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.
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.
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
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.
One question: why do you say China did not disguise the numbers of people infected with Covid-19?
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.)
You hit the nail on the head with Dreher. It’s shocking how badly he has reacted under this pressure.
And terribly disappointing.
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….
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.”
But have a look at this article, about the need for masks given the aerosol dynamics of Covid-19.
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 is apparently correct. Here’s the WHO’s own site on the subject of masks:
I’m sure the authors of the article meant the CDC instead of the WHO.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)?
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
“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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
A good, short article, not on masks, but on the Wuhan Plague itself: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/never-has-a-virus-been-so-oversold
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
(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
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.
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.
Yeah, that makes sense. Of course, if a vaccine achieves wide adoption in the next few months, and the virus was in fact going away anyway, we’ll all be told it’s our compliance that made it possible, and most people will swallow that.
Carlos Danger, that’s an excellent comment. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Mask mandates have once again made the news, with Joe Biden promising a 100-day nationwide mask mandate starting January 21. This should, he says, end the epidemic. Lockdowns are back in vogue too, with us set to enter a month-long lockdown here in California in just days.
No question that this virus is raging worse than I had ever imagined. But it is odd that masks and lockdowns are touted as the miracle cure we need, despite no scientific evidence that they do much. Even while thousands die daily and two vaccines (which the numbers from clinical trials and centuries of experience show to be effective) sit for a month more in freezers (rather than be injected into shoulders) so that the vaccine approvals are not too “rushed”.
Simple solutions to complex problems. Always tantalize, but seldom work. For the simple reason that if there were a simple and obvious solution, the problem would already have been solved. But the allure of a top-down, command solution to a complex problem seems irresistible in many fields, with viral epidemics being just one of them.
Take just a few examples:
Evolution: Many think that Charles Darwin solved this problem with his theory of natural selection, especially with the later neo-Darwinist tweak of natural selection acting on random mutations. After 150 years there is still no scientific evidence to support Charles Darwin’s theory, and most biologists now tacitly accept that he was wrong.
Poverty: The book Great Society by Amity Shlaes gives a good glimpse of how well-meaning and effective leaders put immense resources into top-down, centralized social programs designed to solve the problem of poverty. We have the poor still with us.
The Economy: John Maynard Keynes said many decades ago that “economics is an instrument of social control designed to achieve the broad objectives of maximum national income, full employment, and monetary stabilization”. Some political leaders have applied Keynesian economic theory for nearly a century now.
Climate Change: Many climate activists believe that global temperatures have a statistical association with carbon emissions and that there are tipping points beyond which global warming explodes in a feedback loop. The real world seems not to follow their theories.
Antitrust: Many people think that Louis Brandeis was right when he talked about the “curse of bigness” and that breaking up all big companies will solve many ills, such as lowering income inequality and increasing democracy. Evidence of that is lacking.
International Aid: Under the direction of development experts like Jeffrey Sachs billions of dollars have been doled out in programs designed by theorizing with no input from those with their boots on the ground. William Easterly called this the “tyranny of experts” in his excellent book of that title. Part five titled “Conscious Design Versus Spontaneous Solutions” is especially excellent, with its chapter 12 about “How to Succeed Without Knowing How”.
Some truth underlies the theories in each of these fields, and the theories may be helpful in some ways (“all models are wrong, but some are helpful.) But they are based on observation and logic, not experiment and trial and error. The former is the classical approach, dating back to Greek times. The latter is the modern approach that undergirded the Enlightenment.
With few exceptions, complex problems cannot be solved by observation and logic, from the top down. They must be solved from the bottom up by trying things and seeing what works. As surgeon John Hunter put it in 1772 as the Enlightenment unfolded, “don’t think, try” (his real words were not quite that pith). Or as a wag put it in 1981, “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”.
For all his many faults, Donald Trump has been a master of the art of dealing with complexity. His approach is captured in his catchphrase, “we’ll see what happens”. He doesn’t bother with meaningful speeches and convincing explanations. He acts, he does things, he tries and he errs, and by doing that artfully, he gets things done.
Now we have Joe Biden to look forward to, a man who has never got anything of note done in his life (other than promote his own career). A decent man, with empathy and character, he seems content to let others–the scientists and the experts–decide what to do. In a president, that’s a recipe for mediocrity. With the coronavirus, that means the mediocrity of a mask mandate.
Excellent points. (I presume you know I have reviews of both the Shlaes and Easterly books.) James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is a fantastic book on this topic as it relates to government efforts.
I don’t think the virus is raging all that bad, honestly. As we’ve discussed, it’s bizarre that we don’t have better answers to a wide range of questions. But it’s quite clear that anyone not old or with massive existing health problems is at very low risk. There’s little evidence this is worse than the 1957 flu pandemic, say–given that deaths were almost certainly undercounted there, and grossly overcounted here (as I know from personal experience, my aunt having died of totally unrelated causes, but tested positive several weeks before, and so cause of death was assigned as Covid). The greatest mystery to me is still the total society-wide mental weakness the Wuhan Plague has exposed.
Hello Carlos. Could you please direct me to the biologists who disagree with Charles Darwin? I assume here that the scientists are in disagreement about the mechanism of evolution, rather than it existing. I’m pretty ignorant of evolutionary biology, and would like to know what developments have been made since Darwin’s time.
Ethan, the theory of evolution in biology has produced lots of heat but little light. Not if life evolves, as the answer to that is clearly yes. But how does life evolve? What is the mechanism? To me, that is by far the most interesting question in all of science. Sadly, no one has a good answer.
Charles Darwin’s basic theory was that natural selection among naturally occurring variations over long periods of time resulted in the many different species we see today. The neo-Darwinists updated the theory in the mid-1900s to suggest that the variations come from random mutations in genes. That’s where things stand today–that random mutation and natural selection are the basic mechanisms for evolution.
Trouble is, neither mechanism works the way it needs to for the theory to work. Random mutations are almost always deleterious, not beneficial. So if natural selection is the only thing selecting among variations, it will be too busy weeding out the deleterious mutations to do anything to preserve the beneficial ones. Add to that the fact that natural selection works much too slowly to be the key to evolution, and you have an unworkable theory.
My belief (though it’s hard to say) is that most biologists know that neo-Darwinism is untenable, as they mount no defense of the theory. They have thrown Charles Darwin under the bus, and rather than defend his theory, they muddle the question by saying that “current evolutionary theory” goes beyond Darwinism. They then go on offense to accuse anyone who questions “current evolutionary theory” of being a creationist.
Still, there are some scientists who are looking for what they call a “third way” between neo-Darwinism and creationism. They have a website: https://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com/ One of the founders is James Shapiro, whose book Evolution: A View from the 21st Century is a bit of a struggle but (in my view) worth it.
Over the past 15 years or so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this whole problem through. I find it fascinating. I’ve read well over 100 books on the subject, and probably more than 100 articles as well. But I don’t have any theory as to how evolution happens. Just questions. No answers.
Complexity is just that way–evading attempts to simplify and understand it–and life is the most complex thing in the universe.
This is fascinating. I have read zero books and zero articles about evolution, but maybe I should!
Maybe you should. Evolution may be the purest example of the complexity of complexity. More and more, we need to understand complexity in order for human knowledge to progress, and understanding evolution may help.
Evolution is not just the neo-Darwinism explanation of biology. It’s broader. As one book blurber put it: “Evolution, or constant change in nature, is the deepest of human ideas. It is the core of all physical, biological, and social systems and sciences–linking energy, matter, life, and consciousness.”
Indeed, Matt Ridley wrote a book he titled “The Evolution of Everything” that credits bottom-up evolution for all kinds of change. (Another author, Mark Sumner, had earlier written a book with the same title that makes similar points.) And he’s right. The only way to make anything more complex is by making small changes over a period of time, doing trial and error as you go. All the complex systems that exist evolved in that way.
But that misses an important point. Natural processes, like genetic mutation and natural selection, cannot increase complexity. Indeed, a totally natural process with no intelligence or creativity will decrease complexity, not increase it. As Michael Behe put it in his book’s title, “Darwin Devolves”. So design from the top down is needed.
Trying to figure out how this all works does not require a specialist’s knowledge. In fact, a generalist with broad and shallow knowledge probably has an advantage. Thus my interest.
But people have been wrestling with this problem for a long time, and no one really has any solid answers. But most of the books and articles on the topic claim that they do have the answer. If you don’t like sifting through a lot of that kind of chaff, reading books and articles about evolution may not be too interesting to you.
So maybe you shouldn’t.
The chaff is a problem. (I trashed Ridley’s book back in 2016.) As of course is the political angle. I just started reading Murray’s recent Human Diversity, which touches on some of these matters, I think–but authors are forced to avoid dangerous areas, which reduces the relevancy and interest. So I will wait for you to recommend good books as they come out!
Chaff is indeed a problem. I’ve found few authors who recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. The people trying to find a “third way” make the most sense, but they tend to be an eclectic group themselves, drowned out by the partisans on the poles of the issue. Explaining evolution is a tough, tough problem.
As to Matt Ridley’s book The Evolution of Everything, I had not seen your review. It’s quite accurate. Still, I think Matt Ridley gets a lot right (though he gets more wrong) in that book, though I like his new book How Innovation Works better.
On the other side of the debate, Stephen C. Meyer has a long-delayed new book coming out at the end of March titled Return of the God Hypothesis.
I concur with your comments, gentlemen, though I am not entirely sure whether the US president-elect actually has the authority to force Americans to wear masks everywhere. Is this not the prerogative of the states? (I am not in America, nor am I American, so please excuse my ignorance).
However, aghast as I am at the whole masks business, I am rather perturbed by this vaccine that is dangled in front of us as our only ticket to normality. While I am not ideologically opposed to vaccinations as such, I harbour great reservations when it comes to one that has been developed so hastily and under such great pressure. Why am I perturbed? The head of Qantas has said international travelers will be required to show proof of vaccination — and what’s standard for Qantas will be standard for every other airline, I imagine.
Required to be vaccinated in order to board an airplane? Where is this all going?
Eugene, your worries about where things are going with vaccines seem justified. S.P. Clifton raised a similar point earlier. In this virus crisis governments–and society in general by social pressure–mandate measures that protect not the individual, but others. That does not bode well for individual freedom, which gets pushed aside in a panic.
In the near term, though, that may not matter. The scarcity of vaccines make mandates for travel and the like unlikely. Demand for vaccines around the world will far outstrip supply for at least many months more. And it’s hard to know where we will be then.
I myself don’t worry about the vaccines being approved. I’ll be in line for a shot in the shoulder as soon as one is available to me. Vaccines have been used for over 200 years now, and have been proven to safely end epidemics. In 1796 Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine by inoculating with cowpox to prevent smallpox. It worked like a charm.
Even before vaccines, inoculation had been used in Africa, Turkey, India and China. They would take pus from the pocks on a person with a mild case of smallpox and scratch it into the skin of a healthy person. That person would get the disease, suffer for a few weeks, and then be immune. Inoculation still claimed lives, about 1 in 50, but that’s compared to 1 in 6 (or even more) in a normal smallpox epidemic.
Inoculation makes for some interesting historical footnotes. A black slave who had been inoculated in Africa before being enslaved taught Puritan minister Cotton Mather about the practice in 1706. He confirmed the account from other sources and urge inoculation in 1721 Boston when a smallpox epidemic ravaged the city. Many lives were saved, though some protested against its use on religious grounds (as in, “only God should decide who dies, not man”).
George Washington, who caught smallpox in his 20s and was scarred for life, insisted on inoculating the colonial army, a key decision in winning the war. Disease was a bigger enemy than the British, and smallpox affected the outcome of some significant battles.
Vaccines are much safer than inoculation (or variolation, the technical term). Thanks to vaccines smallpox has been eradicated. Many other diseases have been tamed. These new mRNA vaccines are fascinating technology, and if proven and perfected during this epidemic, will make it much easier to develop new vaccines and quickly get them on the market.
We do have to be careful, though, and I don’t pooh-pooh any qualms people have about vaccines. The 1976 swine flu vaccination fiasco in the United States did nothing to help with that. It seems now that the Guillain-Barré syndrome scare was more a product of plaintiffs’ lawyers than a real problem, but it’s hard to tell.
Charles, your review of Great Society is what steered me to Amity Shlaes’s book. I had independently found William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts and James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, but I am never surprised when I find a new book to see it already covered here. Your reviews are a trove of treasure.
Your views on the virulence of the virus seem sensible. Many (myself, too) lose perspective in the panic of this pandemic. Seen realistically, the epidemic is straining our hospitals and medical staff, but it’s hardly apocalyptic in its effects on our society. The cure is causing more social harm than the disease.
Carlos Danger, thank you for the informative comment (I’d had no idea that smallpox inoculation had a decisive effect on the outcome of the Civil War) and for your balanced opinion on the subject. It is easy to lose sense of perspective in this situation, and I’ve probably been guilty of it myself throughout this whole saga.
As mentioned earlier, I am not opposed to vaccinations as such, but I do have reservations about this one. It’s really the prospect of coercion that doesn’t sit well with me. Here in my region, the authorities are already floating the idea that people who refuse to get vaccinated may face unspecified “restrictions”. No one knows what those restrictions will be, if they are to be imposed at all, but I find this kind of talk unsettling. They haven’t even started vaccinating anyone, and we’re already talking about restrictions for the non-compliant. “Not vaccinated? Sorry, can’t attend our concert, then!”
Essentially, my concern is that the relationship between government and citizen has been – and is being – fundamentally altered. If governments can choose to lock people up and tell them what to wear on account of a virus that, though highly contagious and certainly deadly for some, does not appear to be much of a problem for most people, what else can they do? And what else will they do? I am not sure if you’ve heard or not, but China’s aviation authorities have taken to recommend that flight crews wear diapers so as not to use airplane lavatories, where COVID-19 presents a greater risk (source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-10/cabin-crew-told-to-wear-diapers-on-risky-covid-flights). Yes, I understand that this is only a recommendation and one that is specific to China, but it illustrates my point exactly: the gloves are off. Theoretically there’s no point at which enough truly becomes enough. The concepts of individual liberty and human dignity give way to concerns about public health and security.
That said, as you say, it might take a long time for supply to catch up with demand. In fact, Francois Balloux, a scientist I’ve been following (he’s maintained a very balanced perspective of the pandemic and, to his credit, has refused to get political and take sides – as much as is humanly possible, I suppose), has opined that it might take years for this to happen. And, as you say, much can happen between now and then.
By the way, there is (finally!) a decent article that addresses, however inconclusively, the success that East Asian countries have demonstrated in their pandemic efforts, a topic we’ve already briefly mentioned earlier. You might find it of interest: https://unherd.com/thepost/what-really-explains-the-asia-covid-exception/
Eugene, that article on the coronavirus in East Asian countries is indeed decent. Very decent. And very interesting. It’s hard to tell if there are lessons we can learn from those countries, but at least one author has taken a serious, careful look. Finally.
Your point about government coercion on vaccines is a good one, well thought out and well said. Government strong-arming is a worry. Lockdowns, mask mandates, and maybe forced vaccinations are born of political pandering rather than solid science. I hate to see them used.
Their use reinforces the tendency of the tyrant to use the name of science to back political power plays in climate change and other areas. That’s troubling, and wrong.
A good book on this all is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe, reviewed at https://lawliberty.org/book-review/viral-panic/. The book is not selling well, and is being dismissed as being lightweight and libertarian fringe, but I have not seen any persuasive counterarguments. Just polemic.
On the other hand, we are in a difficult situation. Deaths are mounting, but no one can say what is going on with any certainty. Panic and worry are inevitable. Mistakes will be made. If the government stepping in helps people feel more comfortable getting on with their lives, maybe it’s worth it.
That’s how I view masks, at least. I think mask mandates make little difference, and the science behind them is disturbingly oversold. Still, I wear a mask, and will continue to wear one as long as they are mandated. I don’t think it’s important to fight this particular fight. In theory it’s important, but in practice not so much.
The same with vaccines. I don’t think anyone should be compelled to get a vaccine if they don’t want one. But I don’t think vaccinations will be compelled. At least not in the United States. As more people get vaccinated, unless safety problems arise (quite unlikely, in my view) more people will become comfortable getting vaccinated. Coercion will be unneeded, and thus the battle against it need not be fought.
But it’s best to be watchful and as prepared as possible for whatever happens. And in the meantime, we should get on with life. Too many people seem unable to cope with uncertainty and risk, and seek perfect safety when none such can be found. That can be a fatal flaw in our society. That we should fight.
Carlos Danger, thank you for the book recommendation. You say that the book is not selling well, but curiously, it’s sold out at the local bookstore chain! It’s also sold out on Amazon. Perhaps Charles can review it for us, ha-ha!
As for everything else, I am in perfect agreement with virtually everything you say, although I am perhaps a bit more uncompromising when it comes to the distinction between theory and practice – for me, if it’s important in theory, it must be surely important in practice! However, I am willing to admit that my position is not the wiser one.
I also don’t think that vaccinations will be “compulsory” – as in, no one will point a gun to one’s head. But I worry that the lack of a vaccination might entail a bevy of restrictions that will make the vaccine optional on paper only. For example, one might not be able to attend a concert or board an airplane without it. No compulsion, of course, but if you can’t enjoy things that make your life fulfilled if you are not vaccinated, well, to me it’s compulsory, for all intents and purposes.
But these are quibbles. You have an exceptionally balanced view of things – a rare thing these days!
Eugene, I should probably temper my praise of The Price of Panic with a little criticism. The book was put together rather hastily and the writing seems to have been wrapped up by the start of summer. Developments since then have weakened support for some things said in the book. The authors simply got some things wrong.
Still, the authors got the most important things right, as illustrated by the cover of the book which makes a telling statement. The cover shows a person (man? woman? I can’t tell which) with a mask covering their eyes rather than their mouth. Pandemic panic, and fascination with Fauci, does seem to have blinded many people to facts right before their eyes.
All in all, the book is indeed a little lightweight, and indeed a little on the libertarian fringe, so it may well not warrant a Charles review or a read from those with a lot of other books on their reading pile. But the message of the book is being told by other people as well, and my hope is the message will gain resonance even if the book is not widely read.
Carlos Danger, thank you for clarifying! My reading list is extensive enough as it is, so your word of caution is appreciated.
My home is in the California San Francisco Bay area. My cell phone went off with a loud, discordant noise a few minutes ago signaling an “Emergency alert” that reads as follows:
“State of California: All Bay Area Counties now under state stay at home order. This builds on previous local orders. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. Stay home except for essential activity. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Visit covid19.ca.gov
“Type: Severe Alert”
The timing of the alert was funny. This morning the whole mask mandate mania had made me wonder what fuels it. Certainly scientific evidence gives little support. I remembered Stanley Milgram’s work decades ago about his experiments on obedience to authority and the violation of social norms.
So I pulled out my notes from Stanley Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority and his collection of articles The Individual in a Social World. When the alert on my cell phone came in, I was just reading about how hard we find it to disobey authority and resist social pressure. Quite a coincidence.
Stanley Milgram was a very practical scientist. He understood complexity, and how to deal with it. He knew that the best way to understand our complex social system was to experiment, not theorize. To try, not to think.
Thus his famous experiment where most experiment subjects would crank up the voltage to (they thought) fatally shock another person for making an error. Or his less famous experiment where an experimenter would ask a person seated on the subway to give up their seat to them.
These experiments powerfully show how theory often does not stand up well to reality. We react differently from how we think we will, as our reactions are not logical but emotional.
That has made me curious about wearing masks. Our lockdown lasts until at least January 8. I’m going to take this chance to design and run an experiment or two. Nothing confrontational, illegal or dangerous. But violate social norms about masks and see what results.
It may be that I will find myself unable to bring myself to do the experiments. In an insightful paragraph or two, Stanley Milgram tells how he had trouble himself asking for a seat in a subway. It made him physically ill to sit in the seat that was given him.
Will I be that way? We’ll see what happens.
I conducted an “experiment” of my own for months before finally caving in, although in my case it was less a social experiment than an expression of how I felt (and still do). I must admit that the experience was not a comfortable one. I am not sure what, if anything, I learned about myself in the process, and I doubt it is particularly flattering.
It will be interesting to see what your experience is like and what comes out of it. If you ever want to swap notes privately, please let me know. Either way, I hope you will post a report for our reading benefit.
My masks arrived today. They say “This mask is USELESS and so is yours.” The “USELESS” is in big letters.
Of course, I don’t think they’re completely useless. But the stupidity of today’s public discourse means you can’t show nuance. Communication is lowered to variations on F— you. Ah well.
Charles, your masks sound terrific!
You don’t want to know what my own face covering looks like. It is very silly; we’ll leave it at that. Its silliness, however, corresponds to the overall level of discourse in 2020.
My wife needs to go back to Japan again and the Japanese government requires a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of departure. The required form also has formalities that are hard to meet. The upshot is that we had to pay $400 for the testing (last summer she got the same test for free) and drive yesterday into downtown San Francisco to boot.
It was interesting to visit the downtown. There was less traffic than usual, but not much less. I thought there might be street parking but there was none that I could find. The parking lot we ended up in (near Union Square, a major shopping area) was quite full too. We walked down a stairway to the street. That was a mistake–it stunk of urine, some of it fresh (I stupidly stepped in a puddle of it, but my wife was more careful).
Foot traffic was less than normal too, but there was still a fair amount. One man was standing on the sidewalk shouting profanities at the top of his lungs at no one in particular. A nearby policeman on a motorcycle ignored him. Luckily we didn’t have to get too close.
Waiting for and riding an elevator to the 17th floor took 5 minutes. Only 4 could get on the elevator that can usually hold about 20. The nurse who swabbed my wife’s nose was dressed in full protective gear, including an N95 respirator (not a mask, a respirator). We were in and out in 5 minutes, followed by another 5 minutes spent getting down to ground floor.
We decided to walk around and look at the shops until the hour of parking we were paying for was up. All were open, but limited to 20% capacity. There was a sign outside each shop saying how many people could go in. We just window shopped, and didn’t go in.
Everyone in public wore masks. Everyone, all the time. Even the crazy guy shouted his obscenities through a mask. Most people in cars wore them too, but not all. We drove past the Ferry Building and the waterfront on the way home. Few people were there, though it is usually packed with tourists. But the few all wore masks.
On the way home we say a sign that said “STAY AT HOME ORDER ENFORCED”. So we got on the freeway and went home.
My wife’s negative test was reported to her this morning. She leaves tomorrow. As soon as she arrives in Japan she will be tested at the airport for the virus, this time free of charge. Then she can go to her mother’s apartment where she has to stay for 14 days in a fairly loose quarantine (shopping is allowed).
She has to travel there by private car–she cannot ride public transportation until the 14 days are over. And of course masks must be worn every step of the way.
Are all these mask and other measures helping? All this testing? All these restrictions? Hard to say, but I see no evidence that they help much, if at all.
I suppose the pro-lockdown response to that question is “just imagine what things would be like if we didn’t take all these measures!” The strongest case I can think of for this view is the principle “better be safe than sorry.”
Maybe so, and maybe lockdowns were justifiable in the beginning when we didn’t know exactly how dangerous this pandemic would be. But an overemphasis on safety may become hypochondria. My suspicion is that much of what we claim to do from prudence is really cowardice. It’s easy to rationalize timidity by giving it the veneer of wisdom. As justifiable as it may have been in the beginning, it sets a bad precedent. As Aquinas says, a small error in the beginning becomes a great one in the end.
For my part I’ve conducted some exercises in courage. I don’t wear my mask in the grocery store and have never been accosted. I don’t wear it outside, or in large public spaces. I’ve occasionally eaten at crowded restaurants and attended church without bothering with masks. I’m required to wear one for work. If I were in a nursing home or around the sick or elderly for an extended period, I’d wear one freely. At that point, that’s both the polite and prudential thing to do. Same goes for when people ask me to put one on.
Ethan, your approach to masks seems the best one. Wear a mask when required, or when you think helpful, or when other people seem bothered. Otherwise, don’t. That does take some courage. Social pressure is strong.
Your other comments show insight as well. Here in California the governor says that he “follows the science” when he orders us to do this and that, locking some things down and opening other things up and imposing curfews and lifting them. He seems to be flailing about, desperately seeking safety to avoid the risk of recall. (A petition to recall the governor from office has attracted 1.2 million signatures, and needs only a few 100,000 more.) But perfect safety is nowhere to be had.
It is hard to know what to do. Science, it seems, has little to say. But on balance, taking reasonable risks seems the better course. To be prudent, not timid. To exercise courage, not cowardice, and always to see what happens and let that guide future action. We learn most and mostly by trial and error. The lessons failure teaches us can be hard. But those who never try, even when the outcome is uncertain, never learn much, if at all.
The CDC announced today a new order that will come into force in the United States on February 2 (or technically, on February 1 at 11:59 pm). That order requires all people using any form of transportation (like an airplane, ship, ferry, train, subway, bus, taxi or ride-share) other than a private car, or using a transportation hub (like an airport, seaport, train station, bus station, or subway station), to wear a mask.
The thing that jumped out at me is that the order applies to interstate and intrastate transportation alike. That is a big power grab. Under the Tenth Amendment, public health is a matter for the states, not the federal government. The statute the CDC relied on, 42 U.S.C. § 264 – Regulations to control communicable diseases, talks about disease transmission into the United States or between states. This order blows past that limitation.
I hope blue-state (by which I mean of course conservative states) governors challenge this order. Even if they do, though, the challenge will probably be futile. The federal government has spread its tenacious tentacles so far into the states and cities that any attempt to cut them off will fail to stop the inevitable encroachment.
We saw this with the 55-mph speed limit. Many people don’t remember much about that. The federal government was not supposed to be able to set a national speed limit. But Congress did it anyway, saying that any state that did not obey would not get federal highway funds.
The 55-mph was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1974 and remained in place (though eventually weakened) through the Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush I presidencies until repealed by Bill Clinton in 1995. In force during six presidencies and over 22 years. All to accomplish amorphous goals that it never accomplished.
Initially the speed limit was supposed to save fuel and reduce the need for oil imports. There’s little evidence it ever did that, and in any event oil soon became readily available again and so that justification for the measure disappeared. Then the 55-mph speed limit was justified for the lives it save. But there’s little evidence it ever did that, either.
Sure, that the 55-mph speed limit would save fuel and lives was plausible, and I’m sure it did save some fuel and some lives. But the speed limit’s harms greatly outweighed its benefits by any measure. Indeed, the only benefit that was significant was the money that state and local governments got by handing out speeding tickets.
This mask requirement is the same way. Does a mask protect people from spreading the Covid-19 disease? Plausibly so. In theory, it should. Does a mask protect its wearer from getting the disease? This one’s more speculative, but in theory, it should. But there’s no scientific evidence to support either of those two theories. If those theories are indeed true, they must be insignificantly so if no one can produce scientific evidence to support them.
(Note: expert opinion is not scientific evidence. As Richard Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”. And as the saying goes, “in God we trust. All others must bring data.”)
No doubt when this epidemic ends (and it will end, as epidemics always do), Joe Biden will take credit for ending it. And this mask mandate will be touted as playing a big part in his success. Thus the federal government, lopped back a bit by Donald Trump, will grow with vigor again.
The “sweeping” mask order coming out of Joe Biden’s CDC stunned me, even (metaphorically) left me gasping for breath. I put “sweeping” in quotes because that’s what the Washington Post called it in a headline. Not as criticism, mind you, but of praise. Still, at least they acknowledge the order is broader than expected.
That “sweeping” is about the only comment I’ve seen that even hints at this broad usurpation by the president of powers reserved to the states. But I guess that’s where we are as a country.
In looking into this issue I found a book by Michael McConnell called The President Who Would Not Be King: Executive Power Under the Constitution. The author’s a law professor at Stanford, though he has a conservative bent. I’ve only read excerpts so far, but I want to read more.
The Wuhan virus epidemic has revealed a silent and pernicious plague that has been years in the making. The loss of liberty to ensure that we can all be safe. For the greater good.
I’m sick of it.
Yes, indeed. This may be the most appalling governmental action, in terms of overreach, I have seen in my lifetime (and I am not aware of any before my lifetime, either). I’ve linked it here. Not only does it have no relevant statutory authority, and not only does it explicitly reject any limitation to interstate travel, and not only does it lie continuously about asymptomatic transmission and the degree to which masks have any proven efficacy, it evades all the procedural safeguards within administrative law, and formally claims to be outside it.
As Carl Schmitt said, sovereign is he who decides the exception. We know are clear in what we always knew, but preferred to avoid–the sovereign is the unaccountable administrative state, answerable only to a shadowy set of ruling elites. This is tyrannical, gangster government. The entire federal government is now wholly illegitimate, in any reasonable interpretation, and no American should hold himself bound to honor or serve it, except as a matter of convenience or expedience. The sooner it dies, the better.
And, worst of all, there is zero outcry. There’s not even an understanding of the rancid nature of this order, among anyone, as far as I can tell. Maybe Volokh will comment. (They did a piece on the earlier, and nearly as bad, “eviction moratorium,” which has no authority at all, either.)
You already know this, but this overreach isn’t confined to the US. It’s the same situation out here. Under the current laws of my jurisdiction, we are not allowed to leave our homes for anything other than essential purposes – in theory, anyway. Fortunately, in practice this is proving rather tricky to enforce (something that I would not normally cheer, being very much a law-and-order type of person), but life has generally become insufferable.
Just this last Saturday, I popped by the local grocery store. There was a queue outside – a fairly common sight these days – and two employees were posted at the entrance to enforce all the health protocols. No sooner had I entered the store than I was stopped and asked if I had a mask on me. As I was wearing a face covering, I didn’t immediately realize that I was the one being addressed. Some context: this is a piece of fabric that completely covered my mouth and my nose, and I’d worn it countless of times – to a dental office and a dermatologist’s office too; to the liquor store; to the pharmacy; while travelling on public transit; and of course, to the same local grocery where I’d just been stopped by the overzealous enforcers of the city’s bylaw. The bylaw, by the way, makes it unequivocally clear that either a mask or a face covering is acceptable. Why was my face covering unacceptable all of a sudden? Choosing not press the issue, the employees waved me in, but it shows how arbitrary the whole thing is. I’ve watched a video about a guy being arrested by the police because he wasn’t wearing a proper mask at the gym and refused to wear another one; he’d worn this mask at the same gym many times before and did not understand why it was suddenly deemed to be no longer acceptable. When I saw the video, I thought, “there has got to be more to the story”. Now I am not so sure.
I am currently reading The State of Exception (pretend there’s italics) by Giorgio Agamben. I am not sure how familiar you’re with Agamben; he was a highly respected Italian thinker and intellectual up until the spring of last year, where he committed the unthinkable by speaking out against the COVID measures taken by the Italian government, at which point he became something of a pariah. The book is a very relevant read for our times as, using a crisis (this time, a health one), governments worldwide are implementing a state of exception and riding roughshod over basic human rights. Christopher Caldwell, who has been reviewed by Charles elsewhere on the blog, wrote a piece on Agamben and COVID last year in the NY Times. It is here, if you’re interested in learning more: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/opinion/sunday/giorgio-agamben-philosophy-coronavirus.html
I must say, though, that while many are tempted to blame government officials and their putative authoritarian instincts, the awful truth, as I see it, is that all the “health protocols” are being enacted with the broad support of the public. I am convinced that the public is broadly supportive of these measures, and current policies reflect that. National polls show that 70-90% of the population support mask mandates, obligatory vaccines, and travel bans until the situation improves. Polls are fallible, of course, but, looking at the number of people wearing masks outside, where they are not required to do so by law, I have little reason to doubt the accuracy of the polls. Until there is a change in public sentiment, the insanity will go on until everyone is vaccinated and/or the pandemic goes away on its (as it most certainly will, sooner or later). I am generally pessimistic. A precedent has been set, and lockdowns (and other “safety protocols”) will be henceforth considered to be a viable policy when dealing with similar crises in the future.
It’s all crazy. I have half written a detailed legal analysis of the CDC mask and eviction orders. Total lawlessness. Yet, as you say, broadly supported by the public, who has no idea that “the government” doesn’t just have the authority to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, even if “the government” is the “acting deputy chief of staff” of the CDC, as in the case of the eviction order. Don’t know if I’m going to finish the piece, it’s so depressing (and pretty technical).
Masks are back in the news. The New York Times had two articles on masks today.
One article told how some small manufacturing companies in the United States started making N95 masks, but now are finding no buyers. That was an interesting problem, but one I won’t talk about here.
The other article was about new CDC reporting on masks. The CDC “announced findings” that all masks work but tight-fitting surgical masks or a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask work better. So the new director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, pled with people to wear better masks.
The New York Times article touts the findings as follows:
“New research by the [CDC] shows that transmission of the virus can be reduced by up to 96.5 percent if both an infected individual and an uninfected individual wear tightly fitted surgical masks or a cloth-and-surgical-mask combination.”
And then quotes Rochelle Walensky as saying:
“The bottom line is this: Masks work, and they work when they have a good fit and are worn correctly.”
Turns out this is not science, but pseudoscience. The 96.5% figure is meaningless. The experiments used two mannequins to measure how many particles various masks filtered. That means nothing in the real world. The CDC has no more evidence than it did before that masks work in the real world to stop the transmission of the virus.
The people at the CDC know that. The CDC is not changing its guidance on masks. The announcement of these research findings was a public relations stunt. Nothing more.
To present these kind of research findings as though they show that masks work is deceptive. Masks may help fight this virus. There is some evidence to suggest that they do.
But it’s speculative evidence, not science. Linsey Marr, Monica Gandhi, and others are offering theories, not proof. Stop the pretense that you are “following the science” when you are doing nothing of the kind.
Yes, I saw that, and had more or less exactly the same thoughts. Also, that this is, in the literal sense of the term, unbelievable. Who would, just a year ago, have believed that such obvious insane tripe would be purveyed by the government, and then widely accepted, rather than mocked. It’s no different than watering plants with Brawndo, as in the movie Idiocracy.
I suppose the good news is that when we face a real challenge, the country will immediately collapse, and we can get on with the next thing. Small comfort if you’re dead, though.
The CDC has also found (also using mannequins) that two masks are better than one, and indeed, I am seeing people outside wearing two masks and not one. Well, why not three, then? Ah, “the science”!
Eugene, “the science” indeed. It’s almost laughable what passes for science these days.
Now there is a lot of bleating about “the variants”. Supposedly the B.1.1.7 variant from England is up to 50% more contagious and up to 70% more lethal than the original flavor of the virus. But the scientists who say so rely on mathematical models, and that is not science.
I got into an internet argument with a guy who said he is an infectious disease epidemiologist in Seattle. He did seem to know his stuff, so I suspect he does qualify as an expert. But he had no scientific evidence to offer that shows the variants are more contagious or lethal. Just expert opinion.
That matters. As Richard Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”. And as another wag said, “in God we trust. All others must bring data.”
I think New York governor Andrew Cuomo finally sees the light on experts: “When I say ‘experts’ in air-quotes, it sounds like I don’t really trust the experts, because I don’t. I don’t.”
And on lockdowns: “We simply cannot stay closed until the vaccine hits critical mass. The cost is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely.”
And it does look like things are looking up. Today in California there were fewer than 6,000 new cases of the virus. A month ago there were over 40,000 a day. That’s down a steep 85%. Less than half the number of virus patients are in California hospitals now than then too, down in a month to less than 10,000 from over 22,000.
Nationwide the drops are not that dramatic, but close.
Some still say masks deserve the credit. I just laugh at that. Yeah, right.
“It’s got electrolytes!”
It is, as you say, unbelievable. People pushing masks on us are indeed running an idiocracy. Just now I read an article by a doctor at the University of Washington who said, without offering any evidence, that “masks have saved far more lives than any other biomedical intervention for Covid-19”.
He goes on to say that a “mathematical model” his group made “demonstrates” that if 25% more people wore masks, and masks were 25% better at stopping particles, the reproduction number would fall below 1 and the epidemic would end.
Yeah, and I can make a mathematical model that demonstrates that in 100 years the earth’s oceans will boil away, and another one that demonstrates that the earth will be a ball of ice. Mathematical models are fiction, not fact. They are opinion, not evidence.
This epidemic is serious. The sooner it is over, the better. Vaccines can end it. Natural immunity from getting the disease can end it. Indeed, the latest numbers on new cases and hospitalizations are dropping dramatically.
Masks won’t matter much, and they won’t end the epidemic. If they could have, they would have. They haven’t.
[When Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential candidate, and the “Joe and the Hoe” meme went around, the move Idiocracy came to mind and made me laugh. The reason? Maya Rudolph played a ho in that movie, and she played Kamala Harris on Saturday Night Live. No difference in the two roles.]
This virus crisis has brought new life to staid science in one respect. Geneticists in several countries have been mapping the genes of the coronavirus as it mutates. They can see changes in its genetic code in real time.
The New York Times says Charles Darwin explained all this: “As the coronavirus branches into new variants, researchers are observing Darwin’s theory of evolution in action every day.” But that’s not true. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
With some variants, the B.1.351 in South Africa, for example, the mutation changes only one base code in the virus’s RNA. That could easily happen by chance. Charles Darwin’s theory might explain that.
But in the B.1.1.7 variant in the United Kingdom, for example, more than a dozen mutations appear across the genome seemingly all at once. The chances of that happening by chance are nil. That’s definitely not Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in action.
As scientists map the virus mutating, they see sophisticated changes occur that no one can explain. One scientist said after researching some of these mutations that: “In some cases, it almost looks like there’s [genetic] sequence dropping in from outer space.” Hmmm.
Charles Darwin’s theory says evolution occurs by natural variations from parent to child, with any favorable variations naturally selected and preserved in later descendants. But these variations are small, not large. “Natura non facit saltus”, Charles Darwin thunders six times in his Origin of Species. [“Nature makes no jumps.”]
But scientists see jumps. They see, in essence, genetic engineering happening before their eyes. Scientist James Shapiro has seen this in his research in other areas, and calls it “natural genetic engineering”. But can nature really do genetic engineering?
Nobody has a good answer to that question. But at least now as they see sophisticated mutations to the virus unfold across the world, more and more scientists come face to face with the question.
Fascinating. I don’t have the answer either, of course!
Economics and epidemiology share a common problem. Both are a study of a complex system with no tight and tidy connection between cause and effect. Because complex systems cannot simply be simplified, the reductive tools of science—designed to do just that—don’t work well.
That means that in economics and epidemiology, math doesn’t help much. There are few, if any, formulas to simplify economies or epidemics. No E = mc^2. No a^2 + b^2 = c^2. No F = ma. There are few (if any) strong and reliable signals to pick out amongst the noise.
In a complex system, relationships between its parts matter more than the parts themselves. A complex system is more than just the sum of its parts, so reducing the system to its parts and studying those parts often yields little insight. You need to study the whole.
But studying the whole of a complex system is hard, so we try to make it simple. We do that in two ways. One, we turn to experts and follow their opinion. Two, we turn to mathematical models instead of mathematical formulas. Both ways are problematic.
With experts, several problems emerge. Experts in today’s world tend to be specialists, not generalists. Their expertise is reduced to a slice of the complex system, often just to one of its parts. That’s too limiting to solve a systemic problem, which requires a holistic approach.
Then too, experts tend to lack creativity in dealing with the unknown. Their knowledge is so great that it locks them into a certain way of thinking that they can never shake off. As German physicist Max Planck said, science advances one funeral at a time.
[Or more precisely, he really said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”]
That all makes expert opinion about complex systems not particularly expert. You can’t trust it. You have to treat it just the same as any other opinion. As physicist Richard Feynman said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
With mathematical models, similar problems emerge. In a sense, mathematical models are just the opinions of experts cloaked with algorithmic authority. Like a seer with a crystal ball. A prop, not a separate source of information.
Thomas Piketty in his tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century railed against this use of mathematical models in economics. It was reading that rail prompted this comment by me, and my likening economics to epidemiology. The problems are the same.
Thomas Piketty says: “The discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation. . . . This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the more complex questions posed by the world we live in.”
Later in the book he says: “For far too long economists have sought to define themselves in terms of their supposedly scientific methods. In fact, those methods rely on an immoderate use of mathematical models, which are frequently no more than an excuse for occupying the terrain and masking the vacuity of the content.”
One scathing phrase sums up his views about both economic experts and their mathematical models, as he criticizes “their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything”. [Of course, that is American economic experts, not him or his French colleagues. He relies on historical data, not mathematical models.]
What does all this have to do with masks? We are seeing how, just as in economics (and climate science, but that’s another story), expert opinion and mathematical models fail to tell us anything reliable about masks. In the complexity of this epidemic, those sources of answers are dry wells. No fount of knowledge flows from them to quench the raging flames of this epidemic. We need to look elsewhere.
Where to look? At the data from the real world. At historical experience. At experiments in real-world conditions. These will give us the best answers, though ideal answers will be hard to come by. And if we do that, and eschew the temptations of experts and models, we won’t (I think) find masks to be worth the bother.
Masks are a nostrum, a fetish, not a cure. Time to unmask the truth about masks.
Very nicely put. (Ortega has thoughts on experts too; he was very prescient.) But what is why there is no movement whatsoever, nor will there be, to getting “data from the real world . . . historical experience . . . experiments in real-world conditions.” Why? Are they afraid the answers will embarrass those in power? Do they just not care? I can guarantee you that no study that shows masks were useless, or even not helpful, will ever be allowed to see the light of day.
Charles, thank you for the Ortega link. I had not seen that review (which as always very nicely captures the book), but you are right — his thoughts from decades ago on experts and specialists are, as we are now seeing before our eyes, eerily right on target. Reliance on expert opinion (as opposed to the facts they offer) in responding to something like an epidemic is hazardous.
Why do experts so often get it wrong? Because they can never admit to having gotten it wrong. They build up a reputation over years of work and finally have the money, power, position, prestige and sometimes celebrity that comes with it. All that is threatened if they make a mistake.
Yet we are all human. We all make mistakes. We especially make mistakes when we are dealing with the unknown, or the imperfectly known. When light is dim and weather murky, it’s hard to make progress along an unmarked path. We have to feel our way along, step by step. We will make false steps and have to retrace. We will start at shadows. We can’t be confident of when we will arrive at our destination, or that we even will.
But an expert has to be confident. An expert has to know. Otherwise they wouldn’t be an expert!
So we get experts like Tony Fauci, Michael Osterholm, and Monica Gandhi who propound theories that never seem to match up with reality. (“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”) Who posit predictions that don’t pan out. (Unless, as often is, they make such vague predictions that they can claim accuracy no matter what the result.) Who never, ever admit to mistakes.
However beautiful the theory, we should focus on real-world results. Experts get rewarded for blurring our focus, not sharpening it. We see that with masks. You are, sadly, right that the light of day will never shine on the truth about masks.
This piece from Tanner Greer is interesting and tangentially related to the question of experts, and how expertise in different fields has different effects on the participants: https://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2021/02/why-writers-and-think-tankers-feud-so.html
I am about to put out a very long piece that is also tangential to this, among other matters on how government action that falsely claims expertise but ignores reality is tyranny. Spicy!
Charles posted this “Against Masks” essay almost a year ago. Today’s intriguing announcement by the CDC about masks seems to warrant a new comment even on an old post. For it seems, now, and finally, that even the CDC has come out against masks.
Of course I’m being facetious. The CDC did not come out against masks, but merely said that those who have been vaccinated need not wear masks outdoors or, even, indoors (except in high-risk situations like hospitals or doctor’s offices, rest homes, public transportation, and the like).
That last bit about public indoor non-masking shocked a lot of people, for different reasons. Saying that the vaccinated need not wear masks indoors shocked me, and many like me, for how sensible the advice was. What a relief! The epidemic really is ending.
But not surprisingly, it shocked many mask proponents into outrage. (I even saw one person say in the New York Times reader comment section: “How dare they?”, in Greta-Thunberg-esque phrasing.) Why are they worried? They fear that even the unvaccinated will throw off their masks, posing as vaccinated. And how could anyone tell? Infectious people could be wolves in sheep’s clothing!
So the CDC finally follows the science, and they get it from both sides. From my side, they hear, “What took you so long?” From the other side, they hear, “Too soon! Too soon!”
The CDC can’t win. Or can they? Joe and Jill Biden seemed to be almost gleeful in finally unmasking themselves and showing their faces in public. So did Kamala Harris. But many mask mandaters like New York governor Andrew Cuomo dourly said that he would take the issue under advisement. California governor Gavin Newsom wouldn’t even go that far.
It will, as always, be interesting to see what happens.
Yes, the reaction here has been fascinating. Not just the continued fear and desire to show belief in the new religion by keeping wearing masks. I have been more surprised that big retail chains have so quickly dropped the masks. It makes sense, though. The decisions made by executive at all big companies, as I’ve noted before, are driven by seeking admiration and acceptance from their social betters, who are all left. But at the same time, they know that masks are bad for business. So if they can get cover for their first goal, they’re perfectly happy to drop the masks at their stores.
Of course, masks are useless in almost all situations, and no evidence has arisen to the contrary. On the macro scale, Texas going to zero Covid deaths in precisely the time it entirely dropped mask mandates, with only 30% vaccinated, proves that.
Anyway, my fear that masks would be required forever appears to have been misplaced. Although I suppose in major Blue areas, they may be effectively required. Seems unlikely, though. Or in the winter, if more Covid shows up, might come back.
Certainly nothing I said a year ago I would say materially differently now. Which is either a testament to my prescience, or to my being a blockhead. I’m pretty sure the former, though.