A Dare and a Plea to the Coronavirus Conspiracy Believers

And an experiment in inter-silo communication about wearing masks.

Posted Aug 12, 2020

This post is for two audiences: Those who willingly, consistently wear masks to protect against transmission of the coronavirus, and those who don’t.

Audience #1 believes in the credibility of established institutions (National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, etc.) and the mainstream scientists and health-care professionals who work with them. Members of Audience #1 generally dismiss conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and, as a result, they wear the masks most of these theories disparage as counterproductive. At first, it might seem like they don’t need to read this post, which is preaching to the choir. But wait.

Audience #2 includes rebellious skeptics who cherish their independence, value thinking for themselves, and do not like being told what to do. They do not believe much of what they hear from mainstream scientific publications and authorities, and they do believe some radically alternative views and allegations disseminated by right-wing websites, talk show hosts, and social media. As a result, they resist wearing masks.

A Tale of Two Silos

Both audiences know people who are mostly like them, and neither talks much to people on the other side. Inhabitants of both silos typically believe the other group is woefully misinformed, if not stupid or downright evil. This is part of the polarization currently endemic in America.

This post on Psychology Today is in the province of Silo #1. That’s a problem, because the goal of the post is to persuade people to use masks to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, but the people who need convincing rarely read Psychology Today. I have no idea how to reach them myself—so I am recruiting the participation of Audience #1.

Silos are not airtight, because while most of the people in our networks think like we do, a few do not. Think of that cousin who lives in a different kind of community, the co-worker with opinions very different from your own, and acquaintances with whom you have little in common besides being “friends” on Facebook. These are the cracks and leaks in the silos and our best hope for inter-group communication.

So share this post! Even if only 1% of your network is in a different silo, there are thousands of you, and if just 1% of them re-share it, we could go viral in the other silo!

This is a two-way street. I hope my Silo #2 readers volley right back by posting comments on this post and sharing content with people they know in Silo #1. Surely the world needs more inter-silo communication.

Proof That We Should Wear Masks

While belief in coronavirus conspiracy theories involves multiple factors, to a large extent it comes down to whom you believe. Silo #1 doesn’t believe #2’s sources of information, and Silo #2 doesn’t believe #1’s. This is a core reason why our nation is at an impasse on the question of masks.

And it is why this post makes its case without appealing to established experts or authorities. The post proves its case with a combination of well-known facts, high school science, and simple logic.

Conspiracy theories are generally complicated, weaving together many points and allegations to produce a stunning conclusion. The web of component claims can be fact-checked, but that is a difficult, laborious process. Fortunately, it is not necessary to investigate the content of conspiracy theories to figure out whether we should wear masks.

There are some big blocks of obvious truth that, if understood, refute the common objections to face coverings. Furthermore, these facts prove the value of masks whether or not the conspiracy theories are true, because none of the theories addresses let alone refutes these facts.

I would say to my readers in Audience #2 that anyone who wants to make a morally responsible decision about masks must consider the following points, which require neither trust in authorities nor giving up the idea that powerful people engage in sinister plotting behind the scenes. This is why I dare you and plead with you to confront these realities:

1. It has been known for a hundred years that masks block the transmission of germs through breathing; this is why health-care workers have worn them when interacting with infected people. There is nothing special about applying this routine practice to the coronavirus. Is there a rogue scientist out there who claims this virus is unlike all the others in that it is not stopped by masks?

2. The main difference between countries with severe outbreaks of COVID-19 (i.e., the U.S. and Brazil) and the numerous countries which have crushed their infection curves is that almost all their inhabitants wear masks, while lots of ours don’t. How can the conspiracy theorists explain the dramatic difference between the two types of disease curves? Do they imagine Bill Gates has agents in the government health departments of European and Asian countries who falsify data to deny the massive death happening all around them?

3. Health-care workers do not have higher rates of infection with the coronavirus than the general population; in New York, the first epicenter of the disease, their rates are actually lower. Health-care workers have much greater exposure to this highly contagious virus than others. The only plausible explanation of their low rate of infection is that they wear personal protective equipment, especially masks, which prevent inhalation of this respiratory virus.

4. In a natural experiment that occurred in Missouri, two hairdressers went to work sick for several days before testing positive for COVID-19. One-hundred thirty-nine customers were identified from their appointment books and contacted. Despite the extensive, close proximity involved in styling hair, none of the customers caught COVID-19. This is how effective masks are.

5. At the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and others recommended against masks for people outside health-care settings, not because they thought masks don’t work, but because it was not yet known that people without symptoms can be infectious, and it seemed vital to save the small existing supplies of masks for front-line health-care workers. This short-lived error, even when described in a sneering tone, does not undercut the case for masks.

6. Sorry to be gross, but some people think that because the smell of flatulence goes through clothes, viruses must go through cloth masks. This is an example of the difference between science and “common sense.” Flatulence smells bad because it includes molecules of hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol, and dimethyl sulfide, molecules composed of 3, 8, and 9 atoms, respectively. In contrast, one virus is composed of hundreds of thousands of atoms; it is a much larger object, which is why it is stopped by cloth mesh while bad smells are not.

7. For the same reason, urban legends claiming that masks interfere with exhaling carbon dioxide and inhaling oxygen are false. Carbon dioxide molecules are made of three atoms, and oxygen molecules are made of two. The openings in cloth mesh do not block the movement of these tiny molecules but stop viruses from passing through.

These seven points, based on widely known information and basic chemistry and biology, prove that wearing masks is a safe and effective means of reducing coronavirus transmission. This proof does not depend on refuting any of the particular allegations that conspiracy theories make about secret plots by powerful people. It does not matter why Dr. Judy Mikovitz got blackballed, whether the coronavirus was engineered as a bioweapon or spread by 5G towers, who will make money from a vaccine, or how Bill Gates will manage to include a microchip with every vaccination—wearing masks reduces virus transmission and would do so even if all the conspiracy allegations were true.

The idea that wearing masks “activates” viruses is perhaps the most scientifically ridiculous and harmful falsehood of them all, and it is refuted by points 1-3 above. If this idea were valid, why have health-care workers been wearing masks to protect against viruses for a century, why do countries where people consistently wear masks have so few COVID-19 cases, and why do health-care workers who treat COVID-19 patients have infection rates no greater than the general population’s? Nothing in “Plandemic” addresses any of these points.

Silo #2’s simultaneous emphasis on re-opening the economy and its resistance to face coverings is one of the great self-contradictions of our times. It makes no medical sense. The key to safe re-opening is the careful observance of health precautions, including wearing masks.

A Moral Choice

If people in Audience #2 think back on the input they have received during this pandemic, they will realize they have been misled by the sources they trusted. Alarm about the coronavirus did not turn out to be “media hysteria,” and concerns about our country’s mishandling of the pandemic did not turn out to be a “hoax.” COVID-19 is not like a cold and it’s not like the flu, which has a fatality rate of about .1%, compared to COVID-19’s rate of about .65% — 6 times worse; COVID also results in awful "long haul" effects in some patients, which the flu does not. There is a tiny number of fringey doctors who have gotten a lot of attention and been wrong about these things and others, while the mainstream 99%, as represented by all major medical organizations, has been consistently right.

My family and friends think I wasted my time by writing this post because they think people who resist masks either don’t care about reason or believe everything they hear from sources they trust and nothing from any other source. I’m not sure, and I hope not, because so much is at stake.

The facts presented above converge on a chilling implication: Most of the people who have had COVID-19 probably caught the virus from someone who was not wearing a mask. No one in either silo can feel comfortable with the idea that people are dying because of people like them. Imagining that there is some kind of constitutional or individual “right” to infect people with a virus does not resolve the moral question.

There is no stronger mark of integrity than rethinking an issue and changing your mind to live up to your values. More communication between our country’s silos is needed for both sides to grow in this way. Please share this post!