'Fence vs. Mosquito' Discredits the Right

Thursday, April 08, 2021

A recent article by Michael Fumento contains a nearly perfect specimen from the wild of an asinine anti-mask argument I keep hearing made mainly by conservatives:

Still, it is important that people are so cowed that they believe they should lie to anonymous pollsters and engage in virtue signaling (whether at Tom Cruise decibel level or lower) and theater. And we know that even now the media and public health community are actually ramping up their efforts, insisting on first two masks and then three masks, then four layers of masks. Which would mean that if both the sender and receiver followed protocol, there would be eight layers of masks. Where does it stop? Even razor manufacturers quit at five blades. And never mind that none of these masks can stop aerosolized virus that are so tiny it would be like slapping one chain link fence atop another to keep out a mosquito. [bold added]
Image by coyot, via Pixabay, license.
I am pro-mask, but anti-mask mandate. The above argument, in particular the part I bolded, (1) fails against mandates because it doesn't address the proper role of government, and (2) fails against masks (which are a lazy proxy for mask mandates).

The attempt to "debunk" masks as it were, fails because the main way this disease spreads outside of hospital settings and other situations where aerosolized viruses can pose a significant transmission threat is by larger droplets, against which masks and keeping distance from others can be quite effective. As poor as reporting on the pandemic has been, it was not exactly hard for me to learn this last year, when both the pandemic itself and our government's insane response to it were looking like they were going to be huge problems for an indefinite time.

Despite the fact that there were no scientific studies with conclusive results one way or the other on how effective masks could be against Covid transmission at the time, there was ample reason to believe that wearing a mask afforded some level of protection against catching the disease in public.

It is also easy to find clear explanations of how masks are supposed to work, such as at the Covid-Explained site. The fact that the government gave inconsistent and shifting guidance on the matter has nothing to do with the question of whether they work or how -- or why one should or should not wear one. The latter depends not just on the scientific evidence (which one owes to oneself to weigh in the absence of conclusive studies), one's risk calculations, any legitimate government guidelines, and the wishes of property owners, such as grocers, restaurateurs, and amusement park operators.

It is interesting to consider why some people who should know better -- such as Fumento -- keep up with this silly fence-vs.-mosquito argument against face masks, refuse to wear them, and constantly whine about other people wearing them.

These things, depending on who is doing them, look most like a disguise for a lack of pro-freedom arguments against the onslaught of tyrannical measures (including mask mandates) coming from the left, blind rebellion, and virtue-signaling/marking tribal membership.

At its best, the "fence-vs.-mosquito" argument is mistaken. At its worst, it can be just as vapid as the virtue signaling by leftists who wear masks alone at podiums or in empty fields or while driving alone. As virtue-signaling, both ignore what masks are for and how they are supposed to work, and attempt to score political and pseudo-self-esteem points by substituting a ritual for thought and intentional action. And both very oddly are attempts to misuse facts or "science" to make an inappropriate point about the branch of philosophy known as politics.

Anyone who values his own health would be very odd to base his decision about mask-wearing on anything but a solid understanding of what a mask is supposed to do and how vs. his best assessment of risk. And anyone who values his freedom would likewise spend his time better understanding what government is for and how it is supposed to work, rather than grasp at straws to debunk a common-sense measure the left should never have gotten away with coopting as a badge of support for tyranny.

-- CAV

P.S. The subject of aesrosol transmission has been a great source of annoyance to me throughout the pandemic. Just as much as the right has tried to use it to "debunk" masks, the left has tried to use it to panic people into assuming the coronavirus spreads like the measles, which it clearly does not, and so to "justify" lockdowns.


Bill Brown said...

For me, there are three actual studies that settled the issue for me:

- Experimental study
- Marine study
- Danish study

I mean, look at the charts in the first link! "No mask" is as good as cloth ones!

(Most of the studies that I've seen about this are meta-analyses and seem to go looking to prove a conclusion.)

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "The attempt to 'debunk' masks as it were, fails because the main way this disease spreads outside of hospital settings and other situations where aerosolized viruses can pose a significant transmission threat is by larger droplets, against which masks and keeping distance from others can be quite effective." This reminds me of an earlier such scare that is bizarrely similar in certain ways, the argument a decade or two ago that condoms are ineffective against HIV because studies showed that the virus was smaller than holes measured in latex. Therefore, just say no. The flaw in this attempted scientific argument was a little subtler--the way the latex was treated before measurement in the research referred to caused the holes to expand greatly; without that treatment latex is not permeable to HIV. It was a perfect example of the cultural conservatives trying to motivate people by fear, which is without a doubt the leitmotif of both sides in the mask foofaraw (and other issues): shrill, unreasoning fear. And when I encounter that sort of attempted manipulation, it just makes me angry--that might motivate that lot, but it doesn't motivate me because I'm not an unlettered unscientific innumerate savage (a.k.a. an average humanities grad in the US) pretending to be a contributing member of an advanced scientific-industrial society, so until they stop insulting me every time they open their mouths, I'm just going to ignore them or poke them, whichever is more enjoyable at the time.

Gus Van Horn said...


At least you are marshaling studies, BUT just as there is scientific controversy around masks, so does interpretation matter...

(1) In the first study you link, the workers "measured outward emissions of micron-scale aerosol particles by healthy humans." [my emphasis]

This is not relevant to the question of stopping droplets.

(2) In the second study, "Shared rooms and shared platoon membership were risk factors for transmission," and "All recruits wore double-layered cloth masks at all times indoors and outdoors, except when sleeping or eating." Although the authors rightly indicate that compliance with public health measures was likely higher among these marine recruits, they spent lots of time in confined spaces together when sleeping, and I am curious about how closely they sat when dining or how loudly they'd talk (or shout?) during such times.

When I go out in public masked, I have the good fortune of not having to negate my masking by sleeping several nights in a row with a total stranger in a dorm room.

(3) The Danish study admits the following limitations up front: "Inconclusive results, missing data, variable adherence, patient-reported findings on home tests, no blinding, and no assessment of whether masks could decrease disease transmission from mask wearers to others." It also notes that the study was conducted in a community where mask use was uncommon. It didn't convince me of anything one way or the other.

Nobody is saying (or ever said) masks are 100% protective: They stop many larger droplets, but not aerosols, and masks do more good over the nose and mouth of an infected person than the uninfected. That last fact would easily explain why masks didn't make a significant difference in that study. The solution to that problem isn't government mandates, but businesses requiring customers to wear masks, if their proprietors agree with the ballistics model of Covid transfer in well-ventilated, uncrowded settings.

My working theory for transmission of this disease has been that aerosols are irrelevant except in cases of crowds, confinement, or prolonged close contact, and that we primarily have to worry about droplets hitting our mucous membranes. My notions would appear to have support. See, for example, here and here (two sources). Having fewer droplets hit -- and the irrelevance of aerosols in most circumstances -- are explained by the 1938 paper to the effect that reduced viral doses result in less severe illness. Public health expert Monica Gandhi has, I believe, even indicated that mask wearing can result in an immunizing low-level exposure in a process she calls variolization.

Take this for what it's worth. I don't need to score points in this debate: I just want to keep from catching this crap long enough to get vaccinated.


And even IF the condoms allowed some virus to pass through, I would guess that dose arguments would still kick in.

And thanks for the example of the conservatives using the same scare tactics leftists are using now when it suits the anti-freedom part of their agenda.


Gus Van Horn said...

One more thing: Very important to the discussion of droplets vs aerosols and viral dose/inoculum is the fact I perhaps should have mentioned that droplets contain many orders of magnitude more viral particles than aerosols.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "And thanks for the example of the conservatives using the same scare tactics leftists are using now when it suits the anti-freedom part of their agenda."

Sometimes when I see falsehoods used in arguments, I wonder how someone can argue that. A fairly harmless example is an antinuke Objectivist hanger-on I read scared brainless by Fukushima, posting that Fukushima was killing the planet because they had released 300 tons of highly radioactive core coolant into the Pacific Ocean, and it was coming right at the west coast of the US!!!. Amusingly, I have on occasion been made fun of, usually kindly, for the odd facts I remember from my reading, but this is a perfect example of how even if that room of my mental house is poorly furnished with occasional discarded furniture, I still can make use of it. Volume of the oceans is 1 1/3 billion cubic kilometers (see, easy to remember). Water can be treated as incompressible, so on the thumbnail, 1 cubic meter = 1000 kg, so say a bit under one ton, and 1 cubic kilometer = 1 billion tons. (A more accurate estimate for the mass of the oceans is, as per 20 seconds of Googling, 1.4 × 10^21 kg, so roughly 1.25 × 10^18 tons.) More interesting would be to estimate just how much thorium and uranium is dissolved in the oceans compared to, say, 300 tons of plutonium (the bogey that scares so many people because antinuke activists love to lie through their teeth about how dangerous it is--their leaders are much less innocent), but that's more effort than I care(d) to devote to it--though now that I think about it again, it could be interesting. Hmm...

That's the mindless panic of innumerate ballast. More objectionable are the religious rightists exercised about sexual attitudes--definitely a mixture of good and very bad in our culture, but all bad to them, but there's no way they'd get their actual attitudes to fly without a vast social change that they don't have the intellectual chops to bring about on their own, hence that nonsense about condoms, or a silly foofaraw a few years ago I somehow encountered about two actresses from Glee, I think it was, who appeared as scantily-clad cheerleaders and such in a pictorial in some laddish journal, and one of the self-appointed guardians of the sanctity of a small proportion of actual families attacked it as sexualizing children. Two notes: (1) Nice way to distinguish yourself from the especially lunatic fringe of feminists there. (2) They were grown women. There was no sexualizing of children there.

And I see that everywhere, though usually not so crudely, and in many cases written in such a way as to argue exactly like the left but only to try to hoist them on their own petard--again, one suspects them to be either unable or (worse) unwilling to challenge leftist orthodoxies on an intellectual plain, so they aim at convicting them of hypocrisy. And then you run across notional Objectivists following Q-Anon on this issue, charging the entire elite, as they define it, as all following essentially satanic rituals--the "atheist" rituals that early Christians were accused of by the Roman hierarchy and that a millennium later the Catholic hierarchy accused the Jews of practicing, and on and on and on, because it is a deeper tactic of threatened in-groups attacking a wide variety of out-groups. (And usually conjoined with a gleeful willingness to portray all the different opponents of your in-group as uniform in their beliefs, as, for example, by arguing that all perversions are equal, so all homosexuals are also pedophiles, and so are all opposed ideas, so all atheists are Marxists.)

Snedcat said...

Part the Second:

That's all a problem when these hangers-on of Objectivism, for example, fall away into irrationalism of their own, since it leaves them helpless against intellectual pikers. One example I think I told you about a decade or so ago was one anti-evolutionist who especially hated Objectivism who argued on forum after forum, abandoning them as he encountered fairly able replies, until he found that same forum as the Fukushima guy. It's certainly the least intellectual of Objectivish forums, with a founder who used to call himself an Objectivist while saying Rand was wrong that the body-soul dichotomy is mistaken, that abortion is wrong and Rand also, and that all Objectivists outside his little coterie are soulless automata because they don't constantly express an overwhelming sense of rage--not righteous anger, but froth-spittled rage. (I like the irony of quoting Seneca, whom they declared these emotionless Vulcans' spiritual forefather and who had that forum’s number almost two millennia ago: [Rage] is wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of the dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it. Certain wise men, therefore, have claimed that rage is temporary madness. For it is equally devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent and diligent in whatever it begins, closed to reason and counsel, excited by trifling causes, unfit to discern the right and true--the very counterpart of a ruin that is shattered in pieces where it overwhelms. But you have only to behold the expressions of those possessed by rage to know that they are insane.)

So then this guy shows up peddling a slightly more intricate than usual mishmash of fallacies and misrepresentations and outright falsehoods about thermodynamics to attack evolutionary theory. Naturally, anyone who would be able to rebut those arguments would avoid the site, so it was a pathetic series of belly flops on the part of the party of science and reason, as they fancied themselves. (For example, the fellow stated that the use of free energy in biology shows that biologists, especially evolutionary ones, don't know what they're doing, since there is no upper bound on changes in free energy. This is slightly subtle--if you allow arbitrary changes in pressure and temperature, this is true, but if they’re roughly constant, then free energy is bounded, and since organisms live in an environment with roughly constant pressure and temperature, that is why free energy is so thoroughly useful in biological energetics! If you know enough about free energy to know that, you also know the proviso, so this is an out-and-out lie, but of course light-years beyond the ken of the Provers of Seneca.)

As a result, the anti-evolutionist was eventually kicked off the forum for making a jab at the owner as a drunk, which he certainly seems to be, and went on to team up with a particularly stupid critical theory hanger-on for a while publishing attacks on the grammar of Objectivist writers (in all of which cases they weren't even grammatical errors), and then seems to have lost his voice, no loss. At the same time, the forum has since announced it is no longer Objectivist, and the most welcome guest there is a strongly Catholic theist who recycles Maritain et Cie for an audience that seems not to have been inoculated. Sic transit mediocritas mundi. So yes, that all worked out to its natural conclusion, but it's dispiriting to any sane onlooker, since the bad guys, well, sort of won, while the cattle-call-casting stand-ins for the good guys melted away, and nothing valuable came out of it--but who would want to be associated with such a dubious venue even to defend the right?

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you'll notice I didn't make a real summation there. I'm tempted to just quote Aristotle, "Men are good in but one way, but bad in many," and add, "and they think badly in many ways as well."

I should add that, curious, I checked in on the site I mentioned and saw the Catholic propagandist has recently posted a pretty bad YouTube video on evolution, history, and antiquity that he linked to, earning only very mild demurs from the wine lover in charge. He doesn't actually argue against evolution; he just reads from a Catholic book against evolution, showing that he's a perfect little Catholic school boy who can't think on his own but sure knows which dogma to quote to get promoted to altar boy. What he read of the book is much worse than I'd expect from a Catholic thinker (the footnote on thermodynamics is very wrong, for example, since it fails to distinguish subsystems from the whole system being examined and ignores the studies of non-equilibrium thermodynamics over the past 90 years or so that have revolutionized our knowledge of many delightful things), but this is not the place to go into that; you'd want to address the book itself, not a third-rate propagandist too unreliable to trust for the content, and it would require greater length than this guy deserves. However, the video itself deserves a couple of comments.

First, much of the video (at least the memorable parts) is filled with abuse of non-Catholics, all of us supposedly being stupid and benighted and in most cases devoted to error and too stupid to recognize the truth of the opposition (and most of the fans of Ayn Rand being Obleftivsts and therefore not even worth the respect of treating them like thinking adults), leading up to the point where he can't even remember what he was going to say, he says, because just thinking of Protestants makes him so mad he can't think straight: ...dum alteri noceat sui neglegens, in ipsa inruens tela et ultionis secum ultorem tracturae avidus, as it were. There are numerous intelligent, cultured, and wise Catholics; I've even studied with, argued with, and befriended a few, and they'd condemn that as roundly as I do. Just on rhetorical grounds, never mind propagating the faith and displaying the Catholic Church as the guardian of reason that it claims to be, that is exactly the wrong tack to take--it reminds me of the stupider Baptist seminarians I once worked with. He hasn't become those he hates so much as a sad parody of them.

And second is his statement that evolutionism and associated ideas are so stupid and so mistaken that it is only in a deluded age that they would be taken seriously--no thinker before the modern era would have entertained them seriously. The short answer is “So what?” If he'd studied Catholic logicians, he would have encountered the term argumentum ab auctoritate. Most thinkers throughout history would not have accepted either laissez-faire capitalism or Marxism either, or any number of other ideas, some good and some bad. But then you don’t get to be an altar boy if you question what your priest tells you.

Finally, it's a perfect example of why I hate video blogs. He is not a very good speaker apart from elocution (and he stumbles there, naturally once the Protestant Reformation came up)--it's disordered, off the cuff, full of unenlightening tangents, and self-indulgent in the way he gratuitously insults his audience and makes thinking Catholics look bad. He tries to display his wit and only shows half of it. And in this too, he reflects far too much of the failings of the hyper-modern age.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[T]hey'd condemn that as roundly as I do."

I was raised Catholic, and my entire family regarded evolution as fact then, and they do now.

Snedcat said...

I'll just add one passel of thoughts--there are any number of the IFL Science crowd (most who say that, I have found, love what they do not in fact understand) who do accept evolution without any deep understanding of it. The basic question is, again, "So what?" If you're examining a major issue like this, it's sometimes an interesting sociological question why a position might spread among people who don't really understand the arguments for it, but it does nothing to improve your understanding of (much less refute) the solid arguments more intelligent adherents might have.

This fellow takes the usual tack of the especially stupid evangelical crowd of assuming his opponents are as mindless as he himself is (and it's worth hammering home that this guy's ignorance and stupidity--he displays both in full measure--is just like that of the worst sort of Protestant heretics he hates so much, and yet he has no compunction about borrowing their ignorant shadowboxing against evolution essentially word for word). Or worse, of projecting that for rhetorical effect so's to intimidate them into silence, or at least wind them up so much he gets more attention than he deserves.

It's hard to see it as anything but a pathetic bluff, and you'll note he posts it on that no-longer-even-pretends-to-be-Objectivist site to the wine lover's plaudits and crickets otherwise. He certainly has their measure--and, revealingly, they have his attention. Those are the people he wants to argue against. And so I suppose we should be glad they found each other--"Sorry, my lad, your intellectual stature is much too small to joust with the grown-ups. Ignorant armies are in that sandbox in the corner, and don't forget to shut the door; we don't want to bother the serious players with your noise, now do we." Still, that video was 25 minutes of my life I'll never get back that I could have spent listening to good music or something, so I guess he gets a point on the board for that. Some break from work, huh?

Gus Van Horn said...

"[T]hat video was 25 minutes of my life I'll never get back..."

Oof! Thanks for that warning to the rest of us.