Masks and COVID19: Seeing What We Want To See
Title: Masks and COVID19: Seeing What We Want To See Date: 2023-03-01 01:00 —
The efficacy of masking to prevent illness was back in the news recently because of a paper published by the Cochrane Review. I had not taken a closer look until now when DHH (those reading this likely know who he is. If you don’t it really isn’t important) wrote this in a piece on his HEY World blog titled “When Prophecy Fails”
First of all, when I see a link to a website called “The Free Press” my conspiracy alarm starts chirping. When the website was founded by Bari Weiss, most recently famous for The Twitter Files, the alarm starts howling. But at least DHH notes “community spread” in his post. We’re not so lucky with piece he linked to.
The piece is quite something starting with the title. It’s also filled with loaded language like:
The most rigorous and extensive review of the scientific literature concludes…
unfortunately, these leaders and their acolytes in the media seem as determined as ever to ignore actual science.
What is really unfortunate is that the author, John Tierney, doesn’t know how to read. It’s quite a shame too because his background looks pretty legit. He now works for a right-wing “think tank” called The Manhattan Institute and it seems to have colored his judgement.
So about that report…
The report itself doesn’t actually say “masks don’t work”, despite protestations from the lead author in another piece of trash reporting, far from it.
Start with the first sentence of the section titled “Plain language summary”:
We are uncertain whether wearing masks or N95/P2 respirators helps to slow the spread of respiratory viruses based on the studies we assessed.
Certainly doesn’t sound like “they make no difference” as Tierney notes in the title of his piece.
Further reading of the report conclusions in the section titled “What are the limitations of the evidence?”:
Our confidence in these results is generally low to moderate for the subjective outcomes related to respiratory illness, but moderate for the more precisely defined laboratory‐confirmed respiratory virus infection, related to masks and N95/P2 respirators. The results might change when further evidence becomes available. Relatively low numbers of people followed the guidance about wearing masks or about hand hygiene, which may have affected the results of the studies.
Low to moderate confidence and the admission that in these “gold standard” studies that low numbers of people actually followed the guidance for wearing masks. 🤔
And this is the “smoking gun” in the takedown of whether masks work or not?
I think it is more interesting to read this piece from The Conversation about the Cochrane report and its flaws. As opposed to The Free Press, The Conversation is a non-profit site with articles written by academic experts.
They spell out why the report is flawed and their conclusion? Yes, masks reduce the spread of COVID.
There is strong and consistent evidence for the effectiveness of masks and (even more so) respirators in protecting against respiratory infections. Masks are an important protection against serious infections.
The biggest problem with masking is that it needs to be done correctly and consistently. We had none of that in the United States during the height of the pandemic. That doesn’t mean masks don’t work.
Unfortunately people are going to see what they want to see in all of this but if we’re going to start talking about “the science” we damned well better get it right. We also need to be very precise about the language. When talking about “community spread” vs. “masks work/don’t work” we’re talking about very different things.
Of course all of this is wonderful with hindsight being 20/20 and government was going to be damned no matter what choice they made. There was just not enough information early on and we did the best we could. I can say one thing for sure: nobody died because of masks. Many certainly did because of COVID19.