Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Getting the Facts Right but the Guidance Wrong

The CDC originally did not recommend face masks because they knew viruses are small enough to get through all but medical grade masks. They didn't want a run on face masks, especially medical grade masks, which were in desperate need in hospitals. They didn't want people to think they were invulnerable wearing non-medical-grade face masks. By April 4, CDC realized they had the facts right but the guidance wrong. So they changed the guidance. Stay home, but if you really have to go out, wear a face mask. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing. If everyone who has to go out wears a face mask while doing so, we can cut transmission of coronavirus and save lives. That's still pretty much the guidance today, three months later.

But it was too late. The CDC's (mis)guidance in March based on the fact that face masks aren't foolproof became June's perverted truism that face masks are useless. Getting people to accept the revised guidance ran into an obstacle: many people say they don't trust anything the CDC says, but paradoxically act like firm believers in whatever it was the CDC was saying in March. The CDC's misstep in March has become gospel for everyone who doesn't want to wear a face mask in June. Or at least that's the argument they make. Any parent recognizes a child's logic at work here. "You said..." "Now I'm saying..." "But you said..." The difference is that a child eventually outgrows it. I'm not sure society ever does.

Sometimes the perversion of science takes darker turns.
The Darwinian idea of the struggle for existence, designed to explain the chiselling of birds’ beaks, becomes in a generation the idea that poor people deserve to be poor. Einstein’s idea that the measurement of time is relative can warp into the idea that morality is. The missteps can be hard to track. The perversion of a scientific practice takes a second; its rectification takes a semester.
Source: New Yorker.
The quote above comes from a New Yorker article on Josef Mengele by Adam Gopnik. I'm not saying people who don't wear masks are Nazis (not for that reason, anyway), but the Nazi perversion of scientific practice did make me think of them. The article has a parenthetical comment that the Nazis thought of Americans when they came up with some of their own worst ideas.
(Nazi rules about "racial purity" were inspired by, but did not go as far as, American "one drop" and "blood fraction" laws, enacted in the South, which stipulated that even a remote black ancestor rendered an individual nonwhite. As with Hitler's likening of his conquest of the East to the American conquest of the West, our worst history encouraged the Nazis' worst instincts.)
Source: New Yorker.
Whoa! This escalated sharply.


Unknown said...

That is a depressing take on events. I haven't really noticed people being against masks because the CDC didn't recommend requiring them at the start. It seems to me that is more that people don't think the amount of protection they offer compensates for the hassle of wearing them. I think that the stress caused to others forced to be around people not wearing a mask is unnecessary. I wish they'd reframe it as a courtesy since it is harder to justify not being courteous than it is to argue about what scientist offered whatever opinion this week.

Marcia Grau

Mark Steger said...

Marcia Grau, good points. I didn't mean to imply that CDC misguidance in March was the only, or even the main reason that people resist wearing face masks in July. There are many reasons, all contributing some to each individual's rationale for not wearing a face mask.