Mar 1Liked by Mari, the Happy Wanderer

Great post! I too hate masks and especially hate their effect on communication and socialization. Every year we get 36 new 19-y.o. students in our design studio-based degree program, and it's a very interactive program. A very strong and enduring sense of community always develops among the class, but the class of Fall 2020 is an exception. They just never really have "clicked" as a group. Another weird thing: when I see those guys around the building (now maskless of course), I often don't recognize them, because I spent the first two semesters (Fall 2020 and Spring 2021) never seeing their faces.

Something I keep noticing: a great many colleagues here at the university seem to have been very, very attached to the idea of mask mandates and also the idea of remote teaching/meeting as a reasonable alternative to in-person interaction at the university. Not sure what's going on here. It seems like some amalgam of excessive "safetyism" (all precautions are unquestionably a good thing; not gonna even talk about downsides) and rationalization (from the comfort of my home office, as opposed to my office in that big building several miles away, I insist that remote teaching is working just fine).

It always seemed to me that masks were probably helpful for protection from coughing or sneezing people. I'm guessing this is why transmission of other communicable diseases like seasonal flu dropped off in the masky era. But even at the outset, I thought mask mandates outdoors on campus were silly. These were of course, not opinions based on science, but rather on intuition.

But I'm just sayin': my intuition works pretty well sometimes. Remote teaching was a massive fail. This seemed blastingly obvious to me from the start, for so many reasons, not the least of which being the total breakdown of peer-learning (design studios heavily rely on this as pedagogy). But for the entirety of 2021—both semesters—in-person teaching was optional, and the majority of instructors stayed home. I pretty much had the Design building to myself (and the parking lot, which was nice, haha!).

Maybe I'm a cynic, but I suspect there were very powerful motivational undercurrents around here during the COVID epoch. People are complicated, I always say, so it is a mistake to write them off for some presumed devious motivation. People make choices and take stances for a whole array of reasons. In any case I see circumstantial evidence that remote teaching was very much grounded in convenience (at great unacknowledged cost for teaching and learning), and that mask-wearing eventually became at least partly a sort of uniform or "signifier" of allegiance, a political act and a desire to assert control.

We are a "University of Science and Technology", but "science" had kind of gone into hiding.

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Mar 1Liked by Mari, the Happy Wanderer

I think your best point is so simple that everyone overlooks it- if people see/feel the benefit of wearing masks, they wear them. Just like Londoners following Blitz precautions. I don't wear my seat belt in my car because I'm afraid of getting a citation for not wearing it- I wear my seat belt because I've seen what can happen to people in accidents when they aren't wearing one.

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One way to get people to think more like scientists would be to encourage them to be very skeptical of medical and science reporting, even about something that seems so science-y, so cut and dried, and so respectable on the surface as a Cochrane review.

I’ve been reading faulty health and medical reporting for too many decades to think health decisions should be made by each of us based on what we read in the media.

I’ll just hit a couple little points because no one wants to hear my whole spiel:

I object to the media’s takeaway message from the Cochrane review that “masks don’t work.”

Maybe it’s true that “masks don’t work” if you wear them incorrectly or wear them in situations where you don’t need them (eg, the beach; or a meeting room with an open window; or you expect kindergartners to wear them all day long).

You make a good point about “the army you have” Mari, and also: The army would not be hard to train to be more effective with good public health messaging. I cannot emphasize this enough: This is such a solvable problem. It would not be hard to teach people:

1. What kind of masks work?

N95 or KN95

2. How are they properly worn?

a. Choose a size that is fits close to your face.

b. Press the metal adjustable band so it fits closely around your nose.

c. If the mask moves in and out a bit with your breathing, that’s a good enough fit (and will probably avoid glasses fog).

3. When should I wear one, in a way that makes a difference to myself and the community?

This is a judgment call, but in general for a healthy person, the answer is “crowded indoor poorly ventilated spaces where you’ll be for a long time.“ Examples:

subway at rush hour

crowded lecture call

standing-room-only jury selection room

That’s about ALL people need to know or understand. It would be so easy to teach people what’s effective.

Maybe in fact “masks are very effective” if you choose the right time, place, mask, and method of wearing them, which is as simple as I just laid out. And not just great for the wearer; great for the wider community (as epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina pointed out last week in her substack post about the Cochrane review):

“even if masks only reduce the risk of transmission for each individual by a small fraction, when a community masks, those small effects compound exponentially across a population, making a big dent in cases. Just like compounding interest—a small change in the percentage makes a big difference down the road.”


To me it’s a shame (more than a shame) when the information is presented through the lens of a media who say things like “Look! Masks don’t work!”

Is anything that simple?

Why did health care workers stop dying when they figured out the right PPE to wear in covid units (before the vaccines)?

And as I pointed out on a different substack last night, asking whether masks work makes as much sense as asking whether vitamins work: which vitamins? in what form? taken when? how much? for how long? for what purpose?

This Cochrane review jumbled too many things together with predictable results. If you jumbled together all the research on “whether vitamins work,” you’d come up with a big, correct “no,” but you’d also miss — in that same jumble— the fact that even if most vitamins truly don’t live up to their claims, vitamin K shots do prevent bleeding conditions in newborns.

The answer to sweeping questions (do masks work? do vitamins work?) will almost always be no. The answer to specific questions (do well-fitted N95s in close quarters prevent covid infection? do vitamin K shots prevent bleeding in newborns?) is often more interesting.

And while we’re waiting for better treatments and preventatives for covid, which I believe are coming, wearing “well-fitted N95s in close quarters” in targeted commonsense situations is something we can do not just for ourselves but others.

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Mar 1Liked by Mari, the Happy Wanderer

I was raised in a happy Catholic family, we attended church regularly, and I was a true believer. I always had a tendency for science and logic, so as I got older my faith got updated with (at the time to me) more mature ways of understanding religion and god. I enjoyed discussions and debates with my religious and nonreligious friends, always looking for deeper understanding. I attended a seminary (just for one year) and would probably be there still had I known about Jesuits at the time.

One day on a very long bus ride, I was thinking about some philsophical problem, trying to incorporate some solution into my current beliefs. I thought to try the logical tactic where you assume the opposite of your thesis to be true, then prove it false, hopefully in support of your origianal thesis. So I started with the most basic principle, assume a universe in which there is no god. What does that look like? What truth which I know will be shown to be inconsistent with that? After hours of thinking through everything I could come up with, I realized that I had a perfectly consistent universe that made sense with no weird exceptions or logical pretzels to untangle. The universe that I had been living with up to that point was very much more complex. So I had no choice to apply Occam's razor and at that moment I became an atheist.

Now that I've typed all that I'm not sure how it's really about believing the science. Obviously there is no experiment or control group-- therefore not science. But it did set me on a new way where I learned to scrutinize all the data in everything, and not take anything for granted just based on intuition and personal preferences. It's hard work, but often quite rewarding.

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Mar 1Liked by Mari, the Happy Wanderer

<insert gif-meme of DiCaprio clapping>

It's so frustrating to see the world willingly succumb to pseudoscience, I thought through the advances of EMB and meta-science we had devised ways of knowing to inoculate ourselves from falling back into superstition. Sure, mistakes can be made, like administering hormone-replacement therapy to post-menopausal women, but we sought evidence anyway and overturned consensus through slow and careful analysis. This mask hysteria? It's like Bloodletting all over again - no matter how many times William Harvey asked to "divide patients into two lots, you bloodletters do as ye do", you get anecdotes of efficacy to overrule observable data and RCT. Crazy.

But here we are.

A few additional points (Love the RC example, I used similar one but with tying an Onion to you Belt - old Simpsons reference).

1) "if only everyone wore their masks properly all the time, then the masks would work. This is probably true." Even this may be false, and it would be extremely useful in understanding viral transmission dynamics to know whether is true or not. You could place 3000 virions within the space of a single n95 micropore. *Any* gap in the mask - where the bridge meets your nose, by the chin, by the sides, etc would render it useless. The same people who hashtag "Covid is Airborne" seem to fail to recognize the obvious rule of fluid dynamics - airflow follows path of least resistance.

2) Suppose you tape the mask around the perimeter of your face to get a strict seal. Can a virion which pass through the micropoes anyway? Consider when scaled to the size of a beach ball the micropore of an n95 mask would be scaled to the size of the Epcot Center Buckyball. We literally only discovered viruses because contemporaries of Pasteur were finding something invisible still contaminating water passed through ceramic chamberland filters (designed to trap the much larger bacteria) which they named "Filter Passing Viruses". It would be 50 years until we developed electron microscopes to actually see them. You could fit 300 *billion* virions in the space of a speck of dust.

3) Even if a mask captures "95%" of particles, what about the 5%? If you exhale 1000 infectious particles per breath and it only takes 100 virions for an infectious dose, how many minutes of time does a sealed n95 provide? Don't the videos of people finding out n95 masks don't work against pepper spray (which particles are several magnitudes larger than viruses) tell us something?

4) Why does the US CDC rely on anecdotes and ignore evidence against the hypothesis. This is pseudoscience 101 - as Francis Bacon called it "counting your hits and forgetting your misses" . Here, the CDC includes Bangladesh, but not Danmask. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/masking-science-sars-cov2.html

When confronted with the Cochrane analysis Wallensky argued "they only counted RCTs though". Embarrassing.

Carl Sagan called it.

"I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hand of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscope’s, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."

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I live in a county in Georgia (USA) that had intense mask mandates and closed schools. The contiguous county did not. For a long time we got monthly reports. The non-masking county had better COVID outcomes. No one has studied this for a paper just my observations over the lockdown. Schools did far better in statewide reports in the unmasked county.

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Mar 2Liked by Mari, the Happy Wanderer

We will have to agree to disagree on this issue, Mari. There are problems with the Cochrane Review and how it was reported. The authors themselves say that their conclusions on the ineffectiveness of masks are not firm: "The low to moderate certainty of evidence means our confidence in the effect estimate is limited, and that the true effect may be different from the observed estimate of the effect." Also, if you read the Review (which I did cursorily), they looked at studies done over the last fifty years. Fifty years in health care is a very long time. I'd have to spend more time with the study than I want to to explore those older trials, but comparing them to RCTs done over the last five years is probably like apples to oranges. Finally, the authors themselves acknowledge a high degree of bias in the trials they studied. Bret Stephens was irresponsible to report on the Cochrane Review the way he did. Science, and public health in particular, is complicated, in part because humans are complicated. He could say the evidence is mixed or uncertain--that is true. But to say that masks absolutely make no difference is not validated by the Cochrane Review.

I would be open to a solid study that showed the ineffectiveness of masks to prevent the spread of respiratory infections, but this Cochrane Review is not that. I obviously feel strongly about this--the authors of the review highlighted their conclusions without giving time to the doubts they express in the same paper. That is also irresponsible.

Public health by press release is bad public health, but we seem to be stuck with it.

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Mar 1Liked by Mari, the Happy Wanderer

So I flew to Florida for spring break around March 8, 2020. Some people were wearing masks, some were wiping down every surface in sight. I did neither. The plane was blissfully nearly empty. That evening on the news they said a known positive case had flown from New York to West Palm Beach on Jet Blue but thankfully not my plane. People at the “resort” I was visiting were horrified to hear I had come from that cesspool of infection (NYC) and avoided me!!! Returning home 5 days later after hearing all the rising numbers and the NCAA March Madness cancellation (now you know it is real if they cancel sports!!!!) the plane was full and people were visibly nervous. Once home I made myself a mask and was one of the first to wear it at ShopRite. Fast forward I was one of the first people back at work and wore a mask around other people but ripped it off as soon as I could alone!!!! I did not contract Covid until May 2022 even though I was increasingly lax about wearing it! Fast forward again to last night we are STILL wearing masks at choir rehearsal which I consider to be ridiculous!!!! I do not wear a mask anymore anywhere else and am significantly at higher risk of being exposed due to my job in a healthcare center at a university. And have only caught COVID once (fingers crossed!). I followed the science at the beginning which was playing catch up from day one, I now believe that with vaccinations we have done what we can to protect ourselves so we need for life to go on.

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