Bret Stephens: Masks Don't Work, Says Science* (*Science Does Not Say This)

Bret Stephens: Masks Don't Work, Says Science* (*Science Does Not Say This)

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens might've finally (sort of) given up climate denial, but now he's moved on to advancing mask denial. He declares on that stellar op-ed page, "The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Will Be Learned?"

Hold on there, slick. You're assuming a lot of facts in clear disregard of the evidence. A 2021 study in Germany showed that requiring people to wear face masks decreased the daily growth rate of reported COVID-19 cases by more than 40 percent. Widespread mask wearing, as well as social distancing, also led to a sharp drop in flu cases in 2020.

Stephens quotes Tom Jefferson, an Oxford epidemiologist who conducted an analysis of studies about the efficacy of masks for reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses.

"There is just no evidence that they” — masks — “make any difference,” he told the journalist Maryanne Demasi. “Full stop.”

But, wait, hold on. What about N-95 masks, as opposed to lower-quality surgical or cloth masks?

“Makes no difference — none of it,” said Jefferson.

That's weird. It's an opinion that seems to discount basic germ theory. It's why doctors wear masks during surgery.


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What the study actually says, though, is that mask wearing during the pandemic was not as effective because people didn't wear them properly or consistently. Times readers were quick to point this out in the comments. If parents strapped children upside down into car seats, this would not actually prove that car seats don't work. It just means people are stupid.

There was also a significant anti-mask backlash. Assholes grudgingly wearing a mask under their nose so they can enter a grocery store won't contribute to great results about overall mask use. The more reasonable interpretation from Jefferson's study is that people acting like stupid assholes during a global pandemic is not great for public health.

However, Stephens insists:

But when it comes to the population-level benefits of masking, the verdict is in: Mask mandates were a bust. Those skeptics who were furiously mocked as cranks and occasionally censored as “misinformers” for opposing mandates were right. The mainstream experts and pundits who supported mandates were wrong. In a better world, it would behoove the latter group to acknowledge their error, along with its considerable physical, psychological, pedagogical and political costs.

No, the "cranks" weren't right. They selfishly refused to wear a mask during a global pandemic that was killing people. Stephens is also cherry-picking studies and promoting right-wing dogma about how wearing a mask somehow unleashed mass depression on the population and tortured schoolchildren.

Early studies consistently showed that "countries (mostly Asian) that made mask-wearing mandatory within 30 days of the first case emerging had dramatically fewer COVID-19 cases than those (mostly western) that delayed beyond 100 days." Stephens, like many who opposed mask mandates, exaggerates "speculative harms" from mask wearing, specifically that people would never use them correctly so why bother? Note, though, that you probably fasten your seatbelt correctly and almost unconsciously. This is arguably because wearing one has been legally mandated for so long. The active mask resistance created a self-fulfilling prophecy where Americans never collectively learned to wear them correctly.

Here's Ivy League-educated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a losing battle with a mask. No wonder he swore revenge against them.

Stephens drags the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its director Rochelle Walensky, who he thinks should resign in disgrace. I guess I do agree with him that the CDC's major failing has been underestimating American obstinance regarding public health measures.

Yet there was never a chance that mask mandates in the United States would get anywhere close to 100 percent compliance, or that people would or could wear masks in a way that would meaningfully reduce transmission. Part of the reason is specific to American habits and culture; part of it to constitutional limits on government power; part of it to human nature; part of it to competing social and economic necessities; part of it to the evolution of the virus itself.

This is the all-or-nothing position that itself is inherently unscientific. You don't need 100 percent compliance to save lives. Seatbelt use increased over the past 40 years from just 13 percent in 1983 to 90 percent in 2021.

Someone who argued in the late 1980s that seatbelt laws are "a bust" would've perversely twisted the data and compromised public safety, just as Stephens is doing now.

[New York Times]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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