On masks and whether they ‘work.’

On masks and whether they ‘work.’

tl;dr – Please get vaccinated, friend!

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My community’s most recent school board meeting was exceptionally contentious.

Public education is almost always contentious in this country: Evolution! The pledge of allegiance! The Founding Fathers’ complicity in felonious (oft murderous) abduction & torture!

Now, we’re also arguing over whether it’s safe for schools to be open at all!

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At the school board meeting, a white woman stood up at the podium, ripped off her mask, and said “I can’t breathe.”

(Unfortunately, I assume the resonance with the BLM protests was intentional. When I went to pick up my kids from school last week, a white mother was wearing a t-shirt with the traditional white on black BLM layout that said “Drunk Wives Matter.” My hometown is within a half hour’s drive of the national KKK headquarters.)

As is the way of things in our country right now, about half the parents in attendance were aghast. The other half cheered.

“The masks don’t work! Everybody knows the masks don’t work!” people shouted.

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Oddly enough, though, the people saying “the masks don’t work” are actually correct. But so are the people who say that masks work. The word “work” is pretty nebulous!

As Joseph Allen & Helen Jenkins wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, many well-meaning people have been unhelpfully vague when defining goals for our pandemic response. Are we trying to minimize lifelong harms from all causes? Are we trying to minimize the number of deaths that occur this year? Are we trying to eradicate the virus that causes Covid-19?

Each of these goals would require that we take a different set of actions.

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Masks “work” in the sense that when people are wearing face masks, there’s a lower probability of Covid-19 transmission during any interaction.

Masks reduce the number of viral particles that exit a person’s airspace as they speak or exhale. Of course, this presupposes that the person wearing a mask actually is shedding viral particles. But that’s the tricky thing about Covid-19 (or influenza)! Some people feel fine!

Masks also might reduce the likelihood of transmission when an unexposed person who is hoping to avoid or delay illness wears a mask. (Masks probably help with this, but it’s less well tested.)

Universal mask requirements are a great tool to delay transmission!

When worn selectively – for instance, only during hospital visits, or only when inside nursing homes – masks can also skew the demographics of transmission. With Covid-19, skewing the demographics of transmission is a great goal!

Even back before we had safe, effective vaccines, we could’ve saved huge numbers of lives by skewing the demographics of transmission! Some people are much more likely to recover from Covid-19 safely than others! (Major risk factors include advanced age, diabetes status, and probably smoking status. But there are also unknown risk factors – we don’t know why certain young healthy people can get so sick from this.)

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Masks don’t “work,” though, if the goal is to prevent cases of Covid-19.

By May of 2020, it was already clear that Covid-19 would become endemic. We’d spread the virus too widely by then. The virus will never go away. Cases will never fall to zero.

Everyone alive today, and everyone born in the future, will be exposed to Covid-19 eventually. (With the possible exception of people who happen to die of other causes within the next few years.)

There’s still a strong argument for using masks to delay Covid-19 transmission: with more time, more people can be vaccinated! The vaccines work, by which I mean that the vaccines save lives.

Everyone will be exposed to Covid-19! The people who have been vaccinated are much more likely to survive! This front page article in my local newspaper is fear mongering; it’s a sort of fear mongering that I wholeheartedly endorse!

Vaccination is a safe, effective, time-tested medical practice. The principles behind vaccination were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists and healers in Africa, India, and China. Their discoveries were the basis for Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.

When scientists say that vaccines “work” – vaccines save lives – we mean something very different than when we say that masks “work” – masks delay exposure!

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In conjunction with vaccination, masks can be helpful!

Which is why the argument that children should currently wear masks in school is reasonable. Covid-19 tends not to be very dangerous for children, but occasionally it’s deadly. There’s a definite cost to wearing masks in school – muffled voices, hidden facial expressions, increased hassle – but children could be kept safer by delaying their exposure to Covid-19 until after a vaccine is approved for them.

(I feel lucky that my kids have already safely recovered from Covid-19 – I’m not beset by the same fear over this that other parents are navigating. But I understand their concern: raising children often feels terrifying because my heart would shatter if anything happened to these tiny, willful, fragile creatures.)

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Most of the people who say “masks don’t work” are planning not to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Which means, weirdly, that they’re right! Without the end goal of eventual vaccination, masks don’t work! Even if universal masking policies were kept in place forever, Covid-19 is so infectious that everyone would still be exposed eventually!

The vaccines can save lives; masks cannot.

Obviously, I’m not arguing that you should ignore local mask requirements: I’m currently wearing a face mask as I type this! And there are lots of people who do want to be vaccinated who don’t have access yet – this isn’t much of an issue for adults in the United States, but vaccine access is an incredible privilege for most of the world’s population.

Because Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who feel fine, wearing a mask is a way to protect others. And personal preference isn’t a good reason to endanger the lives of the folks around us! That’s why we have traffic laws! Even if I think it’d be fun to go out driving while buzzed on booze, or to cruise on the left-hand side of the road, I shouldn’t be allowed to do it!

But also, I think it’s worth acknowledging that, within the full context of their actions, people’s denunciations of masks are actually scientifically accurate.

“Follow the science” is an unhelpful slogan – scientific analysis doesn’t result in a monolithic set of inarguable conclusions. At the heart of any policy, there are goals and priorities. These are set by philosophical or ethical considerations, not scientific fact.

“Follow the scientific findings that help us all achieve my goals for the world” doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it, though.

On perspective and Zoom.

On perspective and Zoom.

In Unique, neuroscientist David Linden describes the cultural associations between smell and taste.

Most people from the United States will say that vanilla, strawberry, or mint odors smell sweet.

On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense. Sweet is a taste, not a smell. A substance cannot smell sweet any more than something can sound red.

There’s nothing intrinsically sweet about these odors – we’ve just learned to associate them with sweet taste.

As a counterexample, in Vietnam, where caramel and mint are used primarily in savory dishes, their odors are not typically described as sweet.

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This association is sufficiently powerful that its effect can be measured in the lab.

For people whose past cultural experiences have led them to associate mint smells with sweet tastes, pairing the scent of mint with a sip of sucrose solution makes them believe that the drink is more sugary than it really is. When mint scent is paired with a sip of mildly acidic water, the drink seems less sour than it really is.

This experiment didn’t assess people’s perception of alcoholic drinks, but people in the United States probably make the same mistake about the bourbon in a mint julep.

photo by Grizdave at flickr

Our assumptions – particular to our own cultural experience of the world – can powerfully deceive us.

A mint julep mixed perfectly for someone from the United States would taste bitter to someone from Vietnam.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen – author of The Sympathizer, which I’ve written about previously – strives to draw attention to our cultural blindness. The way our minds’ innate self-deceptions allow us to overlook or misinterpret the experiences of others.

My spouse and I have often felt grateful for Nguyen’s work. His essay about the sinking sensation he felt after teaching his child to read was particularly beautiful. (I linked to it in my own essay about teaching a child to read.)

Which is why we felt so dismayed by Nguyen’s most recent New York Times editorial.

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Nguyen explains why he enjoys teaching over Zoom. He’s prompted with students’ names; he can see their reactions up close; student voices contribute to the lecture from the same up-front position of power as his own; typed remarks can overlap without distracting; lectures are recorded for students to review later.

All well and good. Nguyen is quite intelligent. If he thinks Zoom is good for lectures, I’m inclined to believe him.

But lectures aren’t the best way to learn.

For many subjects, project-based learning is a more effective way to educate students. Many of my spouse’s resources – designed primarily for teaching college-level biology and introductory Earth & space science with a social justice bent – are available on her website, here.

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For the better part of a decade, I’ve hosted a poetry class in the county jail. We read poems and discuss how they make us feel. Our discussions touch upon contemporary scientific research, mythology, economics – all safe enough topics, for most folks – but also religion, addiction, trauma, violence, relationships, loss – which can be tough for anyone to talk about, let alone a room full of men who won’t get to see their families for months.

Because people cycle through the county jail, I never know who will be coming to class each week until I get there. For a few months, I might be with mostly the same group of men. Other weeks, I won’t have met any of the dozen or so people previously.

And there’s a huge difference between what we can accomplish – between what sorts of things feel safe to discuss – when the people in class haven’t met me before, and haven’t been in a class like that with each other. If we haven’t built the necessary emotional connection, we can do less. The class is worse for all of us.

Recently, the jail has allowed a small number of classes over Zoom. But Zoom doesn’t let you make the same emotional connection.

People sometimes complain about the supposed invasiveness of Zoom – the camera snatches up your personal surroundings, the pictures on your wall, the books on your shelves, your family in the background – but it’s by no means the intimacy of being there.

screenshot from a video by Rose Bythrow

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My spouse says, “Over Zoom you can’t tell who’s hungry.”

It would be nice if she meant this metaphorically – that it’s hard to tell who’s eager to learn. But, no. Many students aren’t eating enough. They are hungry.

Worse, we read Nguyen’s paean to Zoom on a snow day.

Streets near my spouse’s high school school were well-salted and plowed, but we live in a sprawling, semi-rural area – the school district serves families from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are hills and valleys – not everyone can get a satellite signal at home. And the for-profit cable companies certainly haven’t connected those families to the modern world with wires.

Still, the pandemic has made “e-learning days” seem like a reliable alternative. If it snows, kids learn from home.

“What’s Zoom supposed to do,” my spouse asked, “for my students with no heat?”

This isn’t (only) a concern for fluke events like the avarice-fueled power outages and heat losses in Texas. My spouse grew up in Albany, New York. Every winter was cold. The infrastructure to heat homes there was secure – for children whose families had money.

My spouse’s family didn’t. Her father failed to pay the electric bill. The power was shut off. And then the district called a snow day.

If my spouse and her sibling had gone to school, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Warm classrooms, a hot meal.

Instead they were stuck at home, shivering. Wanting so badly to go to a neighbor’s house. But then the neighbors would know.

In the United States, where poverty is often stigmatized as a moral failing, people hide the ache of want.

Which is why Zoom is so horrible. Zoom makes it easy. When you only have to disguise a small corner of your life, you can convey the illusion that things are okay.

Even when they’re not.

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header image from Zoom corporation’s “About” page

On magic.

On magic.

There’s broad scientific consensus that school closures hurt children, probably making a significant contribution to future increases in premature death.

There’s also broad scientific consensus that school closures – particularly elementary school closures – aren’t helpful in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Children aren’t major vectors for this virus. Adults just have to remember not to congregate in the teachers’ lounge.

Worldwide, a vanishingly small percentage of viral transmissions have occurred inside schools.

And … our district just closed in-person school for all children.

In-person indoor dining at restaurants is still allowed. Bars are still open.

Older people are sending a clear message to kids: “Your lives matter less than ours.”

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For at-risk children, school closures are devastating. A disruption in social-emotional learning; lifelong education gaps; skipped meals.

But for my (privileged!) family, the closure will be pretty nice. I was recently feeling nostalgic about the weeks in August when my eldest and I spent each morning together.

Our youngest attends pre-K at a private school. Her school, like most private schools around the country, (sensibly) re-opened on time and is following its regular academic calendar.

My eldest and I will do two weeks of home schooling before winter break. And it’ll be fun. I like spending time with my kids, and my eldest loves school so much that she often uses up most of her energy during the day – teachers tell us what a calm, lovely, hard-working kid she is. And then she comes home and yells, all her resilience dissipated.

Which is normal! Totally normal. But it’s a little crummy, as a parent, to know you’ve got a great kid but that you don’t get to see her at her best.

Right now she’s sad about not going to school – on Monday, she came home crying, “There was an announcement that we all have to switch to online only!” – but I’m lucky that I can be here with her. Writing stories together, doing math puzzles, cooking lunch.

Maybe we’ll practice magic tricks. She loves magic.

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Last month, I was getting ready to drive the kids to school. T. (4 years old) and I were in the bathroom. I’d just handed T. her toothbrush.

N. (6 years old) walked over holding a gallon-sized plastic bag.

“Father, do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked.

“Okay, but I have to brush my teeth while you’re doing it.”

“Okay,” she said, and opened the bag. She took out a multi-colored lump of clay. It was vaguely spherical. Globs of red, white, and blue poked up from random patches across the surface, as though three colors of clay had been haphazardly moshed together.

“So you think this is just this,” she said, but then …”

She took out a little wooden knife and began sawing at the lump. “This is just this?”, I wondered. It’s an interesting phrase.

Her sawing had little effect. The knife appeared useless. I’m pretty sure this wooden knife is part of the play food set she received as a hand-me-down when she was 9 months old. “Safe for babies” is generally correlated with “Useless for cutting.”

She was having trouble breaking the surface of her lump.

I spat out my toothpaste.

She kept sawing. She set down the knife and stared at the clay intently. A worthy adversary.

I stood there, watching.

She grabbed the knife again and resumed sawing. More vigorously, this time. She started stabbing, whacking. This was enough to make a tiny furrow. She tossed aside the knife and pulled with her fingertips, managing to pry two lobes of the strange lump away from each other.

“Okay,” she said, “it’s hard to see, but there’s some green in there.”

T. and I crouched down and peered closely. Indeed, there was a small bit of round green clay at the center of the lump.

“Wow!” exclaimed T. “I thought it was just a red, and, uh, blue, and white ball! But then, on the inside, there’s some green!”

“I know!” said N., happy that at least one member of her audience understood the significance of her trick. “And look, I might even get it back together!”

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N. started performing magic when she was four. T. was asleep for her afternoon nap.

“Okay,” she said, “you sit there, and I’ll put on a magic show. Watch, I’ll make, um … this cup! See this cup? I’ll make it disappear.”

“Okay,” I said, curious. We’d just read a book that explained how to make a penny disappear from a glass cup – the trick is to start with the cup sitting on top of the penny, so that the coin looks like it’s inside the cup but actually isn’t.

I had no idea how she planned to make the cup itself disappear.

“Okay, so, um, now you’re ready, and …” she looked at the cup in her hands. Suddenly, she whisked it behind her back. And stood there, looking at me somberly, with her hands behind her back.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

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Magic – convincing an audience to believe in an illusion.

This is just this.

I don’t have the cup – it’s gone.

Much of our Covid-19 response has been magic-based. We repeat illusory beliefs – schools are dangerous, reinfections are rare, death at any age is a tragedy – and maybe our audience is swayed.

But that doesn’t change the underlying reality.

The cup still exists – it was behind her back.

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Everyone will die. Mortality is inescapable.

Our species is blessed with prodigious longevity, probably because so many grandmothers among our ancestors worked hard to help their grandchildren survive.

(The long lives of men are probably an accidental evolutionary byproduct, like male nipples or female orgasms. Elderly men, with their propensity to commandeer resources and start conflicts, probably reduced the fitness of their families and tribes.)

After we reach our seventies, though – when our ancestors’ grandchildren had probably passed their most risky developmental years – our bodies fail. We undergo immunosenescence – our immune systems become worse at suppressing cancer and infections.

We will die. Expensive interventions can stave off death for longer – we can now vaccinate 90-year-olds against Covid-19 – but we will still die.

Dying at the end of a long, full life shouldn’t feel sad, though. Everybody dies. Stories end. That’s the natural arc of the world.

What’s sad is when people die young.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unnecessary school closures.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to unmitigated climate change.

Children will face the risk of dying younger due to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

These are urgent threats facing our world. And we’re not addressing them.

The cup is still there.

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For my daughter, of course, I played along. I smiled, and laughed. She stood there beaming, holding the cup behind her back.

“Magic!” I said.

N. nodded proudly, then asked, “Do you want me to bring it back?”

It’ll take the same measure of magic to bring back schools.