Is Face Mask Skepticism Beyond the Pale?
Like many Americans, I do not like wearing a face mask, which hurts my ears, fogs my glasses, and makes my bearded face itch. And while I think businesses should be free to require face coverings as a safeguard against COVID-19, I am skeptical of government-imposed mask mandates, especially in K-12 schools.
At the same time, I recognize that my personal peeves and policy preferences are logically distinct from the empirical question of how effective masks are at preventing virus transmission. From the beginning, however, the Great American Mask Debate has been strongly influenced by partisan and ideological commitments, with one side exaggerating the evidence in favor of this precaution and the other side ignoring or downplaying it.
Last September, Robert Redfield, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), described masks as “the most important, powerful public health tool we have,” going so far as to say they provided more protection than vaccines would. In a 2020 New York Times op-ed piece, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asserted that “wearing a mask has been proven to reduce the chance of spreading Covid-19 by about 70 percent”—a claim that even the CDC said was not scientifically justified.
The CDC invited skepticism about the value of general mask wearing by dismissing it until April 2020, when the agency suddenly began recommending the practice as an important weapon against the pandemic. Although that memorable reversal supposedly was justified by evolving science, the main concern that the CDC cited—asymptomatic transmission—was a danger that had been recognized for months.
When the CDC changed its advice, research on the effectiveness of face masks in preventing virus transmission was surprisingly sparse and equivocal. Although laboratory experiments supported the commonsensical assumption that almost any barrier to respiratory droplets, including DIY cloth coverings, was better than nothing, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) generally h
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