward and a few steps back, acknowledge mistakes, be open to new data, and shun ideological assumptions. The best approaches will likely alienate the left and the right. We should reserve our greatest skepticism for those who claim the answers are easy or obvious.

    Recommendations will change as we gather more data and experience. At the start of the pandemic, the CDC though the benefits of wearing masks were minimal enough that they recommended against it; as more data became available, they changed that recommendation and offered a tempered endorsement. “Such whipsawing is usually a strong sign of something lacking an underlying rational basis,” you argue; I contend it’s the sign of decisions that are driven by data rather than dogma. You say the “authorities” and “experts” have been wrong – and should therefore be given no deference; I say the skeptics have also been proven disastrously wrong (“we’ll be down to zero cases in a few days”) – and given that in many cases their claims were proudly based on appalling incomplete data or “gut feelings” (hydroxychloroquine for everyone!) they should be ignored as well. A tolerance for uncertainty, and an ability to change one’s mind as the data changes, are essential characteristics for leaders today; a need for consistent certainty is disqualifying.

    Let’s look at the guidance that has led to current mask policies. WHO’s recommendations are more ambiguous than you suggest; they take no position on the use of non-medical masks. ”The use of masks made of other materials (e.g., cotton fabric), also known as nonmedical masks, in the community setting has not been well evaluated. There is no current evidence to make a recommendation for OR AGAINST (emphasis mine) their use in this setting.”

    The CDC recommends their use, citing seven peer-reviewed studies and noting that pre-symptomatic transition is possible. Their recommendation is not dogmatic, and is expressed with a full recognition of the modest benefits masks would provide: “CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus. CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”

    So let’s look at your list of costs and benefits. On the benefit side, I see only one that really matters, and it’s the first one you list – the possibility that masks may reduce transmission. I concur that the benefits are uncertain and likely to be modest at best, but to my mind that’s the only real worthy basis for a mask recommendation.

    And the costs of wearing a mask? To my mind, the costs are three dollars worth of fabric and the five or ten calories it takes to pull the mask on and off on the way in and out of the coffee shop. That’s it.

    The six costs you list:
    • First, they are a ruling class dictate.
    • Second, they contribute to an unseemly national hysteria.
    • Third, they dehumanize us in our social interactions (Joe Rogan says so!)
    • Fourth, they contribute to a pernicious human impulse to have power, control and feel superior over others.
    • Fifth, liberty is at stake.
    • Sixth, reasons for wearing a mask are pseudoscientific (which isn’t really a cost, just a negation of a purported benefit.)

    The first five are really different ways of saying the same thing – that putting on a mask is a concession to a creeping loss of liberty which is a) soul-crushing and b) the first step to some paranoid apocalyptic fantasy of liberal social control (today a mask at Taco Bell, tomorrow the gulag!)

    Funny, but I neither feel oppressed nor superior when I wear a mask – I mainly just feel a little clammy. I give it almost no thought, nor, if the poll data is to be believed, do most Americans. Twitter may be a raging soup of ideologues from the left and right fighting over mask requirements (and the media certainly highlights such battles, though they reflect a tiny share of the population), but there’s little evidence that most members of the public are caught in the same fervor.

    There seems to be some psychological fragility here that is the exclusive province of the Right; wearing a mask sets them spinning down a dark psychological tunnel that the rest of us can’t perceive. There are likely extremely small health benefits to wearing non-medical masks, but if the only cost is sending the Right into a sputtering rage over imagined slights, sign me up. The solution, it seems to me, is for the Right to simply get a grip, stop being such snowflakes, and make a trip to the hardware store without putting themselves through a dark night of the soul.

    It’s also worth noting that all the angst on the right about “liberty” ignores the fact that nearly everywhere, mask “requirements” are anything but. In most states they take the form of “recommendations” which may be freely ignored and often are. Only seven states have some form of a requirement, all generally only for indoor public spaces some only for essential workers, and there is essentially no enforcement mechanism. There have been nearly no arrests (many locations have an explicit no-arrest policy) and the handful that have happened seem to come when someone asks a non-mask wearer politely to put one on per a business’s requirement, and they then lose their grip and attack a security guard or cop. So it’s imagined constraints on liberty, rather than real ones, that are driving the fever dreams of the Right.

    Interestingly, WHO lists a variety of additional costs of wearing a mask which don’t make your list, but every single one of which I find more compelling – and which, I would argue, if more data arrives, might well make me believe we are better off without them:

    • self-contamination that can occur by touching and reusing contaminated mask
    • depending on type of mask used, potential breathing difficulties
    • false sense of security, leading to potentially less adherence to other preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene
    • diversion of mask supplies and consequent shortage of mask for health care workers
    • diversion of resources from effective public health measures, such as hand hygiene

    One final note – you mention a couple of pandemics which you say had more impact than our current one: the CDC says the 1968 Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 Americans with no social intervention and a vaccine available in four months; the 1957 Asian Flu killed 116,000, again with no social intervention and a vaccine within a month. Obviously neither is a suitable comparison; we’ve essentially already matched their death tolls despite the largest social intervention in American history, and with a vaccine still far off.

    • Charles says

      Thank you for the thorough response and thoughts! My thoughts:

      1) I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a “broad national consensus” or “the vast majority of the public doesn’t view it as a burden in any way.” I have seen a few polls suggesting variations on the former, which I noted. But certainly here there is relatively little mask wearing—I was at a coffee shop last week, and nobody worse masks or changed their seating arrangements. (I didn’t note any alignment with “conservative Republicans”—there may be, but I doubt it; I think is more geographically cultural.)

      More importantly, though, it is not at all true that mask opponents also demonstrate the irrational, emotive characteristics of mask proponents. This is, like much discourse today, a false equivalency (one, as I noted, deliberately created and fed by the media). Of necessity, opposition to what is portrayed by the media and the ruling classes as the default position must, on average, be much more reasoned and rational, simply because taking the position is swimming upstream, something few people do without a reason satisfactory to themselves, since it imposes a cost on them, unlike the default position, which is cost-free, or, more accurately, socially beneficial to those who adopt the default position.

      As I have noted before, this is why those on the Right can easily win most arguments with those on the Left. (That rationality, and therefore “winning” from the viewpoint of an impartial observer, has nothing to do with policy prescriptions or political actions today is an entirely different problem.) It is completely possible, and in fact extremely common, to lead one’s life in a left-wing bubble, where leftist views are the default position, but impossible to live one’s life in a right-wing bubble. Not only is the media overwhelmingly liberal, but at any public school (and most private schools), any non-small business place of employment, in the military, and everywhere else, continual aggressive leftist indoctrination is mandated and required as a condition of continued acceptance. If you agree with the ends of the indoctrination, in this process you learn nothing except conclusions. You certainly never learn any opposing arguments and are easily dismantled by anyone who has spent the same time thinking for himself. As has been proven by repeated studies, no surprise, conservatives are far better at arguing leftist positions than leftists are at arguing conservative positions—in fact, in most cases, they simply can’t do it at all.

      2) The crux of your argument is when you explain how science-based decisions making should work. But you give us no reason to believe in this case that it does so work, nor do your address my several arguments, both by example and by philosophy, that here it has not so worked. Aspiration is not achievement of a goal.

      The idea that those insisting on aggressive actions to supposedly combat the virus (New York; Illinois; Michigan) show “A tolerance for uncertainty, and an ability to change one’s mind as the data changes” is laughable to any rational observer. This has been doubly shown in recent days; the same Andrew Cuomo who put down any protest assembly or church gathering by force is fine with the recent riots, saying “I’m with the protesters.”

      Aggressive government actions, and in fact all reactions, tied to the Wuhan Plague are not science-based, but political aims, among which “Get Trump!” is the most important, but far from the only one. (The reasons for leftist governors and mayors imposing unscientific lockdowns are many, some of which I mentioned, but there is also the explicit desire to force the federal government to bail out states bankrupt as the result of decades of Democratic rule, using the virus as an excuse, and this is only possible if the hysteria is maintained.) I have no opinion, for example, on whether hydroxy-whatever works. But it’s entirely obvious that the Democrat-media complex desires for it not to work, because that aligns with their political aims. (Remember the huge coverage given to the woman who poisoned her husband, probably deliberately, with a similar-sounding chemical, simply to harm Trump? Or the lies about what Trump said about disinfectants?)

      3) My point on the WHO is not that we should agree with what the WHO says at any given time. I don’t care about the WHO; it’s also a wholly corrupt organization, run by a non-doctor literally in the pocket of the Chinese. My point is that there is not, in fact, any type of scientific consensus on masks. I’m not sure what you’re quoting, but their site says, as of now, “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19.”

      On the matter of deaths from Asia-sourced diseases of the past, I agree that I may have overstated the case—it’s not yet clear that Wuhan Plague deaths will be lower than the (very uncertain) death tolls from those diseases. (However, it is becoming fairly, though not conclusively, evident that the infection fatality rate for Wuhan is lower than that for either of those plagues, which also killed more people outside specific high-risk groups than does Wuhan.) That said, it’s not at all clear the lockdowns have materially reduced the immediate American death toll, or if they have, that they have reduced what will be the total American death toll. All that remains to be seen; as I noted, there are still a great many unknowns. It looks like we will see soon enough, since in nearly all of Europe and much of the United States people are going back to what is essentially normal. If nothing happens, then it’s pretty obvious the lockdowns were not worth the cost. But, again, a complete analysis of lockdowns is beyond my current scope.

      4) To be sure, different people will weigh costs and benefits differently. But it is simply not true that my five costs are all the same, and boil down to a liberty interest. That is the weakest and least important cost, as I noted. That has nothing to do with, for example, dehumanizing and social impact (it was Salatin, the farmer, not Rogan, who said that), or any of the other costs.

      It is also true that liberty interests are not only implicated by government arrests. Social pressure is just as important, if not more important in many cases. Whether a liberty interest actually exists is a totally separate question, of course.

      5) I can’t say whether you feel superior when wearing a mask. But you are a dying breed in America—the ideologue who is nonetheless extremely intelligent and continuously exposed to a variety of Americans across the political spectrum, and able to discuss policies in a rational way, even if there is no possible middle or common ground (and there is not). Public policy, on the Left wholly, and to a significant degree also on the Right (both Republican-party-centered and Trump-centered), is run by clowns who do, in fact, take actions based on a variety of base desires and pernicious emotions. It is impossible to run a successful country in this fashion. For all the reasons I gave, masks are a condensed symbol of this—a transitory matter, as I also said, but nonetheless indicative. (The past few days also show this, in higher relief, but that is a topic for another day.)

      6) As they say, that something is inevitable does not mean it’s imminent. But really, 2020 sucks. I mean, can you imagine the rage on the Left if Trump wins again (which he probably will, although it’s a long time from here to there)?

      • Dave says

        Thanks for the thoughtful responses. Just a couple of additional thoughts:

        1) I do not dispute that many on the left live deep within a bubble where their beliefs are not seriously challenged on a daily basis. I spend most of my time with such people. It is, however, a canard to believe that the same is not true on the right; your experience, as a conservative professional in an urban area who seeks out a diversity of political opinions, is not entirely typical.

        Most people get their news through social media, which is carefully curated to reinforce their existing beliefs. And the right, even more than the left, also shows a near-monolithic reliance on a single source of news (Fox, the choice of of 70% of those on the right, with the second-highest source – AM talk radio – clocking in at around 40%).

        You under-state the degree to which public schools, churches, and chosen entertainment outside urban areas reinforce conservative beliefs. Most Americans work for small businesses, not the large ones you mention, and it is obvious that small business owners are not a left-leaning monolith.

        And you conveniently choose not to mention the role of government, where in America the executive; half the legislature; the vast majority of the judiciary; and 59% of state legislatures are in the hands of the right, who regularly legislate to restrict the public’s access to data that would contradict the right’s ideological predispositions. Their dominance of the levers of government, sadly, has done nothing to to soften the tedious, droning culture of victimhood that dominates discourse on the right.

        Both sides of the ideological divide spend way too much time having their beliefs reinforced rather than questioned, and it’s a massive problem if we want a functioning democracy.

        2) I do have some limits. My deep-blue city had previously required that masks be worn indoors at places of business, or outdoors in places where maintaining a distance of six feet cannot be maintained. Starting tomorrow, they will require masks to be worn outdoors at all time at a distance 30 feet – on the logic that about 24 feet of space are required to effectively don a mask as you approach someone else outdoors. This is thunderously stupid and counter-productive, and utterly unjustified by the data.

        • Charles says

          That is God’s truth about social media, yet one more reason it sucks. (Cass Sunstein, of course, called this over a decade ago.) Nothing more to add, really. Let’s just hope we can all get through the next six months together!

  6. Eugene says

    Thank you for an insightful, rational analysis. It is refreshing to find a piece that isn’t emotionally febrile or one that is riddled with asinine conspiracy theories. One might only lament that, for the most part, the well-known and normally intelligent pundits or commentators I previously held in high esteem have allowed themselves to be blinkered by what can only be called the general consensus; and it is perhaps regrettable that voices such as yours are not easily accessible or available from mainstream sources/channels.

    You’ve illuminated one curious aspect of the “mask movement”, which is that it transcends the political divide. While one ought not be surprised by the enthusiasm for masks displayed by the left, it is interesting that many on the right feel the same way. To wit: Marine Le Pen, the face of France’s far right, has demanded that masks be worn everywhere in public places (currently the French need only wear it on public transit). In her view, this is sensible because masks are the only form of protection available to the public. Excellent logic: don’t just stand there, do something.

    You are also spot on when you say that the “libertarian” argument (that we should be free to not wear masks if we don’t feel like wearing them) is not a good argument. Drastic times occasionally call for drastic measures that might infringe on those notions of liberty that we hold in saner times. The question is whether a virus that is a threat mostly for elderly people with existing health problems (the median age of those dying from the virus is over 80) can be considered a “drastic” situation requiring the drastic measures that have been adopted.

    As far as masks are concerned, the WHO is recommending that healthy people not wear masks unless they are caring for people who have the virus. Frank Ulrich Montgomery, Chairman of the Council of the World Medical Association, has called homemade masks ridiculous. Lisa Brosseau, a former professor at the University of Illinois, has said cloth masks are useless against the virus. The list goes on; the point is that at present there is no established consensus on the efficacy of masks, and it is unreasonable to ask citizens to cover half of their faces in the absence of evidence that demonstrates there is a good reason to do so.

    There is a somewhat sinister attempt (acknowledged in your article) among some to turn masks into a symbol. I remember reading a newspaper article; the author argued that masks might become a symbol of solidarity – us against a steely virus. That’s very nice, but solidarity is all about stoking mass enthusiasm/support, not about keeping the public safe. At all events, solidarity should never be coercive. At least in the US, turning masks into a symbol (rather than an instrument of protection) leads to the politicization of an issue that is decidedly not a political one: if you wear a mask, you’re an educated, empathetic urban dweller; if you don’t, you’re a gun-toting yokel. In that context, the idea that one might be unwilling to wear a mask simply because there’s no rational basis for it – that idea is not given a chance to obtain.

    It must be noted that many of the officials now advising the public to wear masks recommended the very opposite not too long ago. There hasn’t been any new research in the interim, as far as I know. What’s changed? Truly it is a case of Oceania now being at war with Eastasia. Originally, officials denied the virus was a problem (POTUS said the virus would go away like a miracle); when they were caught flatfooted, unprepared and unable to protect the most vulnerable, they changed course. All of a sudden, we were now in a state of war, a convenient argument that deftly exculpates any government unprepared for the surge of cases on its soil. After all, you can’t really blame the government for mishandling a crisis that is an unprecedented one. Governments, therefore, have an interest in exaggerating the scope of the problem.

    But one should should resist the temptation to lay the blame solely on governments.

    Allan Bloom wrote a marvelous book called The Closing of the American Mind. The title is quite apt to describe our times – only it’s the global mind that seems to be closing, and the process is on steroids. We are dumbing ourselves down with careless abandon, mostly due to our use of social networks. From heads of state thundering away on Twitter to teenagers feeding their egos on Instagram and TikTok, everyone is on them. Things develop on social networks and subsequently feed into society. The result is that policy is formulated not through rational debate, but through emotionally charged storms blowing over social media. It is the essence of mob rule. The mob does not care for arguments; it is driven purely by emotions. And it destroys anyone who shows the slightest opposition to its will. If the mob decides masks are a good thing for no other reason than they make the mob feel good, the government will be accommodating. In fact, one might well ask if one can properly speak of government in the face of mob rule.

    The phenomenon is not confined to masks. The current BLM protests also come from the same source. Viewed rationally, at least three facts undermine the narrative of the protests: there is absolutely zero evidence that the police officer blamed for the death of George Floyd was motivated by racial hatred (his being white, I hope, is not prima facie evidence of racism); at least one of the four police officers charged in connection with the case is not white; and Mr. Floyd was a criminal who had spent several years in prison for an armed robbery – a biographical sketch that doesn’t make his death less tragic, to be sure, but one that surely makes him a dubious martyr. None of this is relevant, though: galvanized by imagery spread through social networks, the mob is demanding action, and it will brook no opposition. You’re a racist if you refuse to take the knee, just like you are a selfish pig indifferent to the deaths of others if you refuse to don a mask. And this crushing of dissent is highly effective. Stockwell Day, a former Canadian political star, recently said there was no systemic racism in Canada; the mere expression of that fairly benign opinion cost him his corporate sinecures.

    (It is interesting that, while people who have disregarded the lockdown rules to go outside and enjoy good weather have been labelled “covidiots”, those who have taken part in the BLM protests are “demonstrators”, even though their disregard for social distancing was far more striking. You can break rules – as long as you’re in the right ideological camp.)

    The real problem, of course, is not masks or the BLM movement. The real problem is that our intellectually impoverished society seems to be turning into mob rule – a sobering conclusion if there has ever been one.

    • Charles says

      All excellent points. Your conclusion is, I think, entirely accurate. But, of course, mob rule never lasts forever. It always ends in some form of Caesarism. Which, at this point, depending on the Caesar, would be fine with me!

      • Eugene says

        The key words are “depending on Caesar”. If we got a Lee Kuan Yew or a Frederick the Great, it would be very much fine with me as well. But if it’s a Chairman Mao or a Pol Pot, God help us!

        • Charles says

          I would rate Mao or Pol Pot as merely an extension of mob rule, and of the type of modern (1789 onwards) ideological tyranny that has always collapsed, though not before killing millions or tens of millions. To me (though of course definitions may vary) Caesarism implies a non-ideological strongman, reality-based. No dispute that we may get Mao or Pol Pot first, on the way to Caesar. The key question there is whether Americans will actually use the guns they have so many of, or whether they are all just LARPing.

  7. Eugene says

    “I would rate Mao or Pol Pot as merely an extension of mob rule, and of the type of modern (1789 onwards) ideological tyranny that has always collapsed, though not before killing millions or tens of millions.”

    After reflecting on this, I must agree.

  8. Carlos Danger says

    Covid-19 disease is on the rise in California. In response, governor Gavin Newsom today (June 18, 2020) ordered all Californians to wear masks in public. He said: “Science shows that face coverings and masks work. They are critical to keeping those who are around you safe, keeping businesses open and restarting our economy.”

    Strong words, those. “Science shows”. “Masks work”. “They [masks] are critical”.

    But government “guidance” from the California Department of Public Health speaks in a different tone: “There is scientific evidence to suggest that use of cloth face coverings by the public during a pandemic could help reduce disease transmission.”

    And “Cloth face coverings are not a substitute for physical distancing, washing hands, and staying home when ill, but they may be helpful when combined with these primary interventions.”

    Weak words, even weaselly, this time. “Evidence to suggest”. “Could help”. “Not a substitute” for “primary interventions”. “They [masks] may be helpful”.

    In fact, science has little to say about masks. With no real evidence from the real world, and only theory to suggest masks may help, deciding whether masks should be worn becomes a political judgment rather than a scientific one. Best to be upfront about that rather than try to sell a political measure as one supported by science.

    But politicians often cite science like this and get away with it. It doesn’t help that biology, or life science, is hardly a hard science. Unlike solid sciences like physics and chemistry, biology has no laws, no formulas, and no measurable units. The second law of thermodynamics. PV = nRT. Mass, distance, speed, volume. Biology has nothing comparable.

    Biology is not as soft as the social sciences, which can hardly be considered science at all. Biology has theories, certainly, and biologists use the tools of science (observation and experiment) to judge the value of those theories.

    But biology suffers from the problem that all life is complex, and resistant to reductionism. With complex systems the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Properties emerge in the whole that cannot be seen in any parts of the system, but instead come from the interactions between the parts. That makes cause hard to tie to effect.

    Humans have always liked to think up theories. Science evolved as a method to test those theories against the real world, by observation and experiment. Not to construct theories — or models — and then judge those theories in the abstract.

    Biology too often does the latter, not the former. It’s hard to make measurements and observations in biology. It’s hard to run meaningful experiments. It’s hard to make predictions based on theory, and then conclusively show that those predictions were accurate. So people posit theories without proof.

    That’s why biology births such mutants as the Darwinian theory of evolution, a concept that staggers on zombie-like, still alive after a century and a half though never proven and now apparent as a fallacy on its face. Darwinism has become just as much a religion to be taken on faith as the theory of intelligent design.

    The same with masks. People preaching the gospel of masks as a path to salvation from a pestilential virus have a message that at least sounds credible. It may be true. But it must be taken on faith, as the preachers don’t have evidence to back up their preaching. No observations. No experiments. No science.

    • Eugene says

      The government guidance provided by the California Department of Public Health you mention made me think of another article related to the use of masks that I’d seen floating on the web. The article makes the case for the widespread use of cloth masks, and it is worth quoting from that article:

      “Asking everyone to wear cloth masks can help reduce the spread of the coronavirus by people who have COVID-19 but don’t realize it. And countries that required face masks, testing, isolation and social distancing early in the pandemic seem to have had some success slowing the spread of the virus”.

      The first sentence alone is problematic. The attentive reader will note the disclaimer in the form of the word “can”: asking people to wear cloth masks *can* help reduce the spread; no one knows if it actually will.

      Then we move on to the second sentence, which attempts to buttress the preceding one. The reader is led to believe that countries that have adopted the widespread use of masks have been success stories. But take a close look at this sentence. We are told that countries that have done well have also required “testing, isolation and social distancing”, and we don’t know which one of these practices was the decisive one. Perhaps it was all of them, perhaps none of them.

      It gets better, though. These countries “seem to have had some success”. Note the tentative “seem”. Have they actually had success? Or does it only *appear* that they did? And if they were indeed successful, *how* successful? “Some success” hardly makes for a convincing argument, certainly without a definition, or some sort of quantifying, of “some”.

      As if to show just how much the whole thing has spun out of control, the New York City Health Department has taken to recommend that people entering sexual congress do so while wearing a mask (you can find this curious guideline in PDF on their site). I would have thought that people who engage in sexual intercourse – with strangers, anyway – may have other infections to worry about, but then what do I know?

      • Carlos Danger says

        Excellent points, Eugene. If officials really believed in the efficacy of masks they would tell everyone to wear them all the time, even and especially at home. (Unless a person lived alone.) Most infections occur in the home. Very few occur in chance encounters.

        Who knows, masks may help, a little. It’s hard to tell, but if they helped a lot it wouldn’t be hard to tell. Instead of focusing on things that may help we need to focus on things that we know help.

        Focusing on people showing symptoms, rather than the general public, has always helped. That means diagnosis of those with the disease, tracing to find those they were in close contact with (meaning 15 minutes of close proximity), and quarantine of the infected and their contacts.

        But these measures require work with boots on the ground that is harder to do than order people around from on high. So we get niggling advice like that you mention from the New York City public health department advising against unprotected (maskwise) sexual intercourse. And we get absurd orders like we have in our state, where you can only have unprotected (maskwise) social intercourse with people in your “social bubble”.

        Making masks into a fetish or talisman is more silliness than science.

  9. Carlos Danger says

    I just saw a comment former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger posted on Twitter praising governor Gavin Newsom’s mask order:

    “This is 100% the right move. This will help us beat this terrible virus. The science is unanimous – if we all wear masks, we slow down the spread and can reopen safely. It’s not a political issue. Anyone making it a political issue is an absolute moron who can’t read.”

    You can’t make this stuff up. Arnold Schwarzenegger calling another person an absolute moron? Why, a pot might as well call a kettle black. Moreover, it’s the present and former governors of California who are making a political issue out of masks, not those questioning the masking order.

    To be sure, though, this science stuff is a little complicated. With this virus crisis raging I pulled out a book about the science of complex systems (like biology). David Orell, with a PhD in mathematics from Oxford, published in 2007 a book called The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction.

    (The book was originally published in David Orell’s home country of Canada as Apollo’s Arrow. Legend has Apollo as a god of both medicine and plague, and Apollo’s arrow could cure plagues.)

    The book’s insightful. Rereading its short section on plagues and pandemics made me a little more humble. It’s hard to get the balance between panic and precaution right. Nobody can do it perfectly. We will make mistakes, but we still have to experiment. We still need to try things even when no one knows whether they will work.

    Still, while this virus is a serious disease, and needs to be treated as such, it is fair from apocalyptic. Measures like home confinement of the general public for months on end seem an overreaction. Measures like masks except for the sick or the vulnerable seem an overreaction. Science certainly doesn’t support them, though politics might.

    Politicians like Gavin Newsom and Arnold Schwarzenegger need to stop calling out science as their support. David Orell quotes in his book science journalist Laurie Garrett, who wrote a book about plagues. She said (albeit on a slightly different topic): “The bottom line for policymakers: Science does not know the answer.”

    Wise words.

    • Eugene says

      Carlos Danger,

      What you say is sensible.

      Arnold Schwarzenegger has done well for himself, but I don’t believe he is renowned for being an intellectual heavyweight and, his tough-guy image notwithstanding, the man is not exactly my idea of a statesman. I note that, according to his Twitter account, Schwarzenegger is on Snapchat and TikTok – not a good sign. But let’s focus on the central issue at hand. Schwarzenegger says that “science is unanimous”. He is dead wrong. Science is definitely NOT unanimous. In an earlier comment, I provided the names of several experts who have gone on record to say that masks are not useful. To name but one: Dr. Lisa Brosseau, a retired professor who taught at the University of Illinois. Those who are interested in “the science” can go directly to the source (https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/04/commentary-masks-all-covid-19-not-based-sound-data), but I am happy to provide the salient details here: “These studies [the studies they have conducted – Eugene] demonstrate that cloth or homemade masks will have very low filter efficiency (2% to 38%). Medical masks are made from a wide range of materials, and studies have found a wide range of filter efficiency (2% to 98%), with most exhibiting 30% to 50% efficiency.”

      So much for science being unanimous.

      Many of the recommendations surrounding the use of masks have no logic. I am convinced that most people who voluntarily put them on don’t actually know why they do so and, if pressed, would not be able to explain whom, exactly, they are protecting, themselves or others. Additionally, I’d wager many people who wear them have absolutely no idea how to properly put masks on and subsequently take them off and dispose of them. While the authorities in my neck of the woods have fortunately not been coercive with respect to this issue, their recent decision to force commuters on public transit to wear masks illustrates the absence of any logic. If wearing masks is so crucial to the prevention of the spread of the virus, the decision, which will come into effect in a few weeks, should have been made three months ago, when the crisis was at its apogee. To introduce the measure now that the number of cases is demonstrably falling in my region shows the general disregard for common sense.

      (It’s much the same with the two-meter guideline, by the way. As I have been pointing out since the beginning of the crisis, this is an arbitrary number. There is no science behind it, and a number of European countries, including some with high population density, have their social distancing requirements pegged at one meter.)

      You’re right: though you don’t explicitly say it, it seems like the left is politicizing the issue by trying to make all opponents of masks look like agents of the right. This is decidedly *not* a political matter, and it should have never been one. My own location on the political compass is irrelevant; I’d feel about masks the same way that I do now even if my political views happened to be different. Though regrettable, the ad hominem attacks (for example, calling other people “morons”) are what one would expect of a society whose leaders, current or quondam, are on Snapchat or TikTok.

      You’re also right when you say there is much that we don’t know. That said, there are a few things that we do know. One of the things that we do know – (a “known known”, to use a Rumsfeld-ism) – is that the virus is primarily deadly for those who are advanced in age and have existing health problems. This the least economically productive demographic group, which of course doesn’t mean that it is somehow less worthy than all the other groups. However, the decision to have the more economically productive groups placed under house arrest and otherwise deprived of their ability to lead normal lives in order to protect society from a virus that is mostly a problem for the least economically productive group – that decision is incomprehensible. Protect the vulnerable; let everyone get on with their lives. In any case, in a free society one expects that such a decision should be questioned and debated. Yet people who have attempted to do so have been admonished and even censored (I think here of the now famous video posted by Dr. Erikson and his colleague, inexplicably removed by Youtube).

      Unfortunately, the unpalatable truth is that if most people are to enjoy what we commonly call “normal lives”, some fallout must be accepted. This isn’t cruelty or coldheartnedness. The number of people who die in motor vehicle accidents annually around the world is staggering, yet no one is proposing a return to the horse-drawn cart. A world without cars is impractical, and we accept the inevitability of a certain number of deaths and injuries in return for the convenience of the most popular method of conveyance. Similarly, we must be prepared for a certain number of fatalities related to the coronavirus if we are to enjoy normal lives. While it might be possible to eradicate the virus if we were to sequester ourselves in our homes for the next year or two, to do so would be unhealthy, expensive, and, I must say, rather contrary to the idea of having a life.

  10. Eugene says

    Now, far be it from me to beat a dead horse, but a recent decision by an Oregon county that had made masks compulsory in all public spaces encapsulates everything that I have said earlier about the staggering idiocy behind the idea of forcing people to cover half of their faces with a muzzle.

    For those of you who are not au courant, the county in question decided to exempt colored people from wearing masks outside, apparently due to concerns that forcing non-whites to wear a mask might lead to racial profiling.

    Well, what do we have here? Two things. One is that the pro-muzzle crowd has received yet another blow, though of course it won’t admit it. If masks are as indispensable as we are led to believe, surely everyone ought to be wearing one, regardless of one’s color of skin? All the more so when you recall that, in terms of death rates, colored people in the US have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

    The other, more invidious, thing is that the corollary of this exemption (theoretically well-meaning but ultimately revolting, as is most of the stuff dreamed up by the PC crowd) is that only white people must cover their mouths; everyone else gets a free pass.

    Now, who is turning masks into a symbol?

    (And yes, I am aware that this decision has now been rescinded following a “racist backlash”. But the fact that officials came up with such a rule in the first place is telling enough.)

  11. Carlos Danger says

    “The one thing we do know is that these masks make a gigantic difference. I would insist that everybody on public be wearing that mask. . . . I would do everything possible to make it required that people had to wear masks in public.”

    Joe Biden’s words. This, in his view, is the way to beat the virus. He said these words as he talked to the reporter who interviewed him standing 10 feet away, and as he fidgeted with and adjusted his own ill-fitting black mask.

    Trouble is, no evidence supports Joe Biden’s strong statement. Even the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, and the California Department of Public Health qualify their statements even as they (now) recommend, and in California mandate, masks. Masks “may” help, they say. May.

    Some people say that “may” is good enough reason to require masks. But is it? Can a president mandate a measure that affects the daily lives of every American when there is no evidence that it helps? Seems a step toward fascism to me. And they call Donald Trump a fascist.

    • Eugene says

      “Some people say that “may” is good enough reason to require masks. But is it? Can a president mandate a measure that affects the daily lives of every American when there is no evidence that it helps? Seems a step toward fascism to me. And they call Donald Trump a fascist.”

      Spot on. The problem with masks, aside from the fact that they are not convenient to wear, is that they are extremely invasive. Asking people to cover parts of their bodies (unless it’s for reasons of basic decency) is completely alien to our culture and our notions of human dignity. If the government is to demand that people cover their faces, they had better have a good reason. The wishy-washy, tentative “may’s” and “could’s” only suggest that a good reason has yet to be discovered.

      History offers us examples when entire ethnic groups were made to wear “things”. I’d hoped that society had moved on since then.

      To claim that they “make a gigantic difference”, as Joe Biden does, runs contrary to what we know at this point. Speaking of Biden, the photos that I have seen of Biden wearing a mask do not inspire much faith in his leadership potential, whatever it is. Personally, I would not be inclined to vote for a candidate who insists on wearing a mask, much less for one who wants everyone else to do the same by legal decree.

  12. Charles says

    Well, I appreciate all the detailed comments. Bizarrely, of course, we now seem closer to universal mask-wearing requirements, with the reasons even less valid than the were a few weeks ago. It seems likely that we’ll be forced to wear them for years (not that I’m wearing one more). And have you heard about that Kawasaki-syndrome analog? As predicted–not once, and never again.

    • Eugene says

      Indeed, a growing number of intelligent people seem to be of the opinion that masks will be a requirement for a very long time. What surprises me is how quickly a majority of people have accepted, and in fact, embraced it. Then again, perhaps not as surprising as all that.

      Where I live, masks are now obligatory in all enclosed public spaces. The bylaw was introduced with the copious blessings of the city’s top doctor, a mask zealot; the mayor thought it sufficient to rely on the opinion of that doctor alone. Businesses open to the public are now forced to adopt a “no mask, no service” policy. Thanks to the bylaw, people sitting indoors at a restaurant must keep their masks on unless they are eating. Must be fun to watch – not that I will be watching. This bylaw was passed despite the fact that the number of COVID deaths in the city, a very small number in absolute terms to begin with, represents about 0.04% of the total population of the city.

      On top of this, the local health authorities have acknowledged that they are counting people who have died with the virus, though not because of the virus, as virus deaths. We are to understand that someone who is felled by a heart attack, but has the virus, becomes a casualty *of* the virus. This extraordinary legerdemain naturally overstates the number of deaths but, judging by the number of masks in the street, people are largely unimpressed by (or ignorant of?) this curious legerdemain. As for the fourth estate, silence.

      The top doctor has said that an additional benefit of masks is that they become a visual cue to remind everyone that the virus is still here. I now wonder if it’s not *the* benefit. I am not one for conspiracies, but it does seem to me that the authorities have an interest in keeping everyone alarmed. Perhaps to make their decision to shut down society look more justified?

  13. Brian says

    Some context and critiques: I mostly follow decentralized sources of information, so I don’t think I’ve been indoctrinated into the left / right narratives here. While I broadly share your political biases and am sympathetic with your reasoning I do find the arguments against wearing a mask very underwhelming. As someone with a wife in front line healthcare the benefits of mask wearing by the general public are unlikely to directly accrue to myself as we are much higher risk of being exposed to the virus. That is why I don’t believe I am speaking from a position of fear when I say you are incorrectly down playing the risks of the virus while over fixating on the fairly inconsequential costs of mask wearing.

    There are a few things to note here that others have covered, so I will focus on this paragraph before moving on to a basic cost / benefit analysis:

    “What about non-death long-term consequences of the Plague? We are now regularly treated to breathless media attention to one or another debilitating “syndrome” supposedly linked to survivors. Last month it was lung scarring; a few weeks later it was strokes. Both those are largely forgotten, and today it is a variation on Kawasaki disease, a systemic inflammation, supposedly appearing in children. It is quite plain that all of these are simply the usual occasional knock-on effects of sickness, especially respiratory illness, on the unlucky or already unhealthy, exaggerated and highlighted to give political cover to those who want the Wuhan Plague to be seen as more dangerous to the healthy than it really is. These syndromes are as real as Morgellons disease—that is, they’re not real, merely a delusion (in this case, unlike Morgellons, manufactured by those with propaganda aims to delude others).”

    Anecdotally I know a couple young people who have had COVID-19. The earliest case was start of March. At 25 years old and in good health she still hasn’t fully recovered, mostly lung issues, fatigue, and even some re-occurrences of fevers. It is severe enough that she has still been taking sick time when symptoms flare up, and this not someone with a propensity to take sick time under normal circumstances. Another is 30 and an endurance athlete, he has been unable to get back above 50% what he was doing prior to being sick and also has some lingering symptoms. Both were considered severe cases when diagnosed.

    Anecdotally I also know several people who thought they had it and received antibody tests, they had not had it. I’m personally unaware of any minor cases that were confirmed via testing in my peer group.

    All just anecdotes but thus far I would have to be far more inclined to believe we are underestimating the long term impacts vs over estimating. Due to potentially unnatural origins of the virus the effects might be less consistent from person to person than a less novel disease, and initial exposure also appears to be a variable in the severity and range of symptoms present. This non-uniformity of disease expression makes it harder to discuss due to obscuring cause and effect, but to suggest that this will only impact obese and the elderly people or to dismiss the risk of long term health effects is incorrect. Reputable sources like John Hopkins have also implied permanent damage associated with the disease.

    Setting that aside and looking at this entirely through the lens of a cost benefit analysis the cost of wearing a disposable medical grade mask, ideally N95 or due to shortages a KN95 mask, is about $10 for the former, and $2 on the higher end for the latter.

    For my personal situation the lost of productivity from one month of illness would exceed a year of using even 10 KN95 masks per day, and that is before taking into account the roulette of any lingering health effects which would certainly cost more to attempt to treat or reverse than the marginal cost of wearing a mask even on a regular basis. For the average person halving risk from less effective cloth masks still seems prudent, especially if initial exposure does correlate to severity. Anecdotally it seems the risks of lingering health issues are plausibly high enough that they would be worth avoiding, especially if trivial to do so.

    Just because politicians are unable to articulate “masks are cheaper than treatment of the disease for the typical person, especially if you are unlucky enough to have lingering health effects” doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do my own analysis and come to my own conclusions.

    With tremendous respect to you I hope you reconsider yours as well.

  14. Carlos Danger says

    This virus pandemic has a lot in common with climate change. Pint-size pundit Greta Thunberg opines on both, giving her simplistic nostrum of a complete global economic and social restructuring as the solution to both. All supported by science, of course.

    To extend the comparison, wearing a mask to fight the virus is like paying a carbon offset to fight climate change. Helpful, no doubt, but to such a small degree that it doesn’t matter. At least, as near as we can tell. In theory, everybody should do these things. In practice, they needn’t bother.

    Top-down mandates only make sense when there is something effective to mandate. In the case of Covid-19 disease, we have the usual public health tools to use. Diagnosis, quarantine, and contact tracing. Those we should do. The rest, we should leave up to people to do what they think is best, in grass-roots bottom-up fashion.

    Complex problems resist simple solutions, and governments cannot implement complex solutions. Society is resilient and powerful, able to quickly respond to threats. Give people guidance and support their efforts, but give them a long leash and only pull them back if they get way off track. To mandate masks does more harm than good.

  15. Carlos Danger says

    A mask, it seems, no longer suffices. Now we must cover our eyes as well, with goggles or a face shield. Does any of this make a difference? It doesn’t seem to, no matter the many mask mandates. The virus doesn’t seem to be bothered.

    Nor am I. I don’t mind my mask, worn on the rare occasion when forced by law. My mask is of my own design. I took a Japanese hachimaki we had around from years ago. It looks much like this: amazon.com/Japanese-Hachimaki-Headband-Nippon-Hinomaru/dp/B017LR4J9C. I folded each end around a rubber band for an earhook, and voila, a face mask. Stylish, I think. (My wife, not so much. Silly is her word for it.)

    The World Health Organization put it well in talking about measures like masks and handwashing: “Although there is no evidence that this is effective in reducing transmission, there is mechanistic plausibility for the potential effectiveness of this measure.” In short, masks may help, in theory, but in practice there is no evidence that they do. A thin reed on which to mandate.

    So why advise, or even force, people to wear a mask or goggles? Science gets lip service, but panic seems to be the guiding hand here. A little Chicken Little-ish,* I think, but I guess if you are a politician or an expert in a crisis you have to run around and do something. Whether it makes a difference or not.

    __________
    * Speaking of Chicken Little, with her mantra that the sky was falling, I read an article whose author urged us to go around saying, “The coronavirus is airborne! The coronavirus is airborne!” Literally, that’s what he is urging. So silly. (slate.com/technology/2020/07/coronavirus-airborne-what-that-means.html)

    • Charles says

      I vote stylish! The WHO statement seems right, of course. Last week the WSJ had a breathless article, https://www.wsj.com/articles/face-masks-really-do-matter-the-scientific-evidence-is-growing-11595083298. The sub-headline? “New research suggests that face coverings help reduce the transmission of droplets.” Of course, transmission of disease is what’s at issue, not transmission of droplets, which isn’t even a thing (“dispersion” would be the term; obviously “transmission” is used for its scare value). No doubt, all else equal, there are fewer droplets in the air if everybody wears masks. What is lacking is any evidence that has any effect on disease spread.

      All of this just shows we are a weak society. It is the metastasis of safety culture; the logical end of removing jungle gyms.

  16. Eugene says

    Of course a mask no longer suffices. Now they are talking about face shields and goggles. Soon they might also add gloves to the list as the bureaucrats think up new bold measures to stop the spread of an invisible virus that mostly threatens octogenarians with various underlying conditions.

    Since I posted my last comment here, my city has introduced yet another bylaw, this one requiring tenants in apartment buildings to wear masks/face coverings in all common areas. First they made it mandatory on public transit, then in all enclosed public spaces, and now in apartment buildings. What’s next? The streets, I suppose. The bylaw requiring people to cover half of their faces in apartment buildings makes no sense: it’s not like there is an influx of new tenants, and it’s not like tenants are suddenly using the laundry room more often than they did when they were in lockdown. No one had to mask up between March and July. Why do it in August?

    Meanwhile, the British PM has floated the idea of placing anyone over the age of 59 under house arrest in the event of a second wave (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/millions-more-could-be-told-to-stay-at-home-and-shield-5w76wxlhs?wgu=270525_54264_1596551996552_f2197f8f5d&wgexpiry=1604327996&utm_source=planit&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_content=22278), and Melbourne has imposed a six-week curfew because it had its worst COVID day, the worst day being a total of 7 deaths, most of whom were people over the age of 75.

    The spinelessness and ineptness of our administrators are giving rise to all sorts of asinine conspiracy theories, and serve to further undermine trust in the authorities and the so-called experts – a very worrying development.

    I have so far resisted wearing a mask and have no plans to change that.

  17. Eugene says

    Of course masks no longer suffice. Now they’re talking about goggles and face shields. Don’t forget about those gloves, either.

    Since my last comment here, the sages running my city have adopted yet another new bylaw as they keep on dreaming up new bold ways to stop the spread of a virus that is mostly a threat to a small minority of people – typically, octogenarians and nonagenarians with comorbidities. The authorities started off by requiring the use of masks/face coverings on public transit and quickly followed by requiring the same in all enclosed public spaces. Their latest bylaw requires people to cover up in all common areas of apartment buildings. To be sure, this makes no sense: it’s not like there is a new influx of tenants in apartment buildings, and surely tenants are not using the laundry room more often than they did in the preceding four months. Why require it now? And what’s next? Mandatory masks in the streets? In your own home?

    Meanwhile, the British PM has floated the idea of placing anyone over the age of 59 under house arrest in the event of a second wave, while the people of Melbourne are stuck with a six-week curfew (along with a bevy of other limitations on their liberties), all because the city has recently faced the worst COVID day on record, the worst day being a total of 7 deaths – most of them people who were over the age of 75.

    The ineptness and spinelessness of governments are eroding people’s trust in authority and experts, pushing them into the arms of conspiracy theorists – a worrying development.

    For what it’s worth, I have thus far successfully resisted the new laws requiring the use of masks.

    • Charles says

      Yes–all this continues to astound me (even me!), in its total irrationality. I am not sure what exactly it says, but it is certainly nothing good.

  18. Eugene says

    Charles, you’re spot on when you mention the weakness of our society and its attendant metastasis of safety culture.

    In The Age of Entitlement, which I read not long ago, Christopher Caldwell provides some arresting numbers. According to his data, in the 1960s, more than half of all seats in Congress were held by war vets. (This peaked in 1971.) The numbers were likely to be the same in the former Soviet Union, if not higher still, given the colossal participation of Soviet citizens in WWII, and probably similar in European countries. Therein lies the tale, I think. When you wonder why no one descended into absurdity during the 1968 flu pandemic (also known as the Hong Kong Flu), I can’t find any other explanation other than that our societies have become feminine. The ratio of men to women need not be important, since male politicians are keen on being seen as faithful subscribers to the prevailing ethos, and as male politicians who attempt to assert their masculinity are accused of “toxic masculinity” (to wit: Mike Pence was accused of “fragile masculinity” for having refused to don a mask during a hospital visit because he wanted to look the staff in the eye). Our society’s sense of risk and view of mortality are very different from the war vets in Congress, who had seen the battlefield.

    Women tend to be more risk-averse than men, and the response to COVID-19 was all about risk aversion and avoidance, to the point where all risk-taking is decoupled from life. No loss of life is acceptable – a noble sentiment in theory, but foolish in practice, as it leads to a situation where, in the pursuit to save a hypothetical (and small) number of lives, society ends up being deprived of everything that makes it worth living – with all the costs that come with it. However superficially virtuous, this approach is ultimately counterproductive, and is certainly not conducive to the exploration of new lands and the construction of great things.

  19. Daphne Patai says

    Charles,
    What would you accept as evidence that wearing masks etc. does help control the spread of Covid? I live in a very small university town that has had very few cases since everything shut down or moved online in March. But now locals are upset that the univ is allowing 15,000 students (of a total of 25,000 or so enrolled) to come back in a few weeks. These students come from all over the state and the country, and all, of course, will bring with them less than ‘six degrees of separation’ from a great many other people.
    The local town manager has written to the univ complaining, and asking that the university “take responsibility” for all the students, even those living off campus. This is impossible, obviously, but is it unreasonable of locals, who include many elderly people, to be concerned about avoiding an unpleasant and often lingering death? Should large-scale cost/benefit analyses be the only measure in figuring out what to do?

  20. Charles says

    For use in general social situations (i.e., not in “High” situations as I outline in the main piece)? I’d be happy to examine any solid evidence at all–as some of the other comments have noted, all previous study has concluded masks are of no benefit in such situations. (I’d even be skeptical, to be fair, of “solid” evidence, knowing the huge incentives to politically slant the results, but it’d be a place to start, especially if it came from scientists outside the US in a place where masks are not required.)

    I have a great deal of sympathy for the elderly in this situation. (My aunt died Sunday–it’ll be coded as Covid, and she did have it three weeks ago, but that’s not what killed her, since she was already in rapid decline. But the last months of her life were made miserable by the quarantine.) We should focus resources on keeping the elderly safe–something that would be feasible if we didn’t waste resources on so many silly things. It looks likely the Plague is simply going to mostly die out (and would have earlier, following Farr’s Law, except for the lockdowns). It has in Sweden, it appears, and in places like New York City. At that point, it becomes less risky. Or maybe there will be a vaccine. But we can’t, or shouldn’t, destroy society simply because there is risk for some people. And masks are a distraction (as is closing elementary and secondary schools, something being done nowhere else in the world, I believe).

    Statistically, it’s become quite clear this is about as lethal as the 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics, but less lethal to the young, and more lethal to the old. There is nothing at all super-special about the Wuhan Plague, I think, except our reaction (and the reaction of other advanced societies).

  21. Charles says

    I could, in fact, be convinced that wearing masks in a broader range of situations makes sense. This is strictly a cost-benefit analysis. But, as with most political matters advocated by the Left (here only primarily by the Left), the benefits are distorted, and the costs ignored.

  22. Eugene says

    I’d like to add that, for several months, the WHO did *not* recommend healthy people to wear masks unless they were looking after people with COVID. This was updated in early June. While the original advice was unchanged (straight from the source: “Non-medical, fabric masks are being used by many people in public areas, but there has been limited evidence on their effectiveness and WHO does not recommend their widespread use among the public for control of COVID-19.”), the WHO now had this to add:

    “However, for areas of widespread transmission, with limited capacity for implementing control measures and especially in settings where physical distancing of at least 1 metre is not possible – such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments – WHO advises governments to encourage the general public to use non-medical fabric masks.”

    Why the volte-face? Well, Deborah Cohen, a correspondent at BBC Newsnight, was doing a story on masks and tweeted the following:

    “We had been told by various sources WHO committee reviewing the evidence had not backed masks but they recommended them due to political lobbying. This point was put to WHO who did not deny.”

    Responding to this in a tweet of her own, Gabby Stern, WHO Director of Communications, had this to say: ” . . . she [Deborah Cohen] wasn’t referring to partisan political lobbying. She meant the politics of the global health sector. Regardless, @WHO scientists focus on the evidence.”

    The politics of the global health sector, you see. This doesn’t do much to strengthen the case for wearing masks, now does it?

    P.S. Charles, I am sorry about your loss.

  23. Eugene says

    Charles, thanks for sharing that article, which perfectly captures the gist of what I was trying to say in my penultimate comment: we’re trying to preserve lives by stripping life of what makes it worth living.

  24. Carlos Danger says

    Charles’s post Against Masks (dated May 28) and comments thereto (ending August 6) have aged well. A lot happened with masks since then, but little remains to say that has not been said. We are still in the thick of pandemic panic–until that wanes, reason may well not reign. If even then.

    That said, let me add some perspective from a past pandemic. I have been reading about the 1918 Spanish Flu, and have found a few fascinating facts–one about masks and the rest unrelated to masks. All those facts may help us understand our coronavirus crisis.

    First, a note about masks and the 1918 Spanish Flu. After that pandemic was over the American Medical Association commissioned a prominent expert, Dr. Edwin Jordan, to study it. He summarized in a few pages out of his 800-page 1927 report his views on masks:

    “Those attending or examining influenza patients may obtain some measure of protection by wearing properly constructed face masks and eye googles. On the other hand, the practical difficulties in the way of mask wearing by the general public seem insuperable and render this measure one for individual rather than general prophylaxis.”

    Second, in our day the British prime minister (Boris Johnson) caught the coronavirus and several months later the American president (Donald Trump) did too. In the 1918 pandemic the British prime minister (David Lloyd George) caught the flu and several months later the American president (Woodrow Wilson) did too. Odd, that coincidence.

    Third, in our day we are desperately waiting for a vaccine. In the 1918 pandemic people were waiting for a vaccine as well. In fact, several vaccines were developed and tried on the general population. San Franciscans, for example, were vaccinated. No vaccine worked.

    Fourth, in our day the coronavirus disproportionately strikes the elderly, especially those with other illnesses. In the 1918 pandemic the flu disproportionately struck young adults (20 to 40 years old). No one knows why.

    Fifth, in our day officials are mandating masks, physical distancing, closing businesses, handwashing, and staying outdoors rather than indoors. In the 1918 pandemic the measures were very similar, adding two: outlawing spitting and recommending people open windows. Not much new after 100 years of technology, is there.

    Sixth, in our day the president is ridiculed for saying that pandemic will just go away. In the 1918 pandemic that’s exactly what happened. After three waves lasting a month or two each in each locale–a brutal second wave sandwiched between two milder waves–the pandemic ended. No one knows why.

    All told, what can we learn from the 1918 pandemic? That non-pharmaceutical interventions may help, but it is hard to tell how much they help. They may not help much at all. Masks included.

    But more than that, we learn that it is really hard to predict the future course of a pandemic, and really hard to do anything about it even if you could. We don’t control a pandemic, it controls us. Luck matters, a lot.

    Good luck to all.

    • Charles says

      Interesting data. It would be nice if it just went away, even if the average person is at little risk–it’s still not pleasant, I’m sure, and little risk is not zero. Plus all the knock-on effects on society as a whole. Even if it does, it seems quite likely to me that various compliance measures will be demanded for a long time, perhaps permanently. Maybe the excuse will be different–“experts predict a very bad flu season; you must wear a mask!” But they have gotten used to the feeling of power, and the ability to, for example, shutter churches and gatherings of anyone who opposes them, bizarrely without consequence. That’s not good.

  25. Eugene says

    This article has indeed aged well. We were told masks were of no use (and could even be harmful) back in early spring. In the summer, we were told we had to wear them, by law, in many places – this was the only way to return to some kind of normality and avoid lockdowns. Now many places are plunging into a second round of lockdowns, so – surprise, surprise – we’ve somehow ended up with masks *and* lockdowns.

    As I understand, Pennsylvania now wants people to wear masks in their homes if they have visitors, even if there is social distancing. Admittedly, it does dovetail with the other rules, so in the context of everything else that’s been going on, this makes sense. About as much sense as everything else, I suppose. I am not sure how officials will be enforcing that one, though. Are they counting on vigilant neighbors? Or on budding Pavlik Morozovs who will denounce their fathers for not masking up?

    I’ve just finished reading one of Frankopan’s books, deftly treated by Charles here: https://theworthyhouse.com/2017/01/01/book-review-the-silk-roads-a-new-history-of-the-world-peter-frankopan/. I found the bit on the bubonic plague quite interesting – rather, on the way societies reacted to it at the time. In Sweden, priests told people not to bathe or expose themselves to the southern wind, at least not before lunch. In England, women were advised not to dress provocatively. In Muslim lands, chanting verses from the life of Muhammad was recommended as protection against plague-induced boils. In Germany, people believed the scourge was unnatural and therefore manmade, so the Jews got pogromized. We like to think of ourselves as rational, enlightened people, but I do wonder if future generations will look at some of our antics in much the same way.

    I must say, though, that poring over the global COVID-19 stats the other way, I was struck by the numbers coming out of China and East Asian countries. It isn’t news that China seems to have got the situation under control. But how? They have almost new cases, and their deaths (per 1 million) are negligible. Given its population size and population density, how can one explain it? China may not be one of the most transparent countries in the world, but in the age of the Internet, it would be difficult to engage in serious numbers massaging without information seeping out of the country.

    And what does one make of countries like Japan and South Korea? While the US has 35,800 cases/1 million and 773 deaths/1 million, Japan’s numbers are 956 and 15, respectively. South Korea is at 578 and 10. These are not sparsely populated countries, and they have cold weather too. How to explain this? Is it masks? I find it hard to believe that a robust mask culture can achieve this sort of thing. Of course, given my position against masks, I am biased. But French and Italian cities have required the wearing of masks *outside in the streets*, to no avail. What is it, then? Is it that East Asian societies are more law-abiding in general? More cohesive?

    What does this betoken for the future as China gears up to be a hegemon that can offer a viable alternative to the existing order? What does it say about western societies that they have made such a debacle of this situation, while East Asian countries have seemingly proven to be effective? Does this speak in favor of the way their societies are structured? Do they have something to teach us? Or is this to ignore the hidden costs of living in societies where individualism is discouraged, whatever these costs are?

    I’d be interested in your thoughts, Charles (or Carlos Danger, or anyone else).

    • Charles says

      Thank you. As to China and East Asia, I totally agree. It has mystified me for months that there is zero coverage of this matter in the US (and I think the West generally), and apparently zero interest. And your follow-on broader questions are good too. I honestly don’t have any more thoughts on the topic, since I know very little about those cultures (other than general knowledge any educated person has) and no way of getting the inside track. But you’d think someone would write on this, in Quillette or something, if not in the NYT.

  26. Carlos Danger says

    Eugene, those are indeed interesting questions. Like Charles, I don’t have any answers to your questions about East Asia, though I do know a little about one of those countries, Japan. My wife is Japanese (though she has lived in the United States with me for nearly 30 years), and I lived, studied and worked in Japan for nearly 10 years (years ago before our marriage and for a few years after).

    My wife and I have talked many times about the virus crisis, wondering why results are so different. She had to spend three months in Japan over the summer caring for her mother (suffering from old age, not Covid-19), and while precautions are being taken, they seem not that far from what we are doing here.

    Certainly the Japanese government has been about as bungling as most. One of the reasons Abe Shinzo stepped down as prime minister was because of Covid-19 criticism (as in this article: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-02/from-abenomics-to-abenomask-japan-mask-plan-meets-with-derision).

    Long, long stagnant, the Japanese economy has been hammered by the virus crisis — with even the eagerly-awaited Summer Olympics postponed — though the populace has escaped much of the blow to public health. And early on a few beloved people in the entertainment industry were killed by the virus, getting a lot of news and making the deaths seem closer to home.

    My wife thinks basic hygiene has much to do with the (relatively) few deaths. Masks during cold and flu season have long been a common sight in Japan, and many Japanese wash their hands religiously throughout the day. Hugs and handshakes are shunned. Parties and gatherings in private homes are rare. The culture is indeed different. If you live there, you feel the difference.

    Still, I’m puzzled by it all. Cultural differences don’t seem all that convincing to me. But who knows. I’ve certainly been wrong about this pandemic from the start.

    In March I thought it would all be over by the first of May. It wasn’t. Then there seemed no way the Olympics would be postponed. They were. Over the summer when my wife was gone I never thought our Thanksgiving plans would be threatened. Yet here we are, with the virus raging at its worst, and we will eat our turkey alone at home just like any other meal.

    I too have lots of questions. I wish I had some answers.

  27. Eugene says

    Thank you both for your input, gentlemen (and thank you, Carlos Danger, for bringing your personal perspective to the conservation, which is always very interesting to read. I’d believed that the former Japanese PM had stepped down as a result of health issues; I hadn’t realized there were other considerations as well).

    I am somewhat relieved that I am not the only one mystified by what’s happening right now. I’ve tried to look for some information online that could explain the situation in East Asia, but I was unable to locate anything recent, and the little that I could find was of the usual, predictable “they wear masks and locked down early” variety. It doesn’t seem like the media is interested in an objective, serious analysis of what is going on in those countries, and this lack of interest is lamentable. As always, we’re not focused on the important things . . .

    I hope that you’re all doing well and are not finding the present circumstances too taxing. Happy Thanksgiving!

  28. (I have enjoyed your book reviews/discussions for the last couple months. This is my first time reaching out.)

    Is it possible that the issue of masks transcends these concerns/analyses? I am inclined to see masks as a form of necessary conditioning ahead of vaccine mandates. Vaccine-induced herd immunity is a hard concept to sell on your average layperson. A tangible illustration of asymptomatic threat is helpful to this end. As a culture, we are now conditioned to view non-mask-wearers as selfish and uncompassionate–as public health risks. I believe, in the near future, those who refuse vaccines will likely be viewed in the same way. Once upon a time, people received vaccines in order to protect themselves. Now, vaccines are being pushed as necessary to protect the community. I truly believe mask-mandates were never about the science or cost/benefit analysis, but were simply a necessary form of conditioning. I don’t know who’s at the top giving the orders. I’m not normally in the position of conspiracy theorist, but Bill Gates predicted this whole asymptomatic spread thing many years ago.

    “…So next time we might not be so lucky. You can have a virus where people feel well enough while they’re infectious that they get on a plane or they go to a market. The source of the virus could be a natural epidemic like ebola or it could be bioterrorism.”
    Bill Gates. April 2015 Ted Talk

    • Charles says

      Thank you. Yes, certainly possible, although my tendency is to believe more in uncoordinated action by bad people, rather than a top-down mandate by unknown people. It’s a feedback loop of sorts–maybe there wasn’t a plan to use masks to dictate vaccines, and perhaps other actions, but that developed out of what was seen to work in getting people to be compliant.

      The solution is always going to be have to be the same–the permanent breaking of these people’s power.

  29. Carlos Danger says

    Eugene, the problem comes from complexity. We humans just can’t deal well with that, so we seek to make complex systems simple. We look for easy answers. We make models, a simplification technique. We draw conclusions from observations, most often merely to confirm our biases.

    All that rarely works. By definition, complex systems have intricate interactions between a lot of elements. Finding an answer to a problem in a complex system is hard. All the easy answers we already know about, or can easily discover. The hard answers are hard to come by.

    Modern science often doesn’t help much, as it depends heavily on reductionism to work. That is, “the practice of analyzing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of phenomena that are held to represent a simpler or more fundamental level, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.” The joke about “a spherical cow in a vacuum” shows the problem with that approach.

    We live in the real world, and abstractions mean little there. To further understand the real-world
    problems we are confronting we need to move further to holism, “the theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts.”

    The Santa Fe Institute has done a lot of interesting work on this, as did the systems theorist Russell Ackoff. But to shift our thinking further from reductionism closer to holism is hard to do. It requires less modeling and applying top-down, overarching principles, in favor of more guessing and bottom-up, trial-and-error experimentation.

    Of course sometimes all we have are observations, as with history, as to which Will and Ariel Durant did a nice job explaining what that means. They said, “Most history is just guessing, and the rest is prejudice.” And, “The historian always oversimplifies, and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend.”

    To me that helps explain why journalists and others don’t seem to have many answers as to why China, South Korea and Japan have largely tamed the virus and we have not. The answers they come up with are facile on their face. Yet there is probably no way to come up with any others.

  30. Eugene says

    Carlos Danger, that’s an excellent comment. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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