If there’s one thing about the COVID-19 pandemic that’s been depressing to behold (other than the mass death, the lockdowns, and the utter failure of US national leadership to coordinate a policy to slow the spread of the disease), it’s the way that the pandemic has revealed just how polarized public health policy has become. (Also, it depresses me how prone to pseudoscience physicians like Dr. Cammy Benton, whom we will meet shortly, are.) The specific example I have in mind is the increasingly angry—and sometimes even violent—resistance to the requirement to do something as benign as wearing a mask in public in order to slow the spread of coronavirus. I realize that, in a way, this is not new. There was, for example, an actual “Anti-Mask League” formed in 1919 during the great influenza pandemic; so one could view history as repeating itself. However, thanks to social media and people of a certain political persuasion having decided that wearing a mask is more about “control” than public health and that the refusal to wear one brands them as a “free-thinking rebel,” resistance to masks among a small but unfortunately not insignificant minority of Americans has reached truly irrational and potentially violent levels. You don’t have to go too far to see videos of people angrily ranting and refusing to wear a mask, badgering and threatening underpaid workers at grocery stores and restaurants who try to enforce masking policies by politely asking them just to wear a mask.
Here are a couple of examples:
There has even been murder committed over a store’s refusal to admit someone not wearing a mask.
I’m not going to relitigate here whether masks work to slow the spread of coronavirus, given that it’s been discussed multiple times (and will be discussed again) elsewhere on this blog and at other sources. They do. Sure, they’re not perfect. Yes, the CDC and World Health Organization messed up the messaging in February and March, early in the pandemic, prioritizing concern about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) over public masking and noting that the evidence was not entirely clear. Those situations have resolved. The evidence has become clearer that masks work, although they are by no means a panacea. They don’t provide 100% protection (not even close), but increasingly evidence has been trending in the direction of supporting the wearing of masks in public, particularly indoors, particularly in places where adequate social distancing is difficult or impossible. Is it “settled science”? Not yet, but there’s biological plausibility and a large and growing body of observational evidence that suggests that masks decrease the likelihood of disease transmission at least several-fold, misinformation and disinformation about masks and COVID-19 notwithstanding.
As has been discussed before, it’s not surprise that antivaxxers have jumped on the COVID-19 conspiracy theory bandwagon, nor is it particularly surprising (at least to those of us who’ve studied the movement for years) that antivaxxers have allied themselves with anti-maskers. That’s why an article published on the hilariously misnamed antivaccine propaganda blog The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, To Mask or Not to Mask: Declaring a Truce. It’s by an “integrative medicine” practitioner named Dr. Cammy Benton. It is, as you might imagine, a lovely example of false equivalence.
Before I dig in, I just want to note that we’ve met Dr. Benton before, although I didn’t discuss her a lot. Basically, she was mentioned in a post by me four years ago as one of the physicians who “stand with Dr. Sears,” namely “Dr. Bob” Sears, an antivaccine pediatrician. Why were physicians “standing with Dr. Sears”? Basically, they were rallying around Dr. Sears when the Medical Board of California initiated proceedings against him for failing to live up to the standard of care for two patients. As I’ve mentioned many times before, though, Dr. Sears has long associated with the antivaccine movement. For example, he’s likened SB 277, the new California law that eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, to the Holocaust, basically going full Godwin on it and letting his antivaccine freak flag fly. I was also surprised that the Medical Board of California didn’t actually look at Dr. Sears for his more blatant selling of medical exemptions, including exemptions based on an online form. Ultimately, Dr. Bob had his practice limited and supervised for his offenses, even as antivaccine conspiracy theories flowed about it.
As for Dr Benton, she runs an “integrative medicine” practice called, appropriately enough, Benton Integrative Medicine (although there was a recent announcement that she is joining another practice). Unsurprisingly, there’s a spa, and the clinic offers dubious injectables and supplements to “prevent coronavirus.” Dr. Benton appears to be heavily into “functional medicine,” or, as I like to call it, ordering reams of useless and impossible-to-interpret lab results with a plan to correct each and every one of them in one hand, a huge invoice in the other. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Benton is also antivaccine. She’s a Founding Director and the Treasurer of Physicians for Informed Consent, an antivaccine physician’s group. She also no longer vaccinates her children:
And has been interviewed by the VAXXED crew, conveniently providing them with a lot of antivaccine misinformation:
In her article for the Not-So-Thinking Moms’ Revolution, unsurprisingly, Dr. Benton tries to portray herself as somewhere in the “reasonable middle” between the anti-mask crowd and the science-based crowd:
This is a call for a truce between the maskers and the anti-maskers.
It is super stressful these days, and the bullying tactics (“Wear your damn mask!”), the virtue signaling, and the shaming are not likely to bring people to your side. For the anti-maskers, getting mad at 16-year-olds at restaurants just doing their jobs is not going to get you anywhere.
Everyone is angry, but everyone is also doing the best they can with the info they see. Legitimate CDC, WHO, and national leaders ( whether you believe they are good or bad) had been saying not to wear a face mask unless you are sick or caring for someone who is sick, so the anger against those who are not in favor of universal masking seems excessive to me.
There is literally legit science on both sides, and both sides give good arguments. The pro-mask folks share their science and say, if masks prevent big droplets from leaving your face or if there is a slightly decreased risk of spread, then it is worth it. Great! That is a good reason to wear a mask. The maskers want to do it out of respect even if it doesn’t work. Well, that is generous. I’m not sure it’s a reason to chastise the anti-maskers since that is so subjective, but it’s super sweet.
Note the false equivalence. The “bullying tactics” that she ascribes to the pro-mask crowd are almost never anywhere near as extreme, angry, or violent as those from the anti-mask crowd, who, let’s remember, not infrequently throw epic tantrums in response to reasonable requests to wear a mask inside stores, thrown merchandise around, and even attacked and killed workers trying to enforce masking policies. Anecdotally, even at my cancer center, those tasked with screening everyone coming into the hospital have reported hostility from people when they are told that they can’t enter the facility without masks, although likely the presence of an armed guard at each door deters them from getting too angry or even violent. Retail workers don’t have the luxury of that sort of protection. Out there, underpaid workers are getting hurt, and, occasionally, even killed trying to do a job that they’d never expected to have to do. This is not the same thing as the occasional social media post telling anti-maskers to “wear a damned mask.” While there is a point to be made that perhaps shaming is not the most effective tactic to persuade the recalcitrant, this false equivalence gives the game away. It’s the same sort of false equivalence, unsurprisingly, that antivaxxers like to use when complaining about being “bullied” by pro-vaccine advocates. Never mind that antivaxxers routinely harass CDC employees, get in the face of pro-vaccine advocates like Dr. Paul Offit in order to frighten or anger him into a reaction that they can video and then use to embarras him, and use abusive FOIA requests to harass scientists.
Of course, Dr. Benton is still very intent on trying to demonstrate how “reasonable” she is; so she concedes that the evidence is trending in favor of masks; that is, before going full “both sides”:
There seems to be growing evidence for wearing face masks and the idea that we could open up sooner if we all wore face masks. Maybe there will be a full consensus soon, and everyone will agree that we should. But there is still room for debate in my opinion, so let’s keep it respectful.
This issue is just one of many in this country that has fallen victim to the polarization that leads to everyone digging in their heels. As usual, one side thinks they have the right to tell others what to do and that anything they say that disagrees is anti-science, or anti-people, or ignorant. Again, none of the name-calling will win them over. The other side says, “Screw you, I don’t have to do what you say.” They will say they have science, too, backed by the WHO. Our government has a history of corruption, and there are worrisome patterns noticed by many in this group that are based on fact, so they have good reason to question things.
The other side sees this as “conspiracy theory,” but simply calling it conspiracy theory can be a lazy way of shutting down the conversation. And maybe there is a conspiracy; after all, it’s happened before when large sums of money and power were at stake.
I’d love to know what large sums of money there are that derive from promoting the wearing of inexpensive facemasks. It reminds me of the one retort to the “money made them do it” that the pro-hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) crowd had when that unproven medication was being promoted as a cure (or at least highly effective treatment) for COVID-19 that actually made some sense: HCQ is off-patent and costs pennies a pill. There’s not a lot of money to be made selling it, at least not compared to new “blockbuster” drugs. None of that made the evidence that HCQ is effective against COVID-19 any more convincing, but it did remind us on the science-based side that sometimes we can go too far in seeing conspiracies. So, I turn that around on Dr. Benton: There’s not a whole lot of money to be made selling masks, at least not compared to what she seems to be implying.
As for the “science,” while the evidence for masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 is imperfect and certainly masks are no panacea, the evidence is strong and getting stronger that masks have value in preventing COVID-19 transmission. Moreover, given the law of large numbers and the millions upon millions of people at risk for the disease, even if masks were only 50% effective (or even only 20% effective), that would have the potential for preventing a huge number of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Antimaskers tend to think like antivaxxers (unsurprisngly) in that for them it’s often all-or-nothing. Either vaccines work 100% of the time, or they’re crap not worth using. Either masks work 100% of the time, or they’re worthless. Black and white thinking is one reason why antivaxxers are often the same people as antimaskers and vice-versa. Similarly, the less radical antivaxxers often desperately want to be seen as “reasonable”; so they will often invoke the fallacy of the golden mean and imply that the “truth” must lie somewhere between the two extremes of pro-vaccine or antivaccine, pro-mask or anti-mask. That’s exactly what Dr. Benton did.