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Contrarianism and unintended consequences have broken our brains.

I was listening to the recent episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast in which David Wallace-Wells talks to Katelyn Jetelina about “pandemic revision,” wherein a large segment of our society seems to be actively trying to forget, ignore, or deliberately misrepresent how bad things were during the pre-vaccine heights of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

At one point in the conversation, Wallace-Wells and Jetelina discuss the argument over how effective mask mandates and the wearing of masks were during the pandemic. Jetelina—an epidemiologist—is understandably reluctant to come down firmly on one side or the other, sticking pretty firmly to the point that while masks do reduce risk of transmission at both a group and individual level, we do not have the data to say for sure how that decrease compares against other mitigation tactics or against the ancillary effects of wearing masks.

I understand where she is coming from. She is obviously not saying that masking is useless or bad. As a scientist, however, she is presumably unwilling to make broad assertions one way or the other without the data to back them up.

That is fine within the scientific community, but in the broader context of public health policy, I am not sure how helpful it is. If community masking reduces virus transmission by ten percent, Jetelina asks, does that outweigh the costs of masking (including the potential reputational impact to public health officials)? I am no expert, but I feel like ten percent is pretty significant. I also feel like one of those things—the virus transmission rate—is quantifiable, while the theoretical costs of masking really are not, and that we probably ought to give more weight to the former than to the latter.

I also think that a bunch of people’s brains have been broken by the last ten to twenty years of stuff like TED Talks, Freakonomics, and other pop culture contrarianism. Yes, it is true that many (or maybe most/all) well-intended plans and policies have unintentional outcomes, some of which are bad. That said, I feel like we have gotten ourselves to a place as a society where the response to any plan or proposal is a collective “Well, actually…” Sure, free school lunches for kids sound great, but have you thought about all the waste it will generate? Yes, banning two-cycle engines sounds like it would be good for the environment, but just think of all the businesses that will be impacted!

Some of these responses are probably made with good intentions, but many are not. At this point, I basically don’t take seriously anyone who comes back with “What about the battery fires?” in a discussion about EVs. I think there is also a lot of Reply Guy-ism going on with this sort of stuff—people feeling like they need to have a snappy, gotcha reply to any idea or proposal.

To be clear, I don’t think that is what Jetelina is doing in the conversation with Wallace-Wells. I think she is honestly concerned as a scientist—and rightly so—about the lack of solid data regarding the unintended consequences of widespread mask mandates.

Still, I think that something has gone seriously wrong with our public discourse if we find epidemiologists and public health professionals questioning whether community masking during the height of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes was a good idea.

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