SAGE Scientist Makes the Wrong Inference on Masks

A few weeks ago, the Guardian published an article in which various ‘experts’ revealed what they got wrong during the pandemic. Anyone hoping to read ‘lockdown – I was wrong on lockdown’ will be disappointed, although Professor Allyson Pollock of Newcastle University did admit she should have spoken out against school closures.

Our old friend Neil Ferguson was humble enough to list three things he got wrong, although none of them, strangely, makes any reference to Sweden. Recall that Ferguson’s team forecast up to 90,000 deaths in Sweden without mitigation. Yet two years later, the official count stands at only 16,000.

You might assume this would have led Ferguson to revise his beliefs concerning the efficacy of lockdown. After all, his model made a clear prediction concerning, and that prediction simply failed to materialise. Alas, no. All three of his self-confessed errors concern relatively minor details of epidemiological modelling.

Another familiar name among the Guardian’s line up is Devi Sridhar – chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. Yet once again, her big admission suggests no real updating of beliefs on her part.

Sridhar previously advocated ‘Zero Covid’ – something that was never tenable in a large, dense, highly connected country like the U.K. But the wrongness of her ‘Zero Covid’ stance isn’t what she wants to own up to.

Instead, Sridhar feels that she overestimated how willing Britons would be to comply with Korea-style contact tracing, which involved tracking people’s movements via GPS. She presumably believes that contract tracing is what made the difference in Korea, even though Japan achieved the same outcomes by doing nothing.

But put Ferguson and Sridhar to one side. The most egregious paragraph in the article is the one under Professor Susan Michie’s name. Here’s what she had to say:

Early on, my reading was that the evidence on the effectiveness of face masks in community settings was equivocal. The emphasis on droplet transmission raised a concern that infected people may touch their face masks and then touch surfaces, thus providing a transmission route … When evidence showed that the major route for transmission was via aerosol rather than droplet, the case for masks became hugely stronger.

I don’t know about you, but I’d say Michie has it entirely backwards. If the major route for transmission was via droplets, then masking would make sense. After all, masks can actually stop droplets. What they can’t stop is tiny airborne particles, which simply go through or around them. Here’s what Fauci said in a leaked email from February of 2020:

The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you.

So Michie drew precisely the wrong inference. When it became clear that Covid spreads via aerosols rather than droplets, the case for masks became hugely weaker.

While getting scientists to reflect on their mistakes is a useful exercise, not all of those to whom the Guardian spoke have really grappled with what went wrong. We can debate exactly how much effect masks and lockdowns have, but it’s clearly less – a lot less – than we were led to believe. Will the ‘experts’ ever admit this?

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September 2022
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