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The Masks of Science

Ari Schulman has an excellent essay on COVID-19 and dueling claims of scientific expertise:

In other words, the U.S. mask advisory changed not because of what the evidence plainly dictated; rather, it was because experts’ judgment of the existing evidence had shifted. And the judgment itself was not mainly scientific—it was a prudential assessment of how the evidence should guide action. But the brunt of reporting at the time suggested that the science itself had changed—that the experts remained in their familiar role as neutral interpreters of evidence.

And even in hindsight, the initial judgment may have been defensible. Facing a dire shortage of PPE, health care workers needed first priority—and that meant that the public would have to wait. But instead of communicating this message honestly, health officials and some journalists offered a series of equivocations.  . . .

[These announcements] treated the public as a kind of input to the equation—as (on the one hand) dubiously trainable vectors of viral spread who wouldn’t be able to figure out how to wear the masks properly, or (on the other) reckless processors of what information there was, who might get overconfident and take too many risks. It was all too rare to see the policy experts in charge treat the citizenry as competent adults who could be educated about proper mask usage, or who might be expected to adapt to a new mask regime on grounds of civic duty.

The Washington Examiner has recently run a couple of articles saying that Dr. Anthony Fauci “lied” about masks. I think those articles overstate the case against him. But it’s certainly fair to conclude that the overall message we have been receiving from the public-health complex hasn’t been candid.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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