Why Most of the Pro-Mask Science Quoted in the Media is Absurd

I have been close to writing this post off and on for almost a full year.  Starting back in the early days of COVID when the media used graphics about droplet spray patterns with and without masks as "proof" that masks work to slow the spread of COVID.

I was going to write about how dumb this was, but I assumed that other scientific voices would soon skewer these studies and thus it would be a waste of my time.  But lo and behold, while many careful scientific minds did recognize the flaws in these studies, the large news and social media companies have been pretty diligent about preventing any heterodox opinions on masks from getting wide circulation.

And so it stood until the other day when someone once again threw these droplet studies at me as proof that masks reduce the spread of seasonal viruses like COVID.  OK, here is the problem:

It is best to think first in terms of an analogy.  You have a car and want to prove that at any time of day, you could drive 60 miles across Los Angeles in an hour.  So to "prove" that, you take the car our to a test track and show that yes indeed, your car can sustain 60 miles an hour for extended periods of time.

Hopefully the flaws with this are obvious.  Proving a car can go 60 miles an hour is not the same as proving a car can drive 60 miles in an hour in real world conditions, particularly in LA at, say, 5 in the afternoon.

In the same way, showing that a clean, new mask can stop the projection of droplets of liquid does not in any way demonstrate that they are effective in limiting the spread of a virus in real world conditions.  Others can probably add more to the logic problems here, but just a few are:

  • Are large droplets even primarily responsible for the spread of COVID  (remember, the COVID virus is WAY smaller than the holes in the weave of most masks)?
  • What happens when the mask is worn for a while and becomes saturated from the virus of an infected person.  Aren't they now just blowing out all day through a film of COVID, like a kid blowing bubbles with a bubble wand?
  • Are masks efficacious when almost none of them are sealed to the user's face?
  • Is there any evidence of transmission in certain environments, like outdoors on a sidewalk, with our without a mask?

The fact is that the sum of studies before 2020 on the efficacy of public mask wearing to limit the spread of seasonal viruses were equivocal as best.  No one thought they did much good.  People will respond, "well, you wouldn't want your doctor to do surgery on you without a mask" but in fact even the evidence on post-operative infection with and without surgeon's mask use is equivocal  (it is also an absurd analogy as I don't think anyone in Walmart will be hovering over an open incision in my body for 4 hours).   And certainly most (all?) of the quality studies since COVID on masks and virus spread have shown little or no mask effectiveness (there have been a few studies that have purported to show mask effectiveness but they had cherry-picked endpoints that compared one geography outside of its COVID season with another that was in it -- see more here).

Postscript:  I am in Knoxville for a day and had two different experiences.  Last night at the Lonesome Dove restaurant was the first time I have been in a restaurant where no one, not even the servers, wore masks.   A small return to sanity.  But then the next morning I went to an indie books store near market square that had a couple of people browsing and the proprietor would not let us in because they were over their COVID capacity limit (as I said to my wife, when your business model is heading for a cliff it is probably best not to stomp on the accelerator).

Postscript#2:  I know others have observed this but it is amazing how many of the people who do where masks when they are not required are under 25 -- and essentially immune from any major consequences.  Is this virtue-signaling?  A gesture of solidarity? Fear of authority?  Scientific cluelessness?  It is a very strange time when the young are mindlessly following authority and the older folks are skeptical.   The analogies I can think of is the German youth movement pre-WWI who were big supporters of war as a romantic endeavor and the young Chinese of the cultural revolution.

Update #3:  As a by the way, in case you every get to Knoxville and are looking for a nice place to stay in the downtown or university area, the Tennessean is the place to go.  Only slightly more expensive than other hotels nearby but has really top quality service and rooms  -- Four Seasons level IMO at a third the price.