Sunday, November 15, 2020

On Masks

As with pretty much everything about the Covid disaster, the mask stuff is hard to decipher.  It's not like people haven't been studying the effectiveness of masks against respiratory viruses for a hundred years, and pretty much concluded they don't do much.  Even though there might have been absolutely fine studies that have been guidance for that time, everything had to be treated like it was a New Thing, with studies saying masks help alternating with studies saying they don't.  Recently a study in the news that said masks worked had to be retracted by the authors.  The masks didn't actually help. 

It was pretty obvious in the early days they didn't want people to have N95 masks because a shortage was happening and the professionals said they needed them more than we do (which I don't dispute).

Let me pass on a saying I picked up when I was a student: one study doesn't prove anything.  Two don't either, but two are stronger than one.  Several studies might well mean something, but they all might have the same fatal flaw big mistake in their setups.  Fourteen studies might well prove something, with the caution that they may have made the same mistakes over and over again.  (The fourteen includes both hand washing and mask studies, not just masks).  

(Original article at CDC - I've lost track of where this screen capture came from)

Note this doesn't say masks are totally useless, just that any benefit is indistinguishable from random differences between groups of people.  A worthwhile observation from redneck statistics is that if you have a handful of studies of something, with one pile saying there's an effect and another pile saying there isn't, it could be that there is an effect, it's just very weak.  Maybe a mask could reduce the spread of the virus by 1%; maybe the mask makes the spread worse by 1%.  

Personally, I come down to thinking they are less about protecting people than the politicians saying they're doing something.  Some of them, of course, are just tyrants who want to control people regardless of whether it's helpful or not.  I think it's an undeniable observation that a lot of people aren't really adults, regardless of their age, and want to be protected by big government.  These are the people you see in video reports where they verbally and sometimes physically attack someone for not wearing a mask around them.    

A politician is someone who never wants to be thought of as being wrong.  As an engineer, I wrestled with nature full time, so I'm quite used to being wrong.  I always used to tell the new grads I would mentor that I reserve the right to be wrong.  I try not to be, but that just doesn't mean much.  This might all be wrong, too.


  1. Are masks effective at preventing transmission of respiratory viruses? Yes....and no. Depends on your definition of effective. What a mask CAN do is DIMINISH the amount of droplets a person exhales into the air and DIMINSH the amount of droplets a person inhales from the air. Respiratory viruses don't travel ANYWHERE by themselves. They travel attached to moisture that people exhale. Decrease that moisture and the amount of virus in the air decreases.
    So YES...they do help prevent transmission of respiratory viruses. But NO they aren't all that effective in preventing the disease from spreading. Why? Because MOST respiratory viruses are transmitted via CONTACT. You touch your face/mouth then touch something....another person touches that something then touches their face/mouth and gets infected. We've known for a long time that proper hand hygiene is the number one method of preventing disease spread between people. Masks are useful....they just aren't any good at preventing disease spread by people who WON'T WASH THEIR HANDS.

    1. I agree - the focus on masks (only!) is taking effort and attention away from other transmission vectors, primarily surfaces and bodily fluids.
      For example, when this started, Kroger, Target, and other stores near me wiped down every cart before a customer touched it and regularly cleaning door knobs, etc. But now they leave it to customers to clean carts - but they are often out of supplies to do it. It appears that they are wiping down surfaces less frequently.
      To me, automatic door openers and paper towel dispensers used more widely would make a bigger difference than masks. And GET RID of those bathroom blow dryers!

  2. If the diameter of the COVID virus is supposed to range somewhere between 0.1 to 0.14 microns (depending on the article you read) and the smallest pore diameter found in the typical, available mask is 80 microns, I find it very difficult to see how a mask can protect the user against the transmission of of virus particles since the hole is ~750 times larger than the virus.

    1. The usual reply to that is the mask stops the water droplet carrying the virus. To which I always say, "and then what happens when the water evaporates?" What holds the virus in the mask when there's no water?

    2. Woven masks only stop large droplets, such as from coughs and sneezes (unless, of course, they go around the sides). They cannot stop the small droplets of normal breathing...

      In addition, masks are warm and moist from your breath - they pick up and culture virus and bacteria from the air around them, likely increasing exposure to both COVID and many other diseases.

  3. OBEY!
    In no state has the legislature granted the governor permanent, plenary powers to do as (s)he pleases. Show me the line in any State constitution that says, "unless there is a cold or flu outbreak, then the governor can rule arbitrarily with an iron fist forever."

  4. Denis Rancourt, Ph.D in Physics, did a review of the available studies regarding masks.

    (The pdf is posted at several sites.)

    It's a useful read on the subject.

    I do not wear masks unless forced by circumstance; to my knowledge, the original purpose of surgical masks was to prevent particulate matter from falling into surgical sites during operations.

    They have no prophylactic effect on viral transmission; that would seem obvious to anyone who gave the matter even cursory consideration.

    What we have today, is the modern equivalent of plague masks, or tossing salt over your shoulder, or stepping over cracked sidewalks, coupled with the human tendency to conform.

    Never participate in the madness of crowds.

    Remember-when the world, in all its idiocy, tells you to move, the proper response is,

    "No. YOU move."

    1. Karl Denninger over on Market Ticker had a very interesting study on his blog within the last couple of months; needless to say I didn't save the link.

      The National Health Service (UK) did a randomized controlled trial where surgeons did not wear masks. IIRC, in 3 out of 4 groups, infections did not go up compared to the control in which the surgeons wore masks. In the group where infections went up slightly, cultures of the infections and the surgeon's bodies were not the same, and they concluded the infection came from somewhere (someone) else and masks had no effect on surgical infections.

      There was some evidence masks increased certain infections, and they assumed it had to do with changing the direction the surgeon's breath went: straight out vs down onto the patient.

      Like you, I only wear a mask when required, typically at stores. With friends or family, I don't.

    2. I will only wear a face covering in health care facilities (and then only if they require it - my doctor's office does NOT require it!).

      I cannot wear a mask for more than a few minutes before I have difficulty breathing. I prefer to wear my full face motorcycle helmet or small home made face shield over a mask.
      I wore a mask to the dentist earlier this month (less than 2 minutes)and I'll wear one to the eye doctor tomorrow. Other than that, I haven't worn a mask since August, and then only briefly.

    3. In the interest of honesty, I have to point out that Rancourt's paper has flaws; a rebuttal is found here:

      Which, in itself, seems to miss the larger question-

      Is all of this shutdown appropriate for a malady which has killed less than 0.6% of the populus, assuming worst case figures?

    4. Thanks for the update. I still hadn't gotten the time to look at Rancourt's paper, but took a look at the first couple of paragraphs of Johnson's. He struck a nerve with me by quickly making an illogical statement that Rancourt is not to be trusted because (1) he's a climate change denier and (2) he's a physicist but his specialty is metals and he doesn't work in academia anymore. To me, that's a "so what?" and off to bad start.

  5. the point of the mask, lockdowns and such is to make life miserable so that when the option of mask or dirty vaccine is offered we'll clamour to get in line. once sufficient numbers have taken it they will switch from option to mandate and say "everyone else is doing it". not me.

  6. The Baby Boomer generation has a high number of people without kids, or who have become disconnected from their families. They haven't developed the sense that THEIR life and death are not important, in generational terms, it's the survival of the family/nation that is critical.
    So, for them, their personal death takes on EPIC proportions - they CAN'T die! EVERY effort must be made to spare their life, in perpetuity.
    I just shake my head and say, Honey. We're ALL gonna die. Eventually. Suck it up!

    1. My wife and I were discussing another aspect of this, the simple question, "would you lay down your life to save the kids' or grand-kids' lives?" The answer is "hell yeah." People who went without kids are incapable of thinking that way.

      The boomer generation was fed the lie all our lives that the earth is overpopulated and we had to stop that now. Here we are 50 years into that message and now the Perpetually Alarmed are concerned that projections show the world population going into decline somewhere in the next 30 years.