It's Never Too Late to Do Better

An essay on disconfirmation, and masks.

It's Never Too Late to Do Better
Photo by Frank Zhang on Unsplash

When someone doesn't want to believe something, they do a few predictable things. First, they demand huge amounts of evidence. Then they reject that evidence because "it's not good enough." When they do want to believe something, they do the exact opposite. They don't ask for evidence. They accept assertions at face value. Do you know what that's called?

It's called disconfirmation bias.

Sometimes, it doesn't even matter if you show someone overwhelming evidence. That can backfire. In 1975, a psychologist debunked Jesus for 50 high school girls. They believed the evidence, but it didn't matter. Their faith actually got stronger, not weaker. A few decades later, researchers did something similar with Trump supporters. Even when they agreed that Trump had "the morals of an alley cat," they cared more about what his opponents had done wrong. That's where they focused their attention.

Humans have a funny way of saying they believe in science, when they really mean their version of science that supports their view of the world. In fact, they respond to conflicting information the same way they do a tiger in the jungle. It triggers their fight-or-flight response. They really do try to hide from facts or beat them with a stick, depending on their personality profile, even when they accuse everyone else of doing the same thing.

As for expertise, people go shopping for experts.

A Yale law professor found that people buy the experts who already align with their worldviews. They don't listen to anyone they don't already agree with, no matter what their credentials are. It doesn't matter where you got your degree, where you teach, how much you've published, or what awards you've won. If you don't share their overall worldview, then they won't believe your informed opinion about anything, especially something divisive.

It's a shame, isn't it?

So let's talk about masks, one of the most controversial topics of the decade. They were required a few years ago. Now even some Democrats are trying to get them banned in public spaces. Almost none of our leaders are following the science anymore. They're scoring political points.

In the background of all this, there's been a sustained campaign over the last two years to convince the public that masks don't work, that only a handful of "last holdouts" are wearing them, that they're a political liability, and so on. Mask harassment is getting worse, with more than half of the 1,200 people I've surveyed so far saying they've experienced it. People are even losing their jobs, simply for protecting their health:

Forms response chart. Question title: Have you ever been harassed or threatened in public for wearing a mask?
. Number of responses: 1,196 responses.

People like us keep pushing back. We have no choice. We're using every tool, whether it's public awareness campaigns or social media trends. If facts by themselves don't work, then we have to normalize masking.

By the way, masks work.

Hands down.

That was the point of an op-ed in Scientific American last spring, when sloppy and widely misinterpreted studies were spreading and the public was looking for excuses to leave the politics of masking behind.

Between pandemics, coups, wars, and supply chain collapse, everyone was desperate to necromance normal.

That didn't work.

From the SA article:

Most recently a Cochrane review, which systematically assesses multiple randomized controlled trials, provoked headlines after claiming a lack of evidence that masks prevent transmission of many respiratory viruses. Not for the public, health care workers, or anyone. “There is just no evidence that they make any difference,” the lead author said in a media interview. This brought an unusual chastisement from the Cochrane Library’s editor-in-chief, who stated it was “not an accurate representation of what the review found.” Placing randomized trials above other types of research such as observational, lab and modeling studies, has interfered with the COVID response. A randomized trial approach that allows a few studies to cancel out a huge body of research from other disciplines has no basis in science.

The article goes on to point out that we don't use RCTs to determine the value of seat belts, bike helmets, speed limits, life jackets, or other common safety equipment. In all of these cases, we can measure the effectiveness of the intervention directly. Decades of evidence from other fields, namely engineering and physics, have shown beyond a doubt that N95 masks stop or drastically reduce the transmission of viruses. That's it. That's the end.

The article appropriately shames medical and public health figures for dismissing the clear evidence that masks work. Since then, the CDC has taken a tepid approach, failing to make masks a standard feature of healthcare facilities. Recently, they even posted an embarrassing photo with an upside down, mislabeled KN95 mask. And so this year finds us having to convince doctors and nurses that masks work, and we need them more than ever.

One response to the embarrassing Cochrane study showed how the reviews "have been widely misinterpreted as showing that face masks don't work. What they really show is that the RCTs asked questions that they could not answer." As the authors emphasize, "RCTs have value only when researchers can be sure that the treatment is administered as intended... With behavioral interventions like wearing masks, it may be impossible to produce anything but noise without vastly more ambitious studies."

As we've seen firsthand, masks work best when you wear them effectively and consistently. They don't work so well if you take them off constantly or wear them below your nose. They don't work so well if you remove them to eat or drink. They don't work so well when you leave gaps around the seal, as many people did during the first few years of the pandemic.

Sorry, that's just the truth.

It's not all their fault.

In most western countries, the public didn't know much about masks at the beginning of the pandemic. We were novices, tying bandanas and coffee filters around our heads and crossing our fingers. Things have changed a lot since then. Most of us have graduated to an N95 mask or something better. There's a wider variety of comfortable, effective brands out there.

We're not wearing coffee filters anymore.

Just ask Aaron Collins:

A lot of people gave up on masks because they never saw anything better than a cloth mask with a filter insert. They never acclimated or adjusted to a new world and a new reality where airborne diseases spread all the time, not to mention pollution and wildfire smoke.

They never got used to masking.

Instead of encouraging masks, public health officials have spent the last three years largely ignoring them or even making dismissive remarks about them compared to vaccines or clean air. They could've led a campaign of mask awareness. They decided not to. Eerily enough, companies like Pfizer with considerable lobbying power celebrated the end of mask mandates and talked about it as a growth opportunity.

Yeah, they really did that.

It's not a conspiracy theory when the actual heads of Pfizer have said point blank that they prefer for people to get mild cases of Covid, so that it ensures a steady market for their drugs. And it's not a conspiracy when Goldman Sachs asks with a straight face, "Is curing patients a sustainable business model?" No, I reckon they're not big fans of masking.

The politicians we elected promised to follow the science. They said they weren't going to politicize masks, but they've done exactly that. They've treated them like a political liability, even trying to associate them with hate, crime, and mental illness. They should be ashamed.

An extensive review by Oxford scientists at The Royale Society found that mask policies did help slow the spread of Covid, even if they weren't popular. A study in Clinical Microbiology Reviews examined more than 100 published articles and found that "masks are, if correctly and consistently worn, effective in reducing transmission of respiratory diseases."

According to an article in the New Scientist, mask policies in countries like the U.S. and Germany cut viral transmission by 25 and 45 percent respectively. A review of research on masks in The Conversation reached similar conclusions.

Wearing a mask doesn't project weakness.

It's a show of strength.

When you wear a mask, you're showing the world you care more about doing the right thing than what's popular or convenient. You're showing the world you actually trust science, and you don't cave to peer pressure or groupthink. It's both a symbol of collectivism and individuality. It's no accident that those of us still masking have already learned how to handle peer pressure, gaslighting, harassment, bullying, and abuse.

The Scientific American piece I opened with makes a good point. We have to acknowledge our mistakes, but what matters most is what we do going forward. We know Covid is airborne. We know there's no such thing as a mild case. We know masks work, especially now.

It's never too late to do better.


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