Mitchell-MacLean: You, me, and masks

I took a philosophy minor in university. I didn’t study it for philosophy’s sake, but rather for the sake of argumentation – creating good arguments, destroying bad ones – I loved it. I also aced practical logic which studies the foundations, or building blocks, of arguments.

Basically, arguments are constructed with premises and a conclusion logically follows… but there are some caveats.

Rule number one: the premises have to be objectively true.

Easy enough, no?

Rule number two: don’t commit logical fallacies.

These could also be described as pitfalls. You’re probably familiar with a strawman (when your point is distorted – also known as “moving the goalposts” – ie, Kim says “Lethbridge has a lot of racism” and receives a response that Kim therefore “must hate Lethbridge and Alberta”), ad-hominem (attacking the person making the argument rather than the claims, or premises; Jane ran for the opposition party, therefore Jane’s opinion is not fair and balanced), and a non-sequitur (literally, “does not follow”; red is a colour, fire is red, therefore Liberals are good).

Still with me? Good – now let’s talk, logically, about masks.

First, they said that wearing a mask wouldn’t protect the wearer from contracting coronavirus and then they said that wearing a mask would be useful in protecting other people.

The above subjects are mutually exclusive (mask wearer and others wearing a mask) and yet enough people confused the two to create a massive debate on whether medical practitioners actually knew what they were talking about.

It seems ridiculous to say it out loud doesn’t it?

The most common debate conflates the two subjects (me and you) as one. We are not the same person. That’s easy enough to understand but the details somehow become sticky when we add “wearing a mask”.

First, our public health professionals said that my wearing a mask would not protect me from the virus.

I hope it’s not too much of a shock to say that public health officials still stand by this. Me wearing a mask does not protect me.

However, if I happen to have the virus, and I am wearing a mask, it provides more protection for you – from me – than if I was not wearing one.

This is not a difficult concept unless you confuse me with you – which sounds impossible, but this is what started the debate and it served to cast doubt on the medical advice.

“Putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial, obviously, if you’re not infected,” Canada’s Dr. Theresa Tam said on March 31. (Emphasis added)

“What we worry about, actually, is the potential negative aspects of wearing masks where people are not protecting their eyes, or other aspects where the virus could enter your body and that gives you a false sense of confidence.”

It needs to be noted here that as of March 31, we did not know to what extent asymptomatic people could spread the virus.

Dr. Tam also said the following:

“I think the scientific evidence is that if you are sick, then put on a mask to prevent those droplets from flying in any space.” (Emphasis added)

Less than a week later, Dr. Tam again spoke to Canadians and was accused of reversing her position on masks.

“With this emerging information (regarding asymptomatic spread), the Special Advisory Committee on Covid-19 has come to a consensus that wearing a non-medical mask, even if you have no symptoms, is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you in situations where physical distancing is difficult to maintain.” (Emphasis added)

On True North’s weekly videocast, co-host Andrew Lawton adequately summarized the clip of Dr. Tam’s update.

“What’s fascinating about that is the argument she uses for why masks are appropriate now are identical to the ones that you and I were literally talking about on this show, and I know I mentioned it on my own show last week, that everyone is saying asymptomatic transmission is a growing risk, she was also talking about pre-symptomatic transmission, if there are people carrying it that don’t know it, and the mask will prevent them from sharing it with others, it’s a pretty good thing,” he said after Dr. Tam’s April 6 public address.

Unfortunately, Lawton didn’t make it far before he confused the subjects.

“So, what she’s saying is completely logical but it’s the illogic of everything she’s said up until this point (no, it’s not, see above). When other jurisdictions in the world, CDC, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan to some extent as well – we’re seeing a lot of Canadians are already wearing masks – but how many people could have contracted the virus because they were following the previous guidance that up until this morning which was ‘no, no, no; you shouldn’t wear a mask we don’t think a mask would help you’…”

Hold up – Lawton just confused you and me.

Dr. Tam specifically said that wearing a mask was “an additional measure… to protect others” but Lawton believed he had caught the doctor misrepresenting her previous advice.

“They were actively discouraging (mask wearing) in some ways by saying ‘we think it could be worse for you, in some ways than no mask’,” he said.

The information had not changed but the subject had – and the political thought leaders didn’t notice.

Instead, the argument, that the medical recommendation had changed, made its way into every anti-elitist’s repertoire.

Danielle Smith, who has a university degree in English and economics, was still chasing the “mixed messaging” bandwagon in July.

“I just want to ask the question, like what is it with politicians and public health officials are now trying to achieve in their response to Covid? I’m genuinely perplexed… my only request is: choose your story and stick to it because the constant flitting around… is eroding public trust. No one is going to believe anything you say in the future if you keep on changing the message,” she said on her morning talk show on 1170 CHQR in Calgary.

Two points: public health officials did not change their “story” and the government of Alberta placed responsibility on municipalities to enforce an unpopular mandate because it is politically advantageous for them to do so – full stop.

Let’s also emphasize that what changed between March and July was the understanding that even those who do not present as symptomatic can still spread the virus if they are infected.

The only people eroding public trust is non-medical professionals who feel the need to offer their non-expert opinion on the matter.

“So, for 5,452 cases in Calgary, there was no need to have a mandatory mask but now, now, that there’s 230 cases in Calgary – oh my gosh – you have to have mandatory masks – oh my gosh – the Mayor of Calgary is going to punish you by bringing forward a motion on July 20th forcing you to wear them. What in the world is going on here? I don’t know if I have the answer but this doesn’t look like science to me, this kind of looks like politics to me,” Smith, who unilaterally destroyed her once-promising political career by playing politics poorly, concluded.

The pro-conspiracy voices in Canadian media have successfully cast doubt on medical advice from actual medical professionals – the only people who are trying to protect our economy from being shut down again due to a public health emergency.

Meanwhile, the shit disturbers will still have jobs even if their opinions are baseless tripe – will you?

This post contains opinion.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political analyst physically distancing in Southern Alberta.

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