On Maskepticism

Starting today, masks are required when out in public where I live. It was announced a week ago, so I’ve been wearing one whenever I’m out since then to get used to it. I am not enthusiastic about it, for reasons I’ll outline below, but I’ll comply for two reasons:

There are a vocal group of people opposed to mandatory face coverings. As noted above, I think it’s better to wear one even if I disagree with the requirement to do so - the law doesn’t compel enthusiasm, thankfully, only compliance. But there’s something about the tone of the conversation which bothers me - people tend to view anti-maskers as backward hicks, throwing a temper tantrum because of a perceived inconvenience. Why don’t they just shut up and do as they’re told?

It’s easy to see why many people are quick to be in favor of masking up. There’s a solid common sense argument - the virus is mainly spread by fluid emitted from nose/mouth traveling through the air, a mask would lower your emissions, so to speak. I think there’s an element of being seen to be doing something good, also; wearing a mask is a physical incarnation of sharing a post about a worthy cause. But there might just be reasons to be skeptical. I can think of two.

Evidence of Their Efficacy is Scant

There’s huge overconfidence on the part of the pro-mask community. Phrases like “Wearing Masks Saves Lives” are bandied about as though they were axiomatically true. But here’s the conclusion from this piece from the British Medical Journal arguing in favor of mass mask wearing:

In conclusion, in the face of a pandemic the search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy. As with parachutes for jumping out of aeroplanes, it is time to act without waiting for randomised controlled trial evidence. A recently posted preprint of a systematic review came to the same conclusion. Masks are simple, cheap, and potentially effective. We believe that, worn both in the home (particularly by the person showing symptoms) and also outside the home in situations where meeting others is likely (for example, shopping, public transport), they could have a substantial impact on transmission with a relatively small impact on social and economic life.

The authors laudably acknowledge that there are no certainties here - they can’t say for sure that wearing a mask prevents transmission of COVID-19. They just think there’s a chance it might be better than doing nothing. Maybe. This line of reasoning has merit, to be sure, but what it does not represent is incontrovertible proof that You Must Wear A Mask. Given that, I think it’s reasonable to be uneasy about “there’s a chance it might be better than doing nothing” forming the basis for a legal requirement.

Liberty Only Ever Flows One Direction

I can well remember flying pre-9/11. I got on a plane in July 2001 and July 2002, and the two experiences were unrecognizable. Virtually overnight it became a viable occupation to harass weary travelers about the size of their toothpaste tube, in the name of national security. I was 13 at the time and naively thought “it will all go back to normal soon.”

It’s been 19 years, and all those restrictions are still with us. Why? Because giving liberty back to people is really difficult. Governments have an instinctive opposition to it, because they exist to tell people what to do. But it’s not just power hungry officials - people like being told, as well. In the case of airports, the argument for a return to 1990s security standards will be opposed by someone saying “you can’t prove that no one will die as a result of this change.” And it’s true, you can’t. Similarly with COVID-19 - how many deaths per year are acceptable in order to take our masks off? It’s a really tricky thing to try to unwind.

All kinds of extraordinary powers - restrictions on assembly and much else besides - are being invoked in the name of Coronavirus. There’s been no democratic influence over this process, and this latest example is government regulation about what you must wear when you leave the house. I don’t think people are irrational to be unhappy about that.

To people who don’t want to wear masks: consider being unhappy about it and wearing one anyway, because you care about the feelings of those around you, and because we might all get our society back sooner.

To people frustrated with those who don’t want to wear masks: consider that masks are a matter of opinion, and people with different opinions to yours aren’t automatically bad. If you find this unacceptable, the TSA is hiring.