Carl Sagan popularized the saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I call it ECREE for short. I like to apply ECREE when making decisions where one option seems to defy common sense. Until I’ve seen incredibly compelling evidence, I won’t drive my car off a bridge no matter how many physicists tell me it will fly. Unfortunately, I’ve observed a disturbing trend in which otherwise educated, intelligent people throw out common sense and replace it with blind faith in experts. I saw this most recently with the guidance around mask use in the run up to the coronavirus pandemic. Common sense would say to wear a mask in public because the disease spreads similarly to the flu and masks help protect against the flu. Yet, on February 29th, 2020, the Surgeon General posted this Tweet, imploring us to stop buying masks:
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
The CDC and the Surgeon General provided the following rationale for why we don’t need to wear masks:
- Masks are ineffective.
- Most people don’t wear masks correctly, leading wearers to take unnecessary risks while wearing a mask.
- Social distancing and hygiene measures such as hand washing are better at controlling the infection than mask usage.
- N95 masks are in short supply, and should be reserved for medical professionals on the front lines of the outbreak.
There are two interesting things in this line of reasoning. First, the main claim – masks are ineffective – is clearly bogus. We wouldn’t be saving masks for medical staff if they were ineffective, and masks don’t discriminate based on the vocation of the wearer. Furthermore, studies suggest that almost any face covering can help block the spread of respiratory illnesses, so it’s possible to both wear a mask and not deprive those on the front-line of key PPE.
This leaves us with the secondary claims, which are most interesting to me. These are second-order claims regarding how masks alter people’s behavior. If I buy a mask, then I might not wear it correctly. If I buy a mask, I might then decide that social distancing isn’t necessary based on some misguided idea that the mask completely protects me. While such second-order claims must be considered from a policymaking perspective, they don’t need to be considered from an individual perspective. I have a choice about whether or not I social distance, and I can learn how to put a mask on properly. With a tiny amount of effort, I can stop myself from becoming a statistic. From an individual perspective, wearing a mask has practically no downside and unlimited upside. A mask costs under $100, even after price-gouging. If it prevents you from becoming infected once, it will have paid for itself thousands of times over.
So why, then, were so many people sucked into the “masks don’t work” meme? I think it has to do with the growing trend I see of “expert worship.” It is true that the world is growing increasingly complex. It is also true that there is a growing group of loud anti-scientists who deny well-researched scientific theories. Experts, however, are not infallible and oftentimes their goals may not align with yours. An epidemiologist’s mandate might be to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This includes warning against wearing masks if “preventing panic” or “conserving supplies” furthers that goal. Your objective likely isn’t to eliminate the pandemic at a national scale, but rather to prevent yourself or your loved ones from being infected. In this case, wearing a mask can only help – and, in the case of COVID-19, was eventually encouraged by the same experts who once warned against it:
#DYK? @CDCgov’s recommendation on wearing a cloth face covering may help protect the most vulnerable from #COVID19. Watch @Surgeon_General Jerome Adams make a face covering in a few easy steps. pic.twitter.com/Ciq2YoPL46— Dr. Robert R. Redfield (@CDCDirector) April 14, 2020