We the people can't explain squat!


Concerning the value of masks, the later Wittgenstein scores: All kidding aside, how about it?

If you wore a mask during the recent pandemic, did that reduce the likelihood that you would come down with Covid?

Roughly one month ago, "a respected scientific nonprofit" issued a barely coherent study concerning some such question. That respected scientific nonprofit's barely coherent study resulted in a wide range of claims of this general type:

Masks don't work.

Tucker Carlson even broadcast that claim. And we all know how careful he is!

In this morning's New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci has penned a guest essay regarding the barely coherent study in question. In our view, Tufekci's essay isn't gigantically coherent itself, but it does start to resolve the widespread confusion about the findings of the barely coherent study—in part, because the respected scientific nonprofit has now publicly stated that its original work was, just as a matter of fact,  incoherent and pretty much wrong.

Tufekci's essay appears beneath the headline shown below. The headline offers the general drift of what her essay says:

Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work

Masks do work, Tufekci reports (though they can't provide perfect protection). 

Masks do work! After a month of widespread confusion, it's important to get clear on that basic point. But the most important learning here involves the inability of high-end elites to explain / articulate just about anything, no matter how important.

Tufekci starts her essay at a key point. The respected scientific nonprofit in question has now acknowledged that its recent, widely-cited report was incoherent and pretty much wrong. 

Here's how Tufekci starts:

TUFEKCI (3/11/23): The debate over masks’ effectiveness in fighting the spread of the coronavirus intensified recently when a respected scientific nonprofit said its review of studies assessing measures to impede the spread of viral illnesses found it was “uncertain whether wearing masks or N95/P2 respirators helps to slow the spread of respiratory viruses.”

Now the organization, Cochrane, says that the way it summarized the review was unclear and imprecise, and that the way some people interpreted it was wrong.

“Many commentators have claimed that a recently updated Cochrane review shows that ‘masks don’t work,’ which is an inaccurate and misleading interpretation,” Karla Soares-Weiser, the editor in chief of the Cochrane Library, said in a statement.

The respected scientific nonprofit in question goes by the simple name, Cochrane. Or maybe it's called the Cochrane Library—three paragraphs in, we aren't sure.

At any rate, a Cochrane official has now said that Cochrane's recent review doesn't show that "masks don't work." 

That's "an inaccurate and misleading interpretation" of Cochrane's review of studies, the Cochrane official has at long last said. 

More strikingly, that same official has also said that Cochrane played a leading role in these misinterpretations. 

Why did people misinterpret the Cochrane review? According to Tufekci, people misinterpreted the review because "the way [Cochrane] summarized [its own] review was unclear and imprecise!" 

Cochrane mischaracterized its own review! And that isn't simply Tufekci's opinion. As Tufekci's essay continues, she quotes the Cochrane spokesperson saying that same thing, and worse:

TUFEKCI (continuing directly): She said that “this wording was open to misinterpretation, for which we apologize,” and that Cochrane would revise the summary.

Soares-Weiser also said, though, that one of the lead authors of the review even more seriously misinterpreted its finding on masks by saying in an interview that it proved “there is just no evidence that they make any difference.” In fact, Soares-Weiser said, “that statement is not an accurate representation of what the review found.”

Sad! The Cochrane spokesperson apologized for the way Cochrane had worded its own review. Cochrane's wording "was open to misinterpretation," the agency's spokesperson said.

Even worse, one of the lead authors of Cochrane's review didn't seem to understand what the review had determined! According to the Cochrane spokesperson, that lead author had issued a (widely-cited) statement which "is not an accurate representation of what the review found.”

For the most part, we're going to leave it right there today, though with a note on the basic anthropology. In our view, the anthropological takeaway here is this:

We the humans are vastly unskilled in many areas of rationality. Even at the highest levels, we can't explain a freaking thing—and when we offer incoherent or inaccurate work, few others are likely to notice.

On the level of high academic culture, this major anthropological finding is a confirmation of the later Wittgenstein's work—work which was itself extremely hard to summarize or follow.

On the level of the here and now, this remarkable episode instructs us in a basic fact—you can't assume the accuracy or the basic competence of anything you read, even when the work in question comes from respected upper-end sources.

For us, the background here went like this:

We began to read about the Cochrane review on February 13, in this piece at The Atlantic. The piece struck us as incoherent. It left us with no clear idea of what the Cochrane review had supposedly found.

The problem stemmed from the cavalier use of an unexplained technical term—"at the population level." The Atlantic's author never quite seemed to realize that she wasn't giving a clear explanation of what the Cochrane review had supposedly found, and her editor—if some such person exists—had waved her essay into print without requiring clarification.

After that, we read Bret Stephens' treatment of this matter in the New York Times. He too didn't seem to be up to the task of explaining what he was talking about—and when Kevin Drum critiqued the Stephens piece, the confusion wasn't addressed.

It seems to us that Tufekci herself struggles with clarity in today's essay. As best we can tell, the confusion lurking in this mishegoss revolves around the difference between masks and mask mandates:

On the one hand, masks did and do "work," though to an imperfect extent, for such people who wear them. Such people were and are less likely to become infected with Covid, or to spread Covid to others.

On the other hand, mask mandates may not reduce the spread of Covid through a large population. Many people will ignore the mandate, permitting Covid to spread.

Masks do work; mask mandates may not. We've read one report or essay after another in which high end journalists were unable to draw this fairly simple distinction. 

For the record, we can't fully guarantee that this is the key distinction. For our money, Tufekci is also rather fuzzy today, though she benefits from the statement of apology from the highly respected Cochrane org itself.

Key point:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we humans are extremely limited in our basic "rationality" skills. We aren't real good at explaining things, and when we traffic vast confusion, others aren't likely to notice.

As the later Wittgenstein confusingly noted, this is true at the highest academic and cultural levels. Sadly, we're forced to tell you this:

This is a basic part of the hapless way our self-impressed blue tribe works!


  1. "On the one hand, masks did and do "work," though to an imperfect extent, for such people who wear them."

    So, if you do believe this bs, then wear them, dear Bob. Wear five of them simultaneously, for all we care. You, and all the rest of you good-decent persons, Branch Covidians.

    ...and leave all the normal ordinary people alone, please.

    1. ....the normal ordinary disease-spreaders. Please Bob, leave them alone.

    2. Meh. Sweden had the lowest rate of mask-wearing (by far) in Europe and lowest mortality.

      Good-decent persons, liberals, are a death cult.

    3. Mao, your Mom says if you don’t get out of that scooter all day you are going to forget to move and you’ll wet it again.

    4. The United States should follow Sweden's lead, and impose a 59% tax rate.

  2. Off-topic:
    Here's a pro-tip on spotting which free-market Libertarians don't have Silicon Valley Bank holdings.
    They are the ones not begging Daddy Government to step in and bail them out.

  3. Mishegoss is crazyness.

  4. This misunderstandng has been abetted by people with a preconceived opinion or vested interest in saying that masks don’t work. Many don’t want to believe masks work because they don’t want to wear one. So calling masks useless justifies them in not wearing a mask. Callng this a failure of reason may be correct but not for Somerby’s reasons. And it has nothing to do with Wittgenstein.

    1. Wittgenstein thought much of the talk of metaphysics that went on in academic philosophy was nonsense.
      Somerby says much of the talk that goes on in journalism today is nonsense. Maybe not a profound observation, but that's the connection he sees.

    2. But could Wittgenstein explain squat? Not even Einstein could explain squat. I sure can't.

    3. @3:59, that is like saying that cats and dogs are the same because they both have four legs. It glosses all the important discussion that Wittgenstein wrote while analyzing how language works in philosophy and comparing that to talking about politics, which involves nothing at all similar except that words may be used.

      This is too stupid to even be an analogy.

    4. An analogy made between cats and dogs doesn't say they're the same; it says there are features of cats and dogs (like number of legs) that are the same.

  5. Bob makes a good point in a clear way. BTW another possible reason why mandates may not work is that masks might encourage people to take greater risks.

    It was always obvious that masks do work, to some degree. Masks catch some amount of droplets containing the virus. The question is, how much do masks help? AFAIK there has been no study answering this question. Does anyone here know of such a study? I would love to know the answer.

    1. "Does anyone here know of such a study?"

      Why, this one, the one Bob is talking about: Cochrane. It's a massive study that concluded that "Compared with wearing no mask in the community studies only, wearing a mask may make little to no difference in how many people caught a flu‐like illness/COVID‐like illness (9 studies; 276,917 people); and probably makes little or no difference in how many people have flu/COVID confirmed by a laboratory test (6 studies; 13,919 people)"


      ...all the rest is bullshit. Whatever nytimes.com says, assume the opposite. It's that simple.

    2. Mao - I think Bob is right. The study relates to mask mandates rather than individual mask wearing. That's the meaning of that confusing phrase, "in the community studies only,"

      In my area, mask mandates have pretty much gone away, than goodness! The question is how much benefit I would get from voluntarily wearing a mask. I don't think the study answers that question.

    3. "in the community studies only,"

      Read the link. It says
      "Ten studies took place in the community, and two studies in healthcare workers."
      We can't be bothered to search for their conclusion for healthcare workers wearing surgical masks, but you aren't a healthcare worker, so it's irrelevant.

      Again: "wearing a mask may make little to no difference in how many people caught a flu‐like illness/COVID‐like illness."

      We're not sure we understand your community vs individual point. It sounds like you think that your wearing a mask will protect you. But that would mean that your wearing a mask would cause one extra unmasked person to catch a flu‐like illness/COVID‐like illness -- to satisfy the "no difference" conclusion. And that makes no sense whatsoever. No?

    4. What i believe the study showed was that a mask mandate wouldn't do any good. That may because people simply don't obey mask mandates. This conclusion is NOT inconsistent with the idea that I would benefit, to some unknown degree, by wearing a mask.

    5. If masks do no good, why were the incidences of colds and flu so much lower during the first year of covid?

    6. David, your mask also helps you to avoid spreading the virus to other people.

    7. Are anonymices still wearing masks??


    8. "That may because people simply don't obey mask mandates."

      It didn't say that people don't obey. It said nothing about mandates. It said that

      "wearing a mask may make little to no difference in how many people caught a flu‐like illness/COVID‐like illness."

      What's so complicated here?

    9. The Cochrane Review has apologized for an evidence review that led many to conclude, inaccurately, that masks don’t work.

      The idea that masks don’t help slow COVID is an “inaccurate and misleading interpretation” of the report they published in January, Karla Soares-Weiser, editor-in-chief of the Cochrane Library, wrote in an update posted to the their website on Friday. The international organization publishes summaries of evidence on various health topics, and are now blaming a poorly-worded summary of one report for the fact that many people came away with the idea that the face coverings don’t help.



    10. Editor-in-chief? Shrug. And what's the opinion of their HR department? Their building manager?

      Yeah, it appears that Madam Soares-Weiser's views "evolved". Just like Dr. Kristian Andersen's views before that.

      ...the kind of evolution that is usually rewarded by a few million of dollars paid by Fauci Mafia...

    11. Anyhow, it's a Study! Peer reviewed! Published!
      For all intents and purposes it's your cult's Holy Scripture.

      So, should we now ignore peer reviewed studies?
      ...or only this one, a special case?

    12. Lol, poor Mao mocks himself. He tell us to trust the words of the org that put the analysis together. Then he tells us to ignore the words of the org that because he doesnt like what it says. Then Mao mocks himself for ignoring things only in special cases while pretending to mock others.

      Alwsys odd to see people project their own behavior onto others, then mock their own behavior. Sad.

    13. Mao is utterly dishonest.

  6. Here is my personal study. I didn't wear a mask to the Reno National bridge championship last March and I got covid there and was sick. Then I didn't wear a mask to the Las Vegas Regional bridge tournament in April and I caught a cold (neg covid test). I did wear a mask to the Denver Regional tournament in May, then I did wear a mask to the Phoenix national championships, and I did wear a mask to the Palm Springs Regional tournament and didn't get sick after any of those events. I've also worn masks at several three-day sectionals without getting sick afterwards. Bridge involves sitting at a card table with rotating pairs of players for 20-30 minutes each, all day long, in a hotel ballroom full of other players doing the same thing. There is plenty of opportunity for exposure. Back at the beginning of covid, one person died and several were hospitalized for a long time after the Colorado Springs Regional tournament in early 2020. So, if the bug is there, people do catch it.

    I am wearing a mask because I don't like being sick. It is no longer a precaution agaist dying -- for me, it means feeling good more often. The trade-off between staying healthy and wearing a mask is trivial because the mask is just not that annoying for me. I suggest that people try this personal experiment themselves and make their own decisions. Given my results, I don't believe anyone who says that masks don't work. YMMV

  7. "Daily Beast: “Trump’s lawyers have until Wednesday to explain how they tried to play two New York judges off each other by double-booking trials to potentially delay them both.”