RationalWiki on face masks

Thinking about freedom of speech and the latest “purges” on social networks, my thoughts are like this: I prefer freedom of speech even for people like homeopaths and anti-vaxers, not because I consider their opinions to be inherently valuable, but because a decision algorithm that would ban them, would probably also have banned Ignác Semmelweis two centuries ago.

Then I thought again and realized I don’t actually need such an old example. A decision algorithm that would today ban people who say “COVID-19 is just a flu” would have one year ago banned people who advised wearing face masks, wouldn’t it?

And then I was like: I wonder how RationalWiki approached the topic of face masks… you know, a year ago. Clicking on their history and searching for “mask”—between February 24th and April 21st, the only mentions of “mask” on the “COVID-19 pandemic” page were:

  • A “DON’T PANIC” button at the top of the page, subtitled: “Helpful advice on social media stories about COVID-19 from Douglas Adams… and from professional epidemiologists.” with reference linking an article called: How to prepare for coronavirus in the U.S. (Spoiler: Not sick? No need to wear a mask.).

  • A paragraph on Hal Turner’s exaggeration of COVID-19 impact on China, ending with: “For believers of this nonsense, Hal is happy to direct you to vendors for surgical masks (that in reality will not be helpful against this virus) [note 4] and MREs.”. The footnote said: “Most experts believe that common surgical masks will not do any good for preventing this particular virus. The virus may even be too small in size for heavier duty N95 respirators to filter it out effectively.” and linked an article called: People are racing to buy face masks amid the coronavirus outbreak, but they probably won’t protect you from illness.

The following edit updated the section containing criticism of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, concluding with: “Journalists noted that he neither wore a face mask (even though he was seen coughing on several occasions) nor gloves, precautions which other world leaders have taken.”

Not sure if that implies that masks are okay when you are already infected, or that masks are bad for plebs but you are supposed to wear them if you are a world leader, or perhaps that if you are a bad guy then either wearing or not wearing the mask is a thing to be condemned.

On May 19th, a short edit finally added the correct information, mentioning also: “Many people can carry this virus and spread it to others without even realizing they are infected. This means that in order to effectively mitigate the virus, you must assume that everyone is potentially infected, including yourself, and treat them as such. Hence the need for masks and social distancing in any public spaces.”

Later the topic of face masks was expanded, and finally also become a separate article. As of now, face masks are safely on the right side of history; RationalWiki reminds us that “the more conservative media one watched, the more one refused to embrace social distancing and mask wearing” and that “between 4,244 and 12,202 excess deaths could be attributed specifically to Trump’s pronouncements regarding mask wearing (not his policies per se).” because “intial disease response (lockdowns and mask wearing) is critical in reducing total deaths”.

If you wonder whether there was any self-reflection (not necessarily including an estimated death count) about RationalWiki’s own participation in the “face masks won’t protect you” meme, don’t worry; “evidence was compelling that masks actually were very effective” only by May 2020. By the way, the links mentioned at the beginning are still there on the page. I guess consistency is a hobgoblin of lesser minds.

Ironically, by the time RationalWiki was still on the “face masks won’t protect you” bandwagon, they also congratulated themselves on the talk page: “I believe the article is already of high enough quality to skip bronze entirely and jump straight to silver. Any objections?” “I second the motion.” (That didn’t happen, though; the article is still rated as “bronze-level”. But at least, it contains a link to an article called: Colloidal silver has not been shown effective against new virus from China. Indeed.)

Meta: The reason I wrote this is to make for myself an easy-to-share link for “so what exactly is your objection against RationalWiki’s way of reasoning?”. The short version is that it is easy (though, sadly, far from everyone’s choice) to support reason after it already got the approval of authorities and mainstream… and then it is tempting to leverage thus gained trust of your readers against the ideas you don’t like… which may, sometimes, include the reasonable ones before they become mainstream (such as wearing a face mask to protect yourself from an airborne disease). To put it more bluntly, you believe it is the reason you follow, but it’s more like public acceptance of the ideas.

It is nice to also have some easy-to-understand data that support this opinion.