Wear Your Mask

None of this is new, you’ve seen it all, but I hope by showing you where it comes from that you’ll be better equipped to handle anti-mask bullshit from bloviaters.

Masks make a difference. They do help. How do we know that? I’ll show you. Usual mea culpa: I’m an amateur who believes the experts – and only the experts, based on real research – not an expert myself.

I’ve gathered some of what experts have done – and then what they say. After that, we’ll check the anti-mask “evidence” spread on social media by non-experts who often say what HUGE experts they are, then tell you masks are bad without doing any experiments (cos designing, then doing, good experiments is not easy and it takes time) and without any valid evidence.

First, why even talk about masks? Because we breathe. We all know people who emit spittle as they talk, and we dodge them and stand back when they get excited! But we don’t all realise that we ALL emit droplets when we speak. Here are two graphs in the same block of someone saying the words “stay healthy” while wearing a mask and while not wearing a mask. The person’s emissions were video’d under special conditions (check the link):

– The number of flashes was highest (top arrow) when the “th” sound in the word “healthy” was pronounced –

Here’s a snapshot of one frame in the video, which corresponds to the top bigger red arrow in Panel A – the highest number of speech droplets visualized in an individual frame of the video recording.

– spit droplets from the ‘th’ in the word ‘healthy’ – so someone saying ‘stay healthy’ could kill you! –

OK, so we have evidence that we spray. Of course, your Granma knew we spray germs when she told you to ‘catch your cough’ and when she avoided you when you had a cold (which is also a corona virus).

Next we found out that COVID-19 can be found on way smaller droplets than these – called ‘the aerosol effect.’ Now you need to not just avoid being coughed on or ‘spoken on,’ you need to be wary of the air where people have been, as aerosol particles linger WAY longer and travel WAY further than the bigger droplets which led to the 2m ‘social distance’ guideline (which politicians and businessmen soon reduced to 1,5m, down to 1m, down to ‘full taxis’ – side-by-side. These reductions were NOT done for our safety, BTW!).

Next, we (“we” – scientists on behalf of “us” – humans who know the scientific method is the best way to investigate things) looked at old epidemics and noticed there was less spread in places where people are used to wearing masks. In April already, this effect was noticed in the current pandemic too.

Next, scientists looked at 172 studies on corona-type viruses. After very careful analysis they gave a sober, cautiously-worded statement (this is a tiny excerpt – click the link to read the full study): ‘We found evidence of moderate certainty that current policies of at least 1 m physical distancing are probably associated with a large reduction in infection, and that distances of 2 m might be more effective, as implemented in some countries. We also provide estimates for 3 m. The main benefit of physical distancing measures is to prevent onward transmission and, thereby, reduce the adverse outcomes of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Hence, the results of our current review support the implementation of a policy of physical distancing of at least 1 m and, if feasible, 2 m or more. Our findings also provide robust estimates to inform models and contact tracing used to plan and strategise for pandemic response efforts at multiple levels.The use of face masks was protective for both health-care workers and people in the community exposed to infection, with both the frequentist and Bayesian analyses lending support to face mask use irrespective of setting.’

The most recent study I found was in Denmark where masks were not compulsory and most people did not wear them. A trial showed that people who did wear them in a randomised trial did get some benefit, even when all others around them were not wearing masks.

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SO: You’ve always known this, but which is the best mask to use? Its not important. Comfort is probably the most important consideration, as wearing it comfortably and consistently is key. Having the ‘world’s best mask’ around your chin helps a rich, approximate, earth-shattering, statistical fokol. That’s zero. May as well strap it around your wrist fgdsake.

If you want a suggestion, surgical masks are generally more protective than cloth masks, and some people find them lighter and more comfortable to wear. The bottom line is that any mask that covers the nose and mouth will be of benefit. The concept is risk reduction, not absolute prevention. Don’t not wear a mask ‘because it’s not 100 percent effective.’ That’s just silly. Nobody thinks burglar guards are 100% effective, they install them to substantially reduce their risk.

Remember ‘All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten?’ Wash your hands often and well; Wear your mask; Keep more distance than you think (3m is better than 2m is better than 1m is MUCH better than french kissing); Avoid closed spaces (any indoors if you can help it; at least reduce that ‘essential’ indoor time); Avoid people (yeah, yeah, as far as you can – and that’s usually more than you do; also reduce your time spent with them); Get your groceries delivered (Checkers charges R35 to deliver up to 30 items within one hour – it costs you more to drive there and back and you’re rating your time at R0 – How much time have you got left on earth? Correct, you don’t know. But you do know that it’s precious).

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What about “scientific evidence that PROVES masks are bad for you”?? Search for it. It will take you to wacko sites that tell blatant lies absolutely routinely. Always check the sites on wikipedia; and check their claims on snopes.com, and other fact-checking sites. Here are ten of the best fact-checking sites. Use them!

The Federalist is one bullshit site. They also publish false information and pseudoscience that is contrary to the recommendations of public health experts and authorities; and fake news about election results. Trump fans.

Typical of these sites’ disinformation was taking the Denmark study I mention and saying “A study in Denmark proved that masks are useless for COVID-19,” instead of the truth: The study found that face masks did not have a large protective effect for wearers — but did provide some protection to wearers, and did also provide benefits to other people. Note the difference in language: The DEFINITE conclusions by bullshitters; vs the CAUTIOUS conclusions that real scientists take, knowing things may change.

Another instance was taking one case of a driver who crashed his SUV into a pole in new Jersey on April 23. He blamed his collision on his mask. He told police he passed out because he’d been wearing an N95 mask for too long. Initially, the investigating officers believed him, writing in a Facebook post that he was the only person in the car and passed out due to “insufficient oxygen intake/excessive carbon dioxide intake.” The driver’s bulldust went viral! The police department later updated their post, stating that they didn’t know “with 100% certainty” that “excessive wearing” of an N95 mask was a contributing factor to the accident. They added that “it is certainly possible that some other medical reason could’ve contributed to the driver passing out.”  But bullshit websites crowed “masks are bad for you, you get too much carbon dioxide!’ – and people who should know better forwarded and forwarded without checking (please don’t do that). A quick check can show you: actually, you don’t.

Another website The Gateway Pundit “is known for publishing falsehoods, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.” So when they tell you ‘All the experts are wrong, we have scientific proof masks are bad for you!’, check their research, then check some real research – and then dismiss them with the contempt they deserve.

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Go and find a fact-checking site now. A slightly different ‘ten best’ are suggested here.

There’s also AfricaCheck.org for checking bullshit in Africa – we sure need them, so I sent them a donation. Go and see how they caught Herman Mashaba bullshitting.

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Oh, and please note I use the term BULLSHIT very deliberately. It’s a real thing:

In his essay On Bullshit (originally written in 1986, and published as a monograph in 2005), philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood distinct from lying. The liar, Frankfurt holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The “bullshitter”, on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking to impress.

Quote: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Bullshitters can exhaust you. As Alberto Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work seems like a very good and kind and decent person. Because she suggests we use generosity, empathy, and curiosity when speaking truth to bullshit (e.g. “Where did you read this? or Where did you hear this?”) can go a long way in our efforts to question what we’re hearing and introduce fact.

COVID and Ordinary People

Trying to stay on top of COVID news? We have no choice but to do so, to best protect ourselves and our loved ones. It’s stressful and draining, but essential.

This post is paraphrased and shortened from an article by Alanna Shaikh, a global public health expert and a TED Fellow, for tips on how to navigate this information overload while staying safe and sane. ( for full article, see here )

1. Look for news that you can act on

When you’re trying to figure out what stories to stay on top of, ask yourself: “Will having this information benefit my life or my work? Will it allow me to make better-informed decisions?”

Accumulating masses of information that you can’t use isn’t so helpful.

For most people, the most critical information for you to follow is how the virus is transmitted. Scientists are still learning every day about how people get infected.

2. Turn to trusted sources

If something reaches you on your whatsapp or instagram in Blikkiesdorp, chances are people professionally covering the pandemic heard it before you did.

So go and see what they say about it. COVID-19 has been heavily politicized, and even some major news sources are basing their content more on opinion than on science.

You can generally trust the accuracy of top news sources like Nature, Wired and The New York Times — to name three examples.

Why? Cos their reputations are at stake. And they have the kind of budget that lets them hire full-time journalists who will stand by the facts or who rely on fact-checkers to verify their information.

3. Check where their information is coming from

No-one actually KNOWS, so be wary of articles or sources that claim to have a definite answer to a complex question.

For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci is currently saying that there should be a vaccine for COVID-19 in early 2021;

the Gates Foundation has a longer estimate; and

others are warning that we may never have a vaccine for it.

Right now, there is no consensus about a timeline — these people and organizations are simply offering their best guesses. Use fact-checking sites – find one here.

4. Look for news that works for you

For ordinary people whose expertise lies outside global health — i.e. us, you and me — find sources of information that you can read and digest without having to devote your whole day (or brain) to it. Like the Think Global Health website; it’s aimed at passionate non-experts. It’s not dumbed down, but it doesn’t assume you have a PhD.

Johns Hopkins University is publishing some great work on COVID — more technical, but not too technical.

So is Vox; they have some terrific explainers.

5. Be prepared to change your behavior based on new information

No source is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you should disbelieve all sources. Research constantly changes and informs and shapes our ideas.

Remember when wiping down surfaces was the MAIN thing? Now, reputable organizations and scientists basically agree on masks, contact tracing and the existence of transmission of COVID by people who aren’t showing symptoms. If you get sick you will probably never know who ‘gave it to you,’ as they would have felt as healthy as you did the day the virus was transmitted.

Some of this info may change again, but we need to keep going along with best practice AS FAR AS WE KNOW TODAY.

6. Refrain from arguing with people who ignore the facts

Save your breath. Yours and theirs might be contagious!

You WON’T change their minds.

You are not a law enforcer.

Like it or not, this situation isn’t going anywhere. This pandemic is awful and complicated and changing. Finding our way through it won’t be smooth, nor easy, nor emotionally comfortable. It’s a constant, dynamic process of learning new things and adapting as we learn.

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Lovely pic from the cover of Wits Review Oct 2020, magazine for University of the Witwatersrand alumni.

Who Spreads Fake News? You! Me!

WE are the problem.

There’s an instinct to point fingers; to find someone to blame for the information hellscape in which we now find ourselves. Every day one tech giant or another is forced to play defense, whether it’s Facebook being called out yet again for letting advertisers exclude audiences by race or Twitter bending to the whims of white nationalists who want to target reporters. Because we can’t quit the products, we become desperate for the companies to save us from ourselves. For more, read this article on WIRED.

When something “sounds right” to us we forward it – we promote Fake News. When something “sounds wrong” we ignore it. If it was true even though we didn’t like it, we promote Fake News. Unless we get into the habit of being careful and – at the least – waiting for more info, we’re part of the problem.

It usually takes only minutes to check. Until you have checked – whether that’s quick, or you can’t find it – WAIT. Don’t forward! Adding ‘Dunno if this true, but . . ‘ doesn’t help. Don’t Forward. Just as we are in lockdown and social distance, so we need to Break The Chain of information that we don’t know is true. Don’t Forward it. Let it die in your ‘inbox.’ Rather write your own post to trusted friends asking ‘Do you know anything (not just ‘heard of’) about the rumour about ‘X’?’

There are many ways to check: Wait to see if the story comes up on News 24 or Mail & Guardian or Eye Witness News. Or go to specialist fact-checking sites like these (remembering always that ALL humans have bias – no site magically gives THE ONLY CORRECT viewpoint – keep reading, keep checking):

snopes.com – ‘the definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.’

Africa Check: Africa’s first independent fact-checking organisation with offices in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and the UK checking claims made by public figures and the media in Africa.

RMIT ABC Fact Check: An IFCN-accredited fact checking organisation, launched in 2017, jointly funded by RMIT University in Melbourne and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

USA:

  • Politifact Pulitzer Prize wining site run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times (Florida) newspaper. “PolitiFact is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by U.S elected officials and others who speak up in American politics…. The PolitiFact state sites are run by news organizations that have partnered with the Times.” Read about their principles under ‘About Us.’
  • FactCheck.org “FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania….a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for U.S voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.”
  • FlackCheck “Headquartered at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, FlackCheck.org is the political literacy companion site to the award-winning FactCheck.org. The site provides resources designed to help viewers recognize flaws in arguments in general and political ads in particular.”
  • OpenSecrets.org “Nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, the Center for Responsive Politics is the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S politics and its effect on elections and public policy.”
  • Fact Check (Washington Post) “The purpose of this Web site, and an accompanying column in the Sunday print edition of The Washington Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local.”

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Duke Reporters’ Lab: Fact Checking Includes a database of global fact-checking sites, which can be viewed as a map or as a list; also includes how they identify fact-checkers.

International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles The International Fact-Checking Network “is a forum for fact-checkers worldwide hosted by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.”