A sentence in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece regarding re-opening school says it all: “The evidence is still emerging, and credible studies can be marshaled to support both more and less caution.” This might be the most insightful thought for our times regarding how we respond to COVID-19, especially when it comes to wearing face masks. It didn’t take long for me to find a number of articles that supported the use of masks as a preventative. It took me only a few more seconds to find a number of articles that debunk the idea entirely. Do you know what this means? You and I can use the internet to prove almost anything, citing reputable sources and independent studies, aligning with 100% conflict and still be “correct.”
How do people decide which version of mask data to support? Sham or safe? It seems to often fall into political affiliation. We all want to belong, and you can’t belong unless you know who you identify with — and who you don’t. Political parties achieve a binary social construct perfectly, complete with heroes, villains, aggressive media coverage, and life-altering outcomes that will affect our society and world. Political calibration is very real, and the alignment of mask vs. no mask seems to fit the two-party narrative with near perfection. Now… I know that not everyone thinks this way, and I hope you’ll allow me to use a fat Sharpie marker to draw a vague sketch rather than a Pilot G207 pen for detail and nuance. Generalities help us understand our world, but it shouldn’t be how we classify all people everywhere. I’m just saying that there is a pretty strong corollary between mask usage and political views.
I sometimes make personal decisions based on the accepted party line rather than my own researched thinking. I fear that I, too, am a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where my incompetence is so rampant, I rate myself a pro, like a toddler brandishing a plastic hammer on one hand and a Fisher-Price contractor’s license in the other. With the amount of media coming at us, and the communal standard that we all be intelligent and well informed voters, none of us wants to be caught red-handed in our own ignorance. Therefore, it’s easier to see what “my tribe” is thinking and take a side. It might seem lazy of us, but it’s MUCH easier than doing actual research (which often disagrees with other research, as discussed above).
Here’s the thing about masks. In my fair state of Michigan, it’s now law (or, rather, an executive order with the power of law) that we must wear protective face coverings in public. Stores and shopkeepers are expected to monitor incoming customers, and disbar anyone without a mask form patronizing their establishment. Now some people are in an uproar (… our freedoms …) (… masks are useless …) (… where’s your mask …) (… hoax …) (… Anderson Cooper said …) (… Big Gretch …) and the like.
Ya know, no matter what you think about the effectiveness of masks, you might be right. You might be right that it’s a waste and we’re breathing our own gross bacteria and carbon dioxide. You might be right that they stop nose goblins from landing on others and infecting them. You’re right, we’ve lost our rights. You’re right, we need to do this to mitigate the disease. You’re right, it’s a hoax. You’re right, it’s not.
But no… we can’t stand in the middle. A half-mask looks ridiculous.
I think Blaise Pascal has guidance for us. Remember Pascal’s wager? He argues that we’re better off believing that God exists rather than not. If, when we die, we discover that there is no God, we’ve only lost some extravagance and luxury. But if we die and find ourselves before a very real God, we’re going to be glad we believed. In other words, do you really want to be wrong about this? Of course, Pascal’s wager isn’t a complete argument for the existence of God, but it’s a good starting point for sharing the gospel. Because, wow… what if you DON’T believe in God and… you’re wrong?
Here’s Pascal’s wager for masks, adapted by Davidson. The Pascal/Davidson Wager, if you will. It goes like this: let’s say that the masks made no difference at all in transmission of COVID-19. None, nada, zip. What have you really lost? It’s inconvenient, and perhaps it’s not great for your lungs in the long term. But we’re talking about a quick trip to the grocery store — maybe an hour. If you’re wearing a mask, even if you’re right about it being ineffective and might violate your political party line, you haven’t lost that much, have you?
Yes, you may be right. But what if you’re wrong?
What if the masks do make a difference?
“Oh, it only makes a small difference, so why wear it?”
It depends on how small a difference we’re talking about. What is a small difference? 25%? 10%? 5%?
Would I wear a mask if it lowered the chance of infection and death for me and my fellow humans, even by 5%? Of course. Why wouldn’t I?
About 10 years ago, I had chronic strep throat. My doctor asked me about a tonsillectomy. Excited about the prospect of endless ice cream combined with throat relief, I said “tell me more.” And he did. He told me that adults have a 1% of dying from tonsillectomies, which is waaay higher than kids. Guess who still has tonsils, based on a 1% chance?
It seems like we don’t have enough information to make such a final decision on masks. I would rather risk looking foolish than more illness and death. I would rather go through the annoyance of driving back home to get my forgotten mask. I would rather be aggravated by the smell of my own coffee-laden breath.
If you’re the betting type, I recommend betting on masks, because the potential gains outweigh the potential losses. If you’re the investment type, I recommend investing in the masks because the ROI could be millions. If you’re the political type, wear… well, you get the point.
Besides the Pascal/Davidson wager, I offer one more reason to don a mask. It’s the employees who are paid to make sure you’re wearing a mask. It’s the person who has no political affiliation and just wants to keep their job without risking something far more. The ones scared about what people might do when they are asked to either comply or leave the store. The ones who are afraid to be on the news because someone brought it upon themselves to choose the entryway at Whole Foods as the place to berate a $9/hour college student for challenging their core identity.
See it as an opportunity to risk looking foolish for the sake of serving your fellow humans. You can still vote for whoever you want. You can still breathe freely at home. You can be perceived as a strong-willed person who looked at the odds and said “why wouldn’t I?”
Do it for the chances. Do it for the employees. Do it for me. Wear a mask.
This concludes my rant. Let’s still be friends.