David Zweig on the Irrationality of Mask Mandates in Schools

22 Dec 2021

CLAY: Gonna bring in now David Zweig. He’s done a fantastic job of actually looking at the science, looking at the data. He writes at The Atlantic. And David, we’ve had you on the show before. I appreciate you coming on, and let’s talk about masking with you. And I want to start here.

I don’t know if you saw this in the New York Times, but I read it this morning, and I was like, my goodness. The world really is shifting. In the New York Times lead editorial today they said, “We should make masking in schools voluntary rather than mandatory. To think two years of masking has no negative impact is shortsighted. Kids are resilient, but not endlessly resilient.” They say that masking should be voluntary. I almost spit out my drink when I was reading that ’cause you and I have been making that argument now for what feels like years based on the real scientific data. So, thank you for making the time for us. What is the latest on the masking data and science?

ZWEIG: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Well, the latest, at least from what I exposed in my investigation was that the CDC used a particular study of schools in Arizona as one of its key justifications for school masking mandates. And what I found is that this study in a long list of ways was basically, to put it bluntly, garbage. And this isn’t my opinion as a journalist; this is the view of more than a half dozen experts who I interviewed for the article.

CLAY: Thank you for that. And, by the way, for those of you who listen, I think we had you back on in the summer, if I remember —

ZWEIG: Yeah —

CLAY: — all the — yeah, all the data. So thank you for sharing that, that finding, which, unfortunately, doesn’t surprise me at all. Why have the masks-in-schools people, in your experience, been so committed to an idea that does not have any scientific basis in reality and claiming, while all the while claiming we care about science, we care desperately about protecting children, why have they clung so desperately to masking, in your mind?

ZWEIG: Yeah. Do you have two hours? (laughing.)

CLAY: I mean, is it psychological? Is it a safety blanket for them? I mean, you know, I’ve got three young kids. I don’t know what your kid situation is, David, but I don’t see it as remotely political. I just don’t want to make my kids do things that are uncomfortable that provide them no benefit, regardless of what it is, right?

ZWEIG: That sounds pretty reasonable.

CLAY: Human rationality, to me — I mean, you know, I could put my kids, for instance, in a flak jacket that protects them from being shot, right, when we walk to school. I guess that could be helpful if suddenly, like, someone showed up and started shooting at the school, but the likelihood of that on our walk into school is so low the Kevlar jacket would be pretty heavy on a kid. I could put my kid in a motorcycle helmet when they rode around in the car with me so they didn’t hit their head if we got into an accident but it would be really uncomfortable for them. We make these balancing acts all the time based on rationality and assessment of risk. Why is so few parents been willing to do that for masks?

ZWEIG: Yeah. So there’s a lot there that you ask. So I’ll try to tick it off. First of all, your assessment and your analogies about wearing helmets and stuff I think are on point, by and large, which is that the world is filled with risks, and we make different risk assessments, and, based on them, we decide what’s worth or not worth doing.

We also get in the car, most of us, you know, often by ourselves, with our families and go on the highway. There is a significant number of fatalities from car accidents every year, including pediatric fatalities. But the people who want their kids wearing masks I assume most of them are still getting in a car with their kids and there are far more children dying in car accidents.

So, but I think asking the question about why, you know, so many of these experts continue to push for this is complicated. I think part of it has to with the fact that the evidence overly — and this is a contentious point and others will disagree with what I’m saying here but this is my assessment and from, you know, being buried in the research and from talking with many experts.

There does appear to be pretty strong evidence that some masks work on some people in some circumstances. That seems for sure. A surgeon wearing a fit-tested N95 there is some pretty good evidence that that is protective. And people wearing kind of a junky mask if you pop into a store for 10 minutes, if everyone in there is wearing a mask, there is some protective effect. We’re not sure what it is. It’s hard to quantify. But there’s something there.

So — and I think these people sort of latch on to that and then conflate this sort of unknown protective effect of some masks in some circumstances and then conflate that with all masks working and that it’s worth doing anything you can. And that’s where brings us to the notion of mask mandates in schools. And the one thing I can tell you is, because I feel that I know this research as well as anyone there is, is that there is no evidence that mask mandates in schools offer any appreciable benefit.

There may be some marginal benefit. It has not been demonstrated. And then the question becomes some people philosophically will say, look. Even if it’s only a teensy-weensy benefit, we think it’s worthwhile. And other people like you and like me would say, look. Unless you can quantify this benefit and it seems really small, I don’t think it’s worth making my kid wear a mask for two years or even — or even two weeks, for that matter. This doesn’t make sense.

And one of the things that I pointed out in my piece for The Atlantic was that one of these studies that Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, was on television, she was at White House briefings, she’s tweeted about it, talked about this particular study as like really the jewel in the crown of their masking justification. And the study has all sorts of errors and misleading information in it that is so bad that some of the experts who I interviewed in my piece and who I quoted say that it should never even have entered the public conversation.

CLAY: David Zweig with us. That’s an incredible finding that you did. And I want to thank you for the work that you’re doing here. Journalists should ask questions like these. They should be skeptical of authority. They should not presume that they are always being honestly treated by people in positions of power. Why are you one of the few people that will even ask these questions?

ZWEIG: I don’t know. I think part of it has to do with the fact that I’m an independent journalist, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, I’m not, you know, in this sort of class of people who typically are most of the people at places like the New York Times or even the outlets that I write for at The Atlantic or elsewhere.

And I think there’s a certain type of groupthink that takes hold, and connected to that groupthink is the notion of most of the people tend to be politically homogeneous toward the left, and this has become such a politicized issue that it’s almost impossible to kind of push back, either, A, if someone wants to push back they’re told they can’t or they’re afraid to, or, B, I think there’s almost a religious nature to some of these measures where I think people who are otherwise very intelligent people are able to rationalize and sort of wall off that part of their brain that might look at these issues a little bit more clearly.

CLAY: Have you lost friends over your reporting on masking in schools?

ZWEIG: Well, you mean, other than the people on my hometown Facebook page who called me a child murderer? Nah. (laughing.)

CLAY: I do think that’s significant, right, because, you know, I’m active on social media for my job, but I don’t know what anybody in my high school class has ever done. I don’t know what most of the time what people in my — like, I’m not on, like, a private individual Facebook page. But my wife every now and then will say, people are losing their minds over the fact that you think kids should be in school when I was saying it last year, right, and that kids shouldn’t be wearing masks.

And so I think for people out there listening, you deserve a lot of credit — and we’re talking with David Zweig at The Atlantic — because of exactly that, right? There is a social pressure to get in line and not question the consensus. And if you do, you will be severely maligned. So you’re kind of joking about that, but I think that’s one reason that so many people are afraid to say what they actually think even in the world of media because they’re afraid about what might happen at the PTA meeting or they’re afraid about what their neighbors might think in a larger scale. I mean, I do think that’s a fascinating part of this story and why there’s so little debate.

ZWEIG: You’re exactly right. And so part of it is like a lot of these people in the media are — it’s not that they’re afraid. They actually do believe this. Again I think there is this almost kind of like walling off of a part of the brain toward sort of rational thought process on this. But for the other group of people, I can tell you this.

I am in contact with infectious disease specialists at some of our nation’s top institutions and epidemiologist, pediatric immunologists, I have a long list of people who I converse with regularly. And all of it has to be off the record. They all agree with what you and I have been saying, they feel vehemently that kids should be in school, they’ve been against many of the ideas and guidelines that Fauci has pushed for, they are against the idea of kids wearing masks in school, by and large, but none of them can speak out.

They’ve either been told explicitly by the head of their department at whatever university or hospital they’re at or it’s just implicit; people don’t want to be — most people are not comfortable being on the out of a group. And if all of your colleagues are saying one thing and all of your sort of people in your social network if you’re living in some sort of Northeastern, you know, liberal enclave or some college town somewhere where most of the politics trend toward a certain direction, it’s very, very hard to have the type of personality where you are — I wouldn’t say comfortable with it but where you are accepting of that.

For whatever reason, for better or worse, I have that personality where, to me, I just have needed to follow where the science has led me. And it has led me into a place that is very different from what much of the, you know, quote, blue states and Democratic and public health establishment has pushed for in America. And I’ll say one thing for why I think there’s a strong case why I am right on this, is that much of our peer nations in Europe are very much in line with what you and I are saying about kids being necessarily and about prizing normalcy for children and understanding the incredibly low risk to them.

The United States in this regard really is an outlier. So whenever that’s brought up to these people, they have a tough time coming up with a rebuttal. So that’s one of the things that I often try to point out in my articles is that we really are an outlier. The CDC wants children as young as 2 years old to wear a mask but yet the World Health Organization has repeatedly said no one under age 6 should wear a mask and the European version of the CDC, they called the ECDC, they don’t want anyone in primary school wearing masks. So why is it that the CDC’s guidance is so dramatically different from that of these other public health institutions?

CLAY: Last question for you, David. We appreciate you making the time. How does this end? How does masking in schools end if there is no science that supports it and if we’re dealing with some sort of magical, leap-of-faith style masking authoritarianism right now, how does it end in schools?

ZWEIG: I don’t know. And I have this conversation with people every day. And I just was corresponding with some infectious disease experts who have been instrumental in rolling back some of the programs in schools in their state, and they helped implement Test to Stay, which is a program where, instead of quarantining kids, they test them, and if they’re negative, then you can go to class. And I talk with them about, you know, how does this end?

You know, don’t you think we should start rolling this back? And they said right now it’s not politically, you know, palatable to do something like that. So it is a bit of a chicken or an egg thing. People are afraid to say something, but we’re never gonna get to the point where we can say something if everyone’s afraid to speak out. I worry it’s gonna be one of those things where it’s really gonna take the courage of some politicians, particularly in bluer states, to just go ahead and start rolling this back and then when people see that everything’s okay then the others will fall in line.

CLAY: David, we appreciate the time. Gonna tweet out your article for people who want to read this. You can follow me @ClayTravis. You’re @DavidZweig as well. I’ll give people your link. Appreciate all the work you’re doing and the fact that you’re willing to ask questions that may make some people feel uncomfortable.

ZWEIG: I appreciate you having me on again.

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