Tags: Coronavirus | Health Topics | public | health | officials | masks

Believe Science But Be Skeptical of Scientists

prevention measures for the coronavirus

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Wednesday, 18 March 2020 11:55 AM Current | Bio | Archive

I am a skeptic by nature. I never believe what I read or hear without independently checking it. So when I read that public health officials were urging people not to buy face masks, because they don’t work, I was doubtful.

The officials also said that if individuals buy facemasks in large numbers, there won’t be enough for health providers. That I believed. But the combination of reasons — they don’t work, but they are important for health providers — immediately set off alarm bells in my skeptical mind.

If they don't work for ordinary individuals, why should they work for health providers?

Maybe there is a relevant difference. I kept an open but skeptical mind, while wearing the single N95 mask that I bought just in case.

It now turns out that the public health officials who were telling us not to buy masks were not telling us the whole truth. They were giving us only half the equation.

While it's true that a mass run on masks might deny them to health providers, it's equally true that masks may provide some layer of protection above and beyond the other precautions that everyone should take, such as hand washing and social distancing.

Those who misled us did so deliberately, but with a benign motive: they truly believed that it was more important for health providers to have masks than for every individual to stock up on them. When providers get sick, it has a greater impact on public health than if ordinary individuals catch the virus.

In order to make sure that individuals did not place their own safety above that of the community, a decision was made to present the facts in a skewed manner to disincentivize private purchases of masks.

Although well intentioned, this deception has apparently backfired.

Many people saw through the ruse and thought that what was good for health providers was good for them and their family, and they stocked up on masks. So we now have a situation where there has been a run on masks, while at the same time there has been a diminution in the credibility accorded those in charge of telling us how to react to the crisis.

The worst of both worlds. Honesty may not always be the best policy in extreme emergencies, but dishonesty — even when positively motivated — is not likely to work for long in a society in which the social media amplifies the voices of critics, and reasonable people don’t know who to believe.

Another claim about which I was skeptical was that the virus is only contagious by physical contact with infected individuals or surfaces which they touched.

Over and over again it was emphasized that this particular virus could not be caught by airborne or aerosol transmission. In other words, it doesn’t travel through the air. I was skeptical of this claim because it seemed inconsistent with the speed and frequency with which transmissions were occurring around the world.

I told my friends and family to act as if they could get the virus through the air. There is no downside to being more careful.

Recently research has confirmed my skepticism. It now turns out that the virus can remain suspended in the air for a relatively short time, though it loses its potency while falling to the ground. This means that we are at far greater risk of catching the virus even if we wear gloves, wash our hands and avoid touching surfaces.

It probably also means that masks may be even more important than we were previously lead to believe, even if we were skeptical about the "masks don’t work at all" message.

These are only two examples of what are sure to be other false messages we have been receiving in the early stages of the pandemic. As more data emerges, we will receive more advice from scientists, most of which will probably be accurate, but some of which will almost certainly turn out to be less than fully accurate.

How should we assess this mélange of information, misinformation, partial truths and outright falsehoods to which we are certain to be exposed? It won’t be easy, especially in the age of social media, where everyone is an expert and all opinions are created "equally."

A cartoon that was recently circulated makes the point. It has a typical guy looking at his computer and saying: "That’s odd: My Facebook friends who were constitutional scholars, just a month ago are now infectious disease experts . . . "

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of "Guilt by Accusation" and "The Case Against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump." Read more reports from Alan M. Dershowitz – Click Here Now.

Follow Alan Dershowitz on Twitter: @AlanDersh and Facebook: @AlanMDershowitz

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It now turns out that the public health officials who were telling us not to buy masks were not telling us the whole truth. They were giving us only half the equation.
public, health, officials, masks
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2020-55-18
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 11:55 AM
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