Health Care

The Experts Lied to Us about Masks

A girl wears a mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus outbreak in Bangkok, Thailand, February 7, 2020. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)
When masks would have helped us fight coronavirus early, our supposed betters misled us.

When the stakes are highest, the truth counts the most. Or maybe when things get really serious, that’s when the people really can’t be trusted with the truth.

It’s pretty clear which of these two ideas is the one that has been guiding elite medical, political, and journalistic institutions, isn’t it? They all lied about the masks. Our leading doctors lied. Our elected leaders lied. In retrospect it’s obvious they were lying, because the explanations were silly. “Don’t wear a mask, they’re only a good idea if you’re a medical professional.” Huh? They work only if my paycheck comes from a hospital?

“Don’t wear a mask, it could give you a false sense of security?” Oh, okay, I won’t wear a seatbelt either, because then I might feel indestructible and drive dangerously. I won’t put life jackets on my boat, either. Heck, why don’t I just stop washing my hands?

“Don’t wear a mask, it might trap droplets when you cough.” Yeah, it would be terrible if I caught the virus from myself.

“Don’t wear a mask, they’re very, very complicated and only experts know how to use them correctly.” I need six years of medical school to figure out how to put a piece of cloth over my nose and mouth?

There has been a lot of talk since, oh, approximately November 8, 2016, about the relative use and reliability of experts, elites — our betters. We’re told that we need experts more than ever. One guy out there has profitably positioned himself as the meta-expert, the expert on expertise who expertly informs us of what the experts are saying over at the Experts’ Club.

In the U.K., the debate on experts hit a new level on the third of June, 2016, when Conservative cabinet minister and leading Brexit campaigner Michael Gove said, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.” This instantly became the defining absurdity of the Brexit referendum, and was pilloried and mocked nonstop. Ho ho, said the pundits, when Gove goes in for gall-bladder surgery, I’ll bet he’d rather be cut into by an expert than a bloke from down the pub!

The mocking changed its tone when Brexit carried the day on June 23, 2016, with more Britons voting for it than had ever voted for anything in the thousand-year history of the country. Now Gove’s remark became the source of the ashen taste in the mouths of Remoaner metropolitan elites bewailing how provincial troglodytes, geriatrics, and Little Englanders had dashed their rationalist, internationalist dreams.

And then Gove was fully vindicated. He turned out to be 100 percent correct.

The full Gove statement was this: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms saying they know what is best, and getting it consistently wrong.” The remark was true on the surface — the U.K. voters genuinely were fed up with experts — and it was true in its underpinnings. Gove was referring to the dire economic forecasts of the consequences of Brexit, many of them made by Conservatives such as the then chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, St. George of the Banks, who issued a stern report forecasting an “immediate and profound economic shock” defined as a GDP plunge of 3 to 6 percent, accompanied by a massive increase in unemployment. None of that happened. The economy grew. Employment surged to record levels. Osborne never apologized for getting it spectacularly wrong. Other elites (academic economists, banks, the BBC, the Financial Times, the prime minister, the guy who played the prime minister in Love Actually) who made similar dire projections largely declined even to admit error. David Cameron at least fell with honor upon his sword. The others just continued to burble new expert warnings.

Could it be that experts have their own interests, that like most other members of homo sapiens they look at everything through the lens of what is best for them and people like them? A post-Brexit academic study found that those economic forecasters employed by banks who figured to lose the most in Brexit issued the most dire forecasts. Quelle coincidence.

I return to the masks. Last week here in America’s Wuhan, New York City, the chief executive of this disease volcano told us on April 2 that we should wear masks. What’s interesting about this is that Bill de Blasio previously gave us no such advice.

On March 25, when confirmed cases in the city hit 17,856, and deaths reached 199, de Blasio said it looked like half of the city population, or 4.2 million people, were on track to get the virus and still . . . he didn’t tell us to wear masks. New York’s three large airports and its highways and its trains continued to disperse New Yorkers all over the country, like a sneeze. March 27: 40,938 cases, 812 dead. March 30, 51,184 cases and 1,527 deaths. Not till last Thursday (63,794 cases, of whom 2,472 were dead) did de Blasio tell New Yorkers to put on a mask.

By which time many of us had figured it out already. How stupid did they think we were? On April 3, when someone asked de Blasio why he had not previously recommended this elementary, common-sense precaution, one that might have stopped much transmission of the virus and saved lives, the mayor breezily acknowledged that the previous line was simply a cover story. “The concern throughout was, we didn’t want a situation where people were taking supplies, surgical masks, N95’s away from the people who are doing the life-and-death work [and] who must be protected. . . . nor did we want to create a sense that if you had something over your face you didn’t need to practice social distancing, [or that] you didn’t need to shelter in place, which are much more important strategies.”

So: The truth is too important to be trusted to the people.

De Blasio is a born central planner, a top-down man, a collectivist who honeymooned in Cuba and went to Sandinista Summer Camp, so it’s possible he’s too stupid to know this, but just because there is a surge in demand for an item doesn’t necessarily mean that item becomes unavailable. Masks may be sold out at your Walmart, but more are coming, I promise. Until then, you can make one. Actor Colin Hanks shows you how to do it, in 30 seconds, without a sewing machine. All you need a piece of breathable cloth and a couple of hair ties. Is this a medically sophisticated device? No, but it’s a lot better than nothing. Americans don’t need to wait on the next five-year forecast from Gosplan to solve problems. Innovation comes from the bottom up. There’s a guy in Brooklyn selling masks on the street for two bucks.

De Blasio has had a great deal of company in misleading the public. The CDC, the surgeon general, the WHO, the AMA. They all said the same stuff, even though Robert Redfield of the CDC publicly noted back on February 13 that asymptomatic transmission of the virus was possible. It turns out they were looking out for No. 1. That’s despicable.

It’s also counterproductive for experts to set fire to their own reputations in a time when we need straightforward advice much more than we usually do. University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci writes in the New York Times:

Providing top-down guidance with such obvious contradictions backfires exactly because lack of trust is what fuels hoarding and misinformation. It used to be said that back in the Soviet Union, if there was a line, you first got in line and then figured out what the line was for — people knew that there were going to be shortages and that the authorities often lied, so they hoarded.

How many deaths could have been prevented if all of these groups had leveled with us? We’ll never know. How many people will fail to take sound future advice from such organizations, having learned to mistrust institutions with a demonstrated record of lying? We’ll never know. Truth matters. Experts know this. But they’re afraid of what we might do with the truth. So they lie to us anyway.

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