During the pandemic, I wrote an op-ed piece advocating the voluntary (not mandatory) use of masks. I still believe that, based on the mechanics of disease spread, and the mechanics of physically blocking virus particles, that masks can have a modest effect in reducing the viral load we spread to others. I also still believe in free speech and believe that it was wrong to censor those who were skeptical of masks.
(p. A19) The most rigorous and comprehensive analysis of scientific studies conducted on the efficacy of masks for reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses — including Covid-19 — was published late last month. Its conclusions, said Tom Jefferson, the Oxford epidemiologist who is its lead author, were unambiguous.
“There is just no evidence that they” — masks — “make any difference,” he told the journalist Maryanne Demasi. “Full stop.”
But, wait, hold on. What about N-95 masks, as opposed to lower-quality surgical or cloth masks?
“Makes no difference — none of it,” said Jefferson.
What about the studies that initially persuaded policymakers to impose mask mandates?
“They were convinced by nonrandomized studies, flawed observational studies.”
. . .
These observations don’t come from just anywhere. Jefferson and 11 colleagues conducted the study for Cochrane, a British nonprofit that is widely considered the gold standard for its reviews of health care data. The conclusions were based on 78 randomized controlled trials, six of them during the Covid pandemic, with a total of 610,872 participants in multiple countries. And they track what has been widely observed in the United States: States with mask mandates fared no better against Covid than those without.
No study — or study of studies — is ever perfect. Science is never absolutely settled. What’s more, the analysis does not prove that proper masks, properly worn, had no benefit at an individual level. People may have good personal reasons to wear masks, and they may have the discipline to wear them consistently. Their choices are their own.
. . .
The C.D.C.’s increasingly mindless adherence to its masking guidance is none of those things. It isn’t merely undermining the trust it requires to operate as an effective public institution. It is turning itself into an unwitting accomplice to the genuine enemies of reason and science — conspiracy theorists and quack-cure peddlers — by so badly representing the values and practices that science is supposed to exemplify.
It also betrays the technocratic mind-set that has the unpleasant habit of assuming that nothing is ever wrong with the bureaucracy’s well-laid plans — provided nobody gets in its way, nobody has a dissenting point of view, everyone does exactly what it asks, and for as long as officialdom demands. This is the mentality that once believed that China provided a highly successful model for pandemic response.
For the full commentary, see:
Bret Stephens. “‘Do Something’ Is Not Science.” The New York Times (Wednesday, February 22, 2023): A19.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 21, 2023, and has the title “The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Be Learned?”)