Most people advocating for wearing masks now would be denying their effectiveness if that’s what they were told by the authorities they respect. How do we know? Because that’s exactly what they were doing half a year ago when the authorities were telling them that surgical and cloth masks weren’t effective.
Science is commonly conceived as a somewhat mechanical or deterministic process that inevitably produces truth, or at least better approximations of the truth. The feeling is that since it’s associated with rationality as opposed to intuition or emotion that it’s therefore better able, or even uniquely able, to discover objective truth.
In reality, scientific research is done by people, and people are fallible, dishonest, and rarely motivated by the desire to discover truth. No process or system can make up for dishonest, unintelligent, or inattentive people, not peer review, and not academic testing. The only way to verify if some scientific research is true is to understand it yourself. Scientific authorities, like heads of scientific organisations or pop science celebrities, are shortcuts that add a layer through which the truth must pass, and it only survives if the authority is honest, intelligent, paying attention, and so on.
Currently we have politically appointed bureaucrats informing the public on medical science. They seem to be trusted because they are cloaked in the sense of credibility and objectivity that people associate with science.
But these people are the result of yet another layer, another truth filter: they were appointed by politicians or others in power. Most people accept, at least in the abstract, that politicians are dishonest and are not motivated by the pursuit of truth. The idea of an honest politician is more of a punchline than a reality. But in practice people ignore this, and take for granted that medical authorities appointed by politicians must be trustworthy, even though, as we can see, such a position is one from which power can be wielded (by altering public perception of whether governmental dictates are reasonable and in the interests of public health), and so if we take seriously the idea that politicians and those in power are motivated by self-interest, then we should expect that their appointments to these positions are corrupt.
Given that most peoples’ understanding of science is extremely limited and wrong, when someone says that they want everyone to wear masks because science has shown that they’re effective, this should be translated to mean that they have heard from mass media and governmental authorities that masks are effective. And again, most people probably have an abstract sense that things like mass news media are not motivated by the desire to spread the truth, but instead exist to entertain, sensationalize, and propagandize, and again this abstract sense is rarely put into practice.
One of the things mass media have told people about masks is that it’s not a big deal to wear one, and that doing so is a courtesy to others. But we are not being politely asked to wear masks–we are being told to do so by government mandate. If someone asks you to please pass the salt while they’re pointing a gun at you, they are not being polite.
But regardless of all that, aren’t masks actually effective? At least a bit? Maybe they do slightly slow the transmission of some viruses–but I don’t know, and neither do you. What I do know is that ignorance of one’s own ignorance is dangerous and is a mental state ripe for exploitation. I also know that people who are susceptible to respiratory illnesses tend to be already unhealthy due to their own choices, or are near the end of their lives and more susceptible nearly all forms of death–stairs for example.
Sedentary people who stuff their obese faces with anti-nutritious food want to tell you to wear an annoying mask in order to slightly, possibly, reduce their chances of becoming seriously ill, a reduction in risk that is much less than what they would see from changing their own behaviours and lifestyle. They want to force you to change your behaviour to protect them when they are unwilling to change their own behaviour to protect themselves. And they do this with manipulative language telling you that if you don’t like it, you’re the asshole.
Of course, there are people with conditions that are out of their control that make them more susceptible to this current Coronavirus. But that’s nothing new for them–many other Coronaviruses and Adenoviruses and Rhinoviruses that have come and gone were a similar risk to them.
What masks are effective at is being a nuisance to breathing, making communication more difficult by blocking facial cues and muffling speech, giving people a small sense of anonymity that can remove inhibitions against antisocial behaviour, and dehumanising and further atomising us so that we feel more isolated and disconnected from the world around us.