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Perspective | Magazine

The political battle over masks is making us lose the war on COVID-19

Wearing masks is both patriotic and compassionate; it is not a sign of weakness or disloyalty.

A woman protests a proposed Tulsa, Oklahoma, mask ordinance on July 15.
A woman protests a proposed Tulsa, Oklahoma, mask ordinance on July 15.Ian Maule/Associated Press

As a young boy in the 1960s, I was taught that scientists and engineers were heroes. And no wonder: We were in the midst of the space race between the United States and Russia. I grew up believing that American science would ultimately prevail against any threat, whether it was to eradicate diseases such as polio, for which I was an early vaccine recipient, or to defend us against aggressor nations.

This celebration of science in the United States coincided with robust, bipartisan support for federally funded research, and American science flourished. Sadly, in recent decades, science has come under increasing assault, often to serve vested financial interests.

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In the middle of a global pandemic, scientific and medical facts have been distorted and politicized. Our response to COVID-19, including compliance with social distancing and wearing face masks, is being undermined because of a distrust of science carefully sown by people who think policy should be based on economic expediency, rather than the greater good.

There are recognizable playbooks for creating such distrust. Journalists, for instance, are taught to present both sides of an argument, but they sometimes fail to convey how widely held the two opposing views are. This is especially important for scientific debates, since it is always possible to find a contrarian. Contrarians challenge scientific assumptions and force scientists to gather even more experimental evidence to support their conclusions, but policies based on their views will, more often than not, be wrong.

Opinion pieces on right-wing media outlets, such as Fox News, will often present a reputable scientific report as a straw man, followed by a contrarian point of view — sometimes from a person with marginal credentials — with headlines such as, “Report on COVID-19 Face Masks Divides Scientists” or “Should You Wear a Face Mask? Experts Disagree.” In fact, virtually all experts now agree that we need masks.

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Sometimes these sites will try to sow confusion when scientific advice changes because of new circumstances or new knowledge. Science corrects itself over time, including, when necessary, by retracting published work. Unfortunately, retractions are also frequently used to stoke distrust in science. At the beginning of the pandemic, early recommendations from the medical community and the federal government that advised people against wearing face masks in public were influenced by a need to preserve masks for medical workers. That guidance was also influenced by the fact that COVID-19′s high transmission rate, especially among asymptomatic people, was not yet appreciated. Now we know that masks can help reduce spread of the disease, and the recommendations have since changed to support widespread usage.

Critics also cherry-pick data or take sentences out of context to skew scientific arguments. For example, a New England Journal of Medicine article published online on April 1 — but written in March — said “wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection.” That contentious sentence referred to passing encounters in public spaces, and was written in the pandemic’s earliest days, when masks were becoming scarce and the true transmissibility of the virus was still being assessed.

This one sentence still circulates on social media to support abandoning masks in public. But a careful reading of the entire article, together with a clarification from the authors published in the medical journal in July, supports that we should all be wearing masks, especially when social distancing is challenging. And on July 14, a study published in the medical journal JAMA showed the infection rate among employees at Mass General Brigham hospitals dropped significantly when all workers were required to wear masks.

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We must depoliticize the wearing of masks, which helps protect our fellow Americans, particularly the elderly and the immunocompromised. Wearing masks is both patriotic and compassionate; it is not a sign of weakness or disloyalty.

This is far from the first time that science has been attacked for political reasons or financial gain. As a child, I had promotional materials for cigarettes on my bedroom wall, including for the brand that would eventually kill my mother. Years later, as a cancer physician-scientist, I would come to appreciate the magnitude of the tobacco industry’s deception about the risks of smoking.

Attacks on science have increased even more in recent years, often orchestrated by self-interested parties seeking to derail government regulations aimed at protecting our health and the environment. The most conspicuous example is the attack on climate scientists who have warned us for decades about the risk of greenhouse gases. Although they are playing out on vastly different timetables, both climate change and COVID-19 are global threats requiring science-driven global responses.

A growing body of evidence suggests people’s attitudes and actions about COVID-19 are profoundly influenced by where they get their news. Fox News has become the primary lens through which many people see and understand the world — and a major platform for fostering distrust of science. Fox must harness the power of its megaphone and stick to the facts about the pandemic. It should use the best available data to educate its viewers regarding COVID-19 treatments and, in time, vaccines.

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I saw an Internet meme that said, “Having some states locked down and others not locked down is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool.” It’s true. We are all in this together, and the current coronavirus case spikes in other parts of the country will eventually harm both our health and the economic recovery.

Our fragmented and uneven response to COVID-19 is an unintended consequence of the war on science. We must make decisions based on the best scientific advice available, not on wishful thinking and hunches. It is our best hope for dealing with this crisis.

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William G. Kaelin Jr., a 2019 Nobel laureate, is the Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.