In January, Cochrane—the highly regarded British nonprofit research group—released a massive review of studies on the efficacy of masks in taming the spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses. The review’s lead author, Tom Jefferson, summed up his findings on masks in an interview: “There is just no evidence that they make any difference.” Now, Karla Soares-Weiser, the editor-in-chief of Cochrane’s databases, says Jefferson is wrong. In a statement reported by the New York Times’s Zeynep Tufekci, she said, “Given the limitations in the primary evidence, the review is not able to address the question of whether mask wearing itself reduces people’s risk of contracting or spreading respiratory viruses.”
So, the most comprehensive meta-study ever on mask-wearing to prevent respiratory illness “is not able to address” mask-wearing and the prevention of respiratory illness. Having no answers has become a preferred form of spin, so it’s no surprise that this is Soares-Weiser’s way out of having to explain why her own organization’s study is somehow suddenly incorrect.
But in the Times, Tufekci takes this statement and runs with it. She cites two randomized studies on mask-wearing and viral spread. One seemed to show reduced viral spread among mask wearers. The other was inconclusive. This is the evidence she adduces to support this headline: “Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work.” Cochrane’s review looked at 78 randomized studies, and the majority of them indicated that there was no benefit to masks.
So what are the “limitations in the primary evidence” that, according to Soares-Weiser, rendered her own publication’s study essentially useless? Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the pandemic center at Brown University School of Public Health, said that Cochrane’s findings don’t mean that “masks don’t protect individuals.” She added: “But it could mean that the way they’re used at the population level is not effective.” Ah, the way they’re used! In other words, perhaps it comes down to the degree of compliance and proper face-covering among mask wearers.
Well, even if that’s so—and I’m willing to believe it is—Tom Jefferson is still correct. Because if you have a tool against infection that is so onerous to the user that improper use and lack of compliance make it ineffective at the population level, it’s the wrong tool. Public health policy needs to adapt to the nature of the public. Otherwise, it’s just theory. And, sure, maybe, in theory, masks work. But there’s a long, dark history of people trying to impose theoretical fixes on real populations. And it’s killed more people than Covid.
In a sense, it doesn’t even matter what this study, or the next, has to say on the matter. Data doesn’t settle arguments these days. There’s too much of it, and it’s often produced to be weaponized in high-stakes fights. Most studies that catch our eye are just new rounds of ammo in an arms race we may not be aware of. There’s data to support every side of every issue, especially issues that are politically charged. Masking naturally falls into that category. So, too, does the question of Covid’s origins. Lab leak or wet market—pick your study. And climate change is a fun one. “The data is clear: Rising global temperatures mean winters are getting milder, on average,” said a December article in the Washington Post. But a year earlier, the journal Science reported that climate change causes “periods of extreme cold in northern midlatitudes.”
My own data shows that during mild winters, scientists write about climate change causing mild winters, and during cold winters, scientists write about climate change causing cold winters. Which is a lot like the science around masking. When the pandemic first hit, and there were no masks to be found, the science showed that masking didn’t protect you from the COVID. Then, when masks became available, the science clearly demonstrated that masks were an effective tool in halting the spread. In the case of a supply-chain-disruption mask shortage in the future, don’t worry—we’ll find out once again that masks don’t do any good.