A Plea for Sanity About Wearing a Mask

by John Ellis

Yesterday, three things happened that have driven me to type out, once again, an article about wearing face masks. 1. Governor DeSantis lifted basically all coronavirus restrictions in Florida where I live. Included in his executive action, Gov. DeSantis hamstrung local face mask ordinances. Less concerned with the reopening of Florida, I’m more concerned with the potential for Gov. DeSantis’ rhetoric to encourage people to believe that the pandemic is over and to stop acting responsibly in the issue of their own health and the health of those around them. Just because the government doesn’t require “X”, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do “X” – as in, specifically, wear a face mask, socially distance, and avoid large gatherings in poorly ventalitated indoor spaces. 2. An extremely non-sensical and conspiracy-laden tweet about face masks was tweeted by DeAnna Lorraine, the QAnon backed Republican who ran against Nancy Pelosi this past summer for California’s 12th Congressional District’s House seat (spoiler alert: Lorraine lost). The tweet is embedded below. 3. Atmospheric scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, Dr. Christina J. Williamson published the most comprehensive and accessible article that I’ve read to date on the efficacy of cloth face masks. Reflecting on those three things, I can’t help but wonder how much of history’s condemnation of our response to this pandemic will be centered on the continued, and growing, resistance to wearing face masks.

I don’t like wearing a face mask, at all. But I also dislike driving the speed limit.  I’m not a fan of shaking hands and engaging in what appears to me to be pointless small talk. I would prefer to wear a baseball cap during church services. I think it’s stupid that I’m not allowed to drink beer with my picnic dinner whenever my family visits one of the local parks. Why I’m supposed to wear an oppressive suit and tie just because someone died or is getting married is an expected tradition that escapes my ability to logically work out. My list of grievances with laws, local ordinances, and long-standing traditions and cultural expectations is long and varied; no doubt, so is your list. But, like you (I assume), I set aside my own annoyances and personal preferences, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, like driving the speed limit, I recognize that the law is for the greater good, whether I like it or not. Others, like shaking hands and engaging in pointless small talk are activities and actions that are part of the cultural expectations of the society that God has placed me in. Sticking by my guns, refusing to conform, and forcing those who attempt to shake my hand to listen to the diatribe about the pointlessness of it that inevitably runs through my brain whenever someone extends their hand to me would be rude and counterproductive to fostering relationships, even if I’m right. And I wear a face mask, even though I don’t want to.

I wear a face mask because they work. The research and the overwhelming interpretive consensus of that research by the experts communicates to us that face masks are effective for protecting both the wearer and those around him or her from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And if you disagree with that statement, I’m curious what informs/drives your disagreement. What or whom are you basing your beliefs about face masks on?

Science is not infallible. I don’t know of anyone who claims otherwise. But, by God’s grace, science has been and continues to be a gift that has improved the day-to-day lives of image bearers. Without science, my son would’ve suffered far more than he did when he broke his arm. Without science, and since we live in Florida, whenever we want to wash our clothes, my family would have to play an unwanted game of tag with the alligators that are very likely living in any pool of water large enough to do laundry in. Without science, we wouldn’t have the internet to spread QAnon theories about how face masks are a plot by the Deep State Socialists to make us compliant as they strip our liberties away. Without science, our lives would be less rich, less safe, and, frankly, much shorter for many of us. But, again, science is not infallible. Nor, again, is anyone claiming otherwise that I’m aware of (no doubt, poking around the internet would reveal some quacks who believe science is infallible, but lovers of philosophy could list a variety of logical fallacies involved in dismissing all of science – or simply the sciences you choose – because of the quacks). So, how should we interact with the science of face masks?

For starters, and returning to my question from above, who are the experts? If you are forming your opinions and beliefs about the efficacy of face masks based on what news pundits, politicians, radio hosts,  bloggers (including me), and even medical doctors claim about masks, then you either do not understand the word “experts” or you are willfully choosing to ignore what you know to be true in other instances – like when you are diagnosed with liver cancer and you go to an oncologist and not an ophthalmologist – for the sake of a priori politically-based determinations about face masks (or, to be blunt, you may be an individual who is prone to swallowing conspiracy theories). Secondly, what is the consensus of the experts? Read all the peer-reviewed studies you want; I do. In fact, I encourage it. But be epistemically honest enough to acknowledge that unless you are an epidemiologist, virologist, immunologist, or another “ist” within the infectious disease community, your understanding and, hence, interpretation of the research and data most likely falls far short of a legitimate knowledge upon which to base your opinions and beliefs regarding the efficacy of face masks. This is why I follow over two-hundred experts on Twitter. I get to read their comments, discussions, agreements, and even disagreements with the mounting research about face masks and other studies and data that relate to the pandemic. Often, I’ll read a study and sometimes think “well, that’s terrible news!” or “well, that’s terrific news!” only to then read a large number of experts pointing out the methodological errors in the study; methodological errors that I’m not equipped to recognize, much less understand.

Seriously, if you tell me that you don’t believe face masks are effective, my very first question will be, “based on what or whom?” If your answer is devoid of experts, I’m going to assume that your opinions about face masks are driven by politics and personal preferences and not by knowledge. If you say, “Well, John, you are entitled to your opinion and I am entitled to my opinion,” I’m going to respond, rudely, I admit, “You don’t understand epistemology,” with the understanding that you most likely don’t even know what that word means. All in all, though, I will most likely clam up because I’ve learned that for antimaskers, like conversations with antivaxers, the discussion amounts to little more than tilting at windmills.

In conclusion, I wrote all that to say that you should read – nay, to implore you to read – the article researched and written by Dr. Williamson. While technical at points, she does a really good job of wading through and interpreting the research and data for lay people like you and me. Her voice is warm and easy to read, unlike every single peer-reviewed study I’ve read on the subject. And, if you read it, which, really, you should, one of the first things you’ll encounter is her own epistemic humility. While her expertise lies just outside infectious diseases, she’s worked with infectious disease experts in combination with her own expertise to lay out the consensus of the experts regarding the efficacy of face masks, including which types of cloth face masks work best and why. Along with links to papers and research demonstrating the efficacy of face masks, she includes links to a few experts’ Twitter accounts you can follow.

Look, no one, including you, should ever say, “I wear a face mask because John Ellis says they work.” Stop listening to politicians, TV pundits, radio show hosts, and other politically charged non-experts. Listen to the experts, actual experts. Click the link below. For those who already submit to the consensus of the experts, Dr. Williamson’s article will help better prepare you for conversations, online or in-person, with your antimasker family, friends, and co-workers. If you are an antimasker, read the article and be humble enough to compare your sources with Dr. Williamson’s. And keep in mind, the phrase “do your own research” is pointless if you lack the expertise to legitimately interpret and apply the research. Thankfully, by God’s grace, we have a consensus of the experts who have looked at the vast amount and growing data and research about face masks and have concluded that face masks are an effective tool for protecting all of us from COVID-19.

Click here to read Dr. Christina Williamson’s article.

One final note, a “P.S.” if you will, if you believe that wearing a face mask is oppressive or some level of persecution, you have lived the most privileged life in the history of the world. It’s just a face mask. Stop being a whiny, self-worshipping baby, get over yourself, and wear a face mask. As Dr. Nisreen Alwan, a highly respected epidemiologist, tweeted, face masks are not ideological.

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