Up until this point, the media has repeated, without question, a “fact” that does not exist: “Surgical masks don’t work to protect the wearer from inoculation with airborne viruses.” There never has been such a fact. Two studies, one lab, one clinical, contradict each other. The clinical study provides evidence that they offer some protection.
On February 29, in Can Surgical Masks Protect Against COVID-19 ? Wear a Scarf!, I wrote,
Follow the logic: If N95 masks protect, and surgical masks work about as well in clinical settings, then surgical masks protect. Remember the caveat. Now translate that into unmanaged news-speak:
Surgical masks might offer some level of protection, but nobody knows for sure.
I’m feeling righteously indignant, which is a rare and uncherished feeling. It’s not because:
- The world response has been a bungle from the start.
- The experts have been mostly wrong.
- Epidemiology failed to impact public policy in a timely manner.
No, that isn’t it. It’s this:
The healthcare establishment invented a “fact”, that surgical masks don’t work. The media swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, with these possible motivations:
- Health care professionals have good reason for priority supply of masks.
- Media may themselves have believed the “fact”, or, with overweening respect for medical authority, neglected to read readily available studies.
- It was easier to go with the flow than dig for the truth.
- A sense of paternal responsibility supervenes the above.
- It’s a white lie for a good purpose, akin to political spin.
Maybe surgical masks protect, and maybe they don’t, but there is no “fact.” It’s the job of the press to question, and they did not question this easy to undermine pseudo-fact. A study that suggests they are effective is referenced in Can Surgical Masks Protect Against COVID-19 ? Wear a Scarf!.
The media could have presented the whole argument, and appealed to patriotism, or the common good. I wrote,
Treat people like adults, and they are more likely to act as such. Even if you’re [media] into managing, there is another reason to avoid it: If and when the shit hits the fan, they are more likely to follow your lead.
Put another way, telling the truth grows the public trust and sense of responsibility. Treat them like children, and you get children.
Consciously or no, this media error is a manipulation of truth. Whatever the purpose, it is not harmless. As pure as intentions may be, the nonexistent “fact” that surgical masks don’t work against COVID is the essence of a white lie. It feeds the conspiracy appetite of the unbalanced.
We’re shocked when the conspiracy nuts crawl out of the woodwork. The nuts grow on trees, which we plant.