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September 29, 2020

Opinion is Not Evidence, Ignoring Science to Follow Gut Instinct

(Part 1 of Face Masks: A Placebo with Harmful Side Effects)

(This is the first article in a series exploring the science, psychology, and unintended consequences of COVID-19 face masks.) 

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Our health officials (and the media) have relentlessly promoted face masks as a common-sense solution to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The messaging has been so effective that one jurisdiction after another has adopted mandatory mask laws. Why wouldn't they if wearing them is all upside with little downside? Mask critics are easily dismissed with a little shaming. "So, they're a little uncomfortable, get over it, you could save another person's life!"

If only it was that easy. 

Decades of randomized controlled trials have consistently shown that face masks don't reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Science trumps gut instinct. When our credentialed health officials try to tell us otherwise, they are ignoring the weight of impartial evidence to promote unsupported opinions. This is scientific misconduct. And when we take a closer look at what research has revealed about the virus-laden droplets and aerosols produced by coughing, sneezing, and breathing, it quickly becomes obvious why face masks cannot work against respiratory viruses. As much as our fear may motivate us to deceive ourselves, face masks are merely a comforting illusion of safety against COVID-19.  They are a placebo. 

The downsides of our misplaced faith in face masks are not so little either. They reinforce the sense of ever-present danger, causing us to completely misjudge the level of risk that we actually face. Moreover, our false confidence in their effectiveness causes us to prescribe wildly inappropriate health measures that put our most vulnerable members of society at risk. And when the deaths continue anyway, we accuse our fellow citizens of irresponsible behavior instead of recognizing the ineffectiveness of our health measures. This, in turn, unleashes an army of indignant busybodies to police one another; the snitch and the overzealous by-law officer working hand in hand to sow the seeds of an authoritarian state.

Our health officials (and the media) have it backwards. There's no upside and plenty of downside to wearing face masks during a respiratory virus pandemic.

Part 1 of this article series explains why our health authorities turned their backs on decades worth of randomized controlled trials clearly showing that face masks don't work to reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.

Part 2 dives into the basic physics of the droplets and aerosols produced by coughing, sneezing, and breathing to show you why face masks can't work against viruses, even though they do work for bacteria and other larger airborne particles. 

Part 3 discusses why our false confidence in face masks led to so many unnecessary deaths among long-term care home residents. A placebo isn't harmless if it leads authorities to ignore effective strategies while imposing policies that actually increase the risk to our most vulnerable citizens.

Part 4 explains how the sense of ever-present danger provoked by face masks and the relentless misguided promotion of this wholly ineffective health measure have created the perfect psychological trap of self-reinforcing fear and spiraling authoritarianism, which is completely out of proportion to the risk we face.  

And finally, part 5 discusses how mandatory mask laws are breaking the social contract between free citizens and their governments by subordinating our individual autonomy and our constitutional liberties to the whims of our leaders and health authorities. We are paving the way for an authoritarian state by normalizing safety culture, which elevates the demands of the group over the rights of individuals.

Opinion Is Not Evidence, Ignoring Science to Follow Gut Instinct

Decades of medical research has focused on trying to understand which health measures work, and which don't, during a respiratory virus pandemic. Most of these studies focus on the influenza virus since it is the most common pandemic-causing respiratory virus that we face (we face one essentially every single winter), but these health measures apply to all respiratory viruses with a similar size and a similar mode of transmission.

The World Health Organization's 2019 pandemic guidelines do not mince words. "Ten RCTs [randomized controlled trials] were included in the meta-analysis, and there was no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.

That's why the WHO, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Tam, and other top health authorities around the world did not initially recommend face masks for COVID-19. Yet now they do. 

What changed? Why did they start promoting face masks (and other health measures like lockdowns) against the best advice of these long-established pandemic guidelines?

These pre-COVID-19 studies haven't been retracted. The data and research methods remain intact. If anything, many additional studies released since the COVID-19 pandemic began, summarized here, only reinforce what we already knew. Most of these new studies find no evidence that face masks reduce the spread of viral transmission in everyday life. Some even conclude that masks might increase the risk of infection. But you probably haven't heard of these studies.

But you probably have heard our media and health officials reference some new studies, all released since the COVID-19 pandemic began, which do claim to demonstrate the effectiveness of face masks. Even at the best of times, we should always be extra careful to judge the objectivity and quality of research and scrutinize the conclusions being drawn. In the midst of a panic and in an environment in which even health measures have become highly politicized, this is doubly important. So it should raise warning flags that so many post-COVID studies suddenly claim to find evidence of face mask effectiveness in direct contrast to pre-COVID research, which was unable to demonstrate any reduction in the spread of respiratory viruses when face masks are worn. And the skepticism seems warranted - a closer look at these new studies reveals that they are plagued with issues.

For example, in Kansas the health department was caught manipulating their data presentation in order to justify mask mandates. A meta-study released by the WHO in June claiming that face masks lead to an 80% risk reduction is so severely flawed that it should be retracted. A German study pointed to the city of Jena to illustrate how mandatory face masks led to a sharp decrease in cases, yet failed to point out that other measures like lockdowns were also introduced at the same time. And a US study claiming that mandatory masks led to a drop in infections in 15 states did not account for the fact that other neighboring states without mandatory masks also saw simultaneous declines in infections. 

Just because two things happen at the same time does not automatically mean that one is the cause of the other. This is a fundamental rule in science; every single person with a scientific background knows this. The fact that these studies have been given a free pass by medical authorities (and journalists reporting on scientific matters) is deeply shameful. 

Recommending face masks for the general public based on theory (or flawed studies), despite a large body of scientific evidence that shows the theory is wrong (and that the flawed studies need to be retracted), is not how science is meant to work. During a Senate hearing on September 16th, the Director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, went as far as to claim that "Face masks, these face masks [waves a surgical face mask at the committee], are the most important powerful public health tool we have, and I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in this country, to embrace these face coverings. If we did it for 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks, we'd bring this pandemic under control [my emphasis]. These actually, we have clear scientific evidence, they work, they are our best defense, I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine because the immunogenicity may be 70%, and if I don't get an immune response the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will."

But if randomized controlled trials aren't enough evidence, the following graph from France should be enough all on its own to dispel this ludicrous idea that masks can "bring this pandemic under control". You can repeat this for countless other jurisdictions around the world that introduced mask mandates. 

Opinion does not overrule evidence, no matter the credentials of the opinion-giver. What is the point of scientific evidence if we simply ignore it to follow our gut instincts like a bunch of medieval plague doctors grasping at straws?

Nor are panic, sloppy science, and wishful thinking the only culprits to blame for this evolving fiasco.

On July 12th, 2020, the BBC's Deborah Cohen reported on Twitter that "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". 

Small wonder that science has been sidelined and that the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has gone so completely off the rails. What began in China as a virus and reached Italy as a pandemic has long since morphed into a business and political opportunity as it has spread throughout the rest of the world. The game is on, whether for profit, power, politics, or to satisfy that tyrannical urge to dominate our fellow man, which lies buried within every human heart, often disguised even from itself as love, duty, and care. 

Science cannot function when shaming, character assassination, and de-platforming can be successfully used to avoid running the gauntlet of debate, counterevidence, and honest criticism. Science cannot function when critics are vilified as conspiracy theorists and denied a seat at the table alongside their peers, when lobbyists get to join in the debate, and when politicians get to determine the outcome of scientific questions by government decree. 

If we hold out the opinion of a few hand-picked scientists as irrefutable evidence, while simply sidelining those whose conclusions we don't agree with and ignoring the concerns raised by critics, then we've just empowered a new class of medieval priests to hold us captive with their unassailable monopoly on "truth". The scientific method of inquiry was invented specifically to free us from this type of self-reinforcing tyranny.

The lack of evidence for the effectiveness of face masks shouldn't be controversial. It wasn't, before COVID-19 turned political. Anyone familiar with what researchers found when studying the droplets produced by sneezing and coughing, as well as the aerosols that we exhale when breathing can tell you why they don't work. So in part 2 of this article series, I will zero in on the basic physics of those droplets and aerosols to explain why our initial gut instinct about the effectiveness of masks is dead wrong when faced with a respiratory virus.

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Part 1 - Opinion Is Not Evidence, Ignoring Science to Follow Gut Instinct


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