Tag Archives: COVID


“We know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection. Public health authorities define a significant exposure to Covid-19 as face-to-face contact within 6 feet with a patient with symptomatic Covid-19 that is sustained for at least a few minutes (and some say more than 10 minutes or even 30 minutes). The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.”

New England Journal of Medicine, 2020; 382:363

These days everyone imagines himself or herself to be a scientist. Scolds, who labor under the delusion that reading the New York Times is equivalent to holding a doctorate, unceasingly inflict on us finger-wagging lectures about how we need to “listen to the science” when it comes to masks. Apparently “masks work” because “The Science™” says so. Newsflash: these media figures and self-styled authorities aren’t (largely) scientists and know not of what they speak. As a scientist myself I feel compelled to set the record straight on what is, and is not, science. For those degreed scientists out there parroting the mask propaganda: for shame, you should know better. Cherry picking, selection bias, anecdotal data, and dubious models have no place in the arsenal of scientific inquiry. 

What is the claim built on?

Here’s the problem with “the science” about masks: the media cited studies are built on a foundation of sand. They are based on computer models1, anecdotal stories2, theoretical mechanistic (non-biological) analysis, or hypothetical contra factual scenarios.1 In short, if the conclusion of a study rests on “this would have happened” then that is not science. Science does not compare contra factual or hypothetical scenarios. It analyzes concrete, reproducible, controlled conditions (that are broad enough to be statistically valid).  In every single story where there has been a reference made to evidence that “masks work” and I have drilled down through the 42 layers of links to get at the actual research document, it turns out the study is, surprise, based on a contra factual model, anecdote, or purely mechanistic study. Every. Single. Time. How do models support the claims? They make a “post-diction” for an alternate universe where masks were not deployed. Then they compare those values to the real world and wouldn’t you know, the numbers are lower when masks are used. The non-scientist with little time to drill down to the source will credulously accept what is read. Why shouldn’t they? An “authority” was cited and we’ve been trained from childhood to be predisposed toward trusting those perceived to be “in charge”. This is why whenever one questions the mask narrative the response is invariably “so and so said they work.” This is nothing more than the common logical fallacy known as an appeal to authority. Such a response deflects the inquiry, it does not answer it. When you encounter an appeal to authority your BS meter should max out. We should take every news story with a grain of salt and seek answers to the artfully omitted questions. Everyone has an agenda, even me. My agenda is to set the record straight and not allow the noble scientific profession to be prostituted in service of state propaganda. I encourage the reader to question and consider my assertions and to verify my claims by the references provided.

Question the models

One of the problems with models is their perception by the public as infallible fonts of knowledge. The media reinforces this narrative by credulously reporting model-based claims without any scrutiny. They never consider questioning the underlying assumptions built into the models. Models are easily manipulated. They are malleable and versatile instruments. In the hands of a virtuoso they can play any tune. They are tools of science, but they are not science themselves. Science is not SimCity. Science is doing real work in the real world to gather real data. Once one has collected data, then one may develop a model – based on that data – to make predictions about the future. Those predictions are then tested (i.e. the prediction is falsifiable). It is impossible to check a post-diction for a contra factual universe. The impossibility of such verification precludes falsifiability of the claim and in doing so removes it from the realm of science toward “what-if” fantasy. 

Evidence against the claim?

The reader might now be wondering, “well where is the evidence against masks?” Sorry, that’s not how science works. Those making the novel claim carry the onus to support it. You have to prove your claim; I do not have to disprove it. A claim cannot be said to be true because there does not yet exist evidence disproving it. This is the same as the foundation of our legal system; innocent until proven guilty. Guilt is a novel positive claim and must be proven. Were this also not the standard in science, then one could claim ghosts exist because no one has definitively proven they do not exist. With that said, because the “masks work” claim is a scientific one it is therefore subject to falsifiability. If it is true, then we should see fewer real world infections when use vs. non-use scenarios are compared.. Is that what we see? Unfortunately, no. There are a number of studies in the literature from the pre-Covid era regarding real world mask effectiveness at limiting contagions. In short none of them demonstrated any statistically significant diminishment in real world viral spread. 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11

Correlation not Causation

The lack of substantive empirical data in real world environments has shifted the focus toward teasing out a positive correlation between mask use and case loads by reviewing case counts across cities, states, and countries over time. One may certainly cherry pick a country, state or time frame where mask use is high and case rates are low. But for every one of those you can find several more that counter it.12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19 The scientific method demands one looks at all the data, not just the data that confirms the preconceived conclusion (selection bias). When all localities are analyzed, the aggregate results demonstrate zero correlation between masks and case counts. Zero. However, even this is a bad metric for both sides. There are simply way too many variables at play to claim this one thing (masks) had an effect or did not relative to other competing influences. However it certainly doesn’t help the “masks work” camp that the vast majority of such comparisons show no correlation or a negative correlation (i.e. better outcomes in low mask use localities). Correlation does not prove causation; but, it is impossible to have causation without correlation.

At what cost?

Compelled mask wearing (along with all the other various restrictions on normal life) is morally equivalent to the banning of alcohol, drugs, and firearms: a handful might be irresponsible so all must suffer the remedy in order to protect a vanishingly small minority. This mode of thinking, sacrificing the many in favor of a few, does not come without costs. The reflexive objection here is that the benefits could be substantial while the costs should be minimal. Perhaps in March that approach might have been sound given the ignorance surrounding what we were dealing with. But here we are months later and it has become clear who is at risk and who is not. It has become clear that widespread mask use does not correlate well with reduced cases. 12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19   It has become clear that asymptomatic spread is a negligible risk vector.20 Countries such as Canada, Australia, and even Sweden have much lower mask compliance but with equal or lower case loads and deaths per capita than the US.21 If the effect was substantially beneficial we would not expect this outcome. A benefit too small to be measured must be weighed against a cost that is measurable. The longer people suffer under these mandates the costs come into greater focus. Interacting with a sea of faceless zombies is disrupting normal social cues, interactions, and at some level social cohesion itself. A smile can brighten ones day. Sadly, those are cancelled for now. This is stressful to the human psyche in a way that is not easily accountable. Theoretically solitary confinement shouldn’t be mentally taxing – and yet perplexingly it is among the harshest of punishments. Social interaction matters. Likewise on the individual level there are increasing reports of inflamed skin conditions and fungal infections from prolonged mask use.22 Further, fatigue and “brain fog” are elevated by long-term excess CO2 inhalation.23 No, masks do not decrease oxygen intake, but they do increase COintake  – even the pro-mask camp admits that – although they try to hand wave it away by disclaiming that such high levels of COare “tolerable” or pose no “serious” health risk. But, just because something is tolerable or not serious does not mean it is ideal either. No air conditioning on a 95 °F day is “tolerable” too but I doubt many would enjoy it long term. Would you forgo air conditioning forever if you were told it would save 10 lives? I suspect few would willingly partake in that offer. We are allowing the scolds to rhetorically guilt us into a corner where non-compliance with their arbitrary dictates is equated with sociopathic behavior merely because it is claimed a life could be saved. That is a dangerous precedent. It opens the door to justifying any demand upon one’s behavior if one meekly submits. 

What should be done

A more effective strategy would be to shift from indiscriminate universal mandates and toward targeted and individualized interventions. Resources are limited and should be focused and not scattered about. For example, N95 masks do largely protect the wearer. Unless regulations are impeding production, there is no reason supplies should be constrained anymore. If there are regulations, then remove them.  If you are concerned about exposure to yourself, wear a properly fitted N95 mask. This would be self-regulating in direct proportion to its effectiveness. If cases went up, then more people would opt to don masks, which would then drive the cases back down. Because the proportion of society at elevated risk (mostly those above age 70 with health conditions) is a minority there should be no issue in supply of such masks. Additionally, there is some limited mechanistic evidence that surgical (not cloth) masks may be useful in limiting droplets and aerosols in ill patients (although the viral load found was barely measurable even without the mask).24,25 This may be useful in a health care or home setting. Restricting such mask use to those at risk (N95) or actively sick (surgical) has the added benefit of signaling to everyone around them that they are to be avoided. Targeted social distancing would be vastly superior to a universal mandate. Fatigue over this standard among the clearly healthy leads to lapses in maintaining it. Let those at low to no risk foster herd immunity while staying distanced from those who are sick or at risk. We all have a role to play. It is counterproductive to force all to play the exact same role. Allow the healthy to be exposed (natural vaccination) to build herd immunity while focusing protective resources on those actually at serious risk.

Individualized measures based on a person’s risk profile are how this country and the rest of the world handled such decennial pandemics up until now. The strategy this year: lockdowns, social distancing, universal mask mandates – these are the unprecedented policies that should be scrutinized with a skeptical, critical, science based, analysis. 

Gregory Morin  @gregtmorin

B.S., Chemistry, Emory University

M.S., Chemistry, Emory University

Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, University of Notre Dame

List of Citations

Postscript 10/19/2020

Shortly after the release of my article a paper appeared in Nature’s Scientific Reports that investigated the suitability of various types of masks (N95, surgical, cloth, etc) to compare their efficacy in decreasing particle expulsion (source control). This is one of the better of the “pro-mask” type articles in that they are completely open and honest about the limitations of their studies as well as raising a very interesting hypothesis that if true, could very well mean masks are making the spread worse.

The idea is this: you breath out and the masks captures the particles. Ok. Where do they go? They don’t simply vanish into another universe. If they are adhered to droplets and aerosols (water) then once that material builds up on the mask interior further breathing will actually re-aersolize it through the mask spraying it out like a spray can. This would have the effect of creating a much broader and more disperse ejection of material given that it is now concentrated in one spot. Likewise, even if the water particles evaporate leaving the viral particles behind – they still exist – on the mask. They are now attached to the fibers etc of the mask. These are no irreversible chemical bonds, they are loose electrostatic interactions. This is important because this study showed that cloth masks actually produced more particles than no mask at all. The reason for this being that breathing through it cause mask material itself to become dislodged and break free. So if a virus can attach to these then the virus will be hitching a ride on them.

This casts serious doubt on the mitigation effects of masks insofar as it demonstrates the very real possibility that at best they are doing nothing whatsoever and at worst they could be amplifying the spread. The only way to avoid this scenario would be to use N95 or surgical masks and change them out for new ones over the course of a few minutes. We know this is not happening nor is it practical in an real sense to expect that. Therefore the best approach is to only mask the vulnerable with suitable masks and use such masking as a signal to others to maintain a wide berth and take other protective measures. If every tree is marked then which tree has the pot of gold?

Postscript 2

I was interviewed on three podcasts concerning the content of this article and related matters. If interested take a listen here:

The Tom Woods Shows

Pauls to the Wall

Sports, Clicks, and Politics

Some Context

Information without context is not merely useless, it can be dangerous. Context is the landscape that grants the perspective by which we can make an informed judgment. For example, if your cholesterol is 150 but you don’t know what values are bad or good, the test’s accuracy, or what your prior values were, then it is impossible to know whether this news is of concern or not. Without context we are predisposed evolutionarily to assume the worst; if you assume everything is a threat you’re more likely to live long enough to pass on your genes. However, in the modern era this instinct can be counterproductive. Making a decision without relevant information is as bad as making a decision with completely wrong information. Amputating your leg “just to be safe” upon learning you have a tumor in your foot might seem prudent absent other information. But as soon as you learn such tumors are easily removed and rarely fatal then amputation should obviously be seen as overkill. As a country (and planet to a large extent) we have similarly overreacted amidst an ocean of context-free information: we have burned our proverbial house down to rid it of termites. The response has been disproportionate to the risk precisely because the media has failed to provide the proper context. Don’t ask  “how many” without also asking, “how does this compare.” Long-term side effects from Covid-19 sounds ominous, that is until you learn such long term side effects exist for the flu and many other ailments as well. Completely typical phenomena are being presented in isolation as though entirely unprecedented. Operating without context is like looking at a map with no scale: is the destination 10 ft or 100 miles? Without that informed framework to judge risk, people’s imaginations have run rampant to the point where healthy people literally believe death is all but certain if they step outside maskless. The only question left to ask: is this context-free milieu a result of intent, incompetence, or perverse incentives? A bit of all three as it turns out.

The rise of the Internet has fostered an environment where news media competition has become cutthroat. The Internet has dramatically diminished the legacy barriers to producing and distributing news content: the citizen journalist with nothing but his cell phone and a Twitter account is a force to be reckoned with now. This reality has opened the floodgates of competition. Reporting incentives now prioritize engagement and sensationalism over dispassionate objective reporting. Clicks lead to traffic and traffic justifies ad placement (incentives). To build a loyal audience many news organizations have opted to narrow rather than broaden their appeal (few but deep roots outperform the many but shallow during a drought). Focusing on ideological content maintains a stronger audience connection. In short the news has become biased, polarized, and sensationalized. This shift has created a fertile soil in which those with a personal political agenda (intent) may flourish. This shift in the news landscape has amplified an attention grabbing style of reporting known as “factual… but not truthful” otherwise known as “fake news.” It’s not fake because it’s a flat out lie, rather it is “fake” because while some parts are factually true there are omissions of crucial facts – facts that give the story the proper context needed to get the whole picture. Not volunteering information is not “lying” so when caught in their subterfuge they can plausibly hand wave it away as a simple “mistake” or “oversight.” This factual omission is a mix of laziness/incompetence or a deliberate agenda to craft a specific narrative. When this occurs in other countries we call it propaganda. When it happens here we whistle past the graveyard. 

A fanciful example of factual but not truthful would be “Local shop owner refuses to sell steak to illegal aliens!” – this would be factually true, however the story is omitting the additional detail that the store had run out of steak the prior day. The reader is left with the implicit message that the storeowner is a racist jerk. Whenever the narrative reinforces a reader’s preconceptions no further scrutiny is warranted in his mind. This is a common tactic to impugn political adversaries; report words out of context, often omitting a follow up sentence that contradicts the implication of the headline (Google “fine people hoax + Scott Adams”). 

This same level of “factual but not truthful” reporting has infected nearly all of the corporate media’s reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result Americans are dramatically overestimating their risk of death. A recent survey revealed that people believe those aged 44 and younger account for 30% of deaths; the actual figure is 2.6%. Further, Americans overestimated the risk of death for those under 24 by 50-fold. As of October 21 a scant 437 people aged 24 and below have died from Covid-19 in the US. The cumulative risk for that group is 1 death per 236,000. This is on par with the one-year odds of dying by falling down stairs. “Oh but they could spread it to the teachers!” Ok. Some more context. Those aged 25-64 have a 1 in 2,500 chance of dying from Covid – this is in fact the same risk prior to Covid of dying from any respiratory disease. In other words their risk profile has not changed.  But even these numbers don’t tell the whole picture. These numbers are averages. The risk is heterogeneous, not homogenous. Unless you have multiple comorbidities your risk is far lower than whatever average is shown for your age demographic. 

For those still worried even at 2,500 to 1 imagine the following: there are 2,500 doors lined up and you have one chance to open the correct door to reveal the grand prize. When considered in terms of something desired (the prize) this seems almost hopeless, right? But curiously if we merely flip from prize to punishment (death) we suddenly feel like it’s almost certain we will pick the wrong door on the first try. This inability to rationally assess risk leads to these foolish egocentric displays of “die ins” by teachers at various schools and universities. Odd. We’re told masks “work” so I can’t imagine what they are concerned about. 

 Even though the young face almost no risk from Covid (indeed, 2017-2018 flu deaths are 5x the current Covid deaths for those under 17) there is a much deadlier threat wending its way toward our youth if we do not return to normal as quickly as possible. One would think if there were a looming threat that might kill hundreds of thousands of young people this would be headline-making news. Instead we get crickets. To what do I refer? The CDC reported in June that in the prior month an astounding 25% of respondents aged 18-24 reported seriously considered suicide. To put that in context, the normal range is 7-11% — over the prior 12 months! For those aged 45-64 the number was only 3.8%. Clearly those making policy are immune to its impacts. Astoundingly many embrace these disruptive measures as they blithely ignore their own children who are powerless to reverse this insane course. Even if 1% followed through on their inclinations it would be over one hundred thousand dead. When compared to fewer than 400 deaths to date for that same age cohort the choice becomes clear: resume normal lives for our youth without delay. No more threats of shutting down schools. No more social distancing. No more masks. No more online classes. Childhood years are a precious resource that adults are looting from their children and squandering in a futile attempt to hold back this tide with a sponge.