Should I cover my face or not wear a mask? The question we all must answer. Science shows face covers save lives by stopping the spread of COVID-19. But many people view face masks as a governmental intrusion on our freedom. We are Americans. We do not like being told what to do.
Masks prevent respiratory droplets from transmitting the virus from one person to another. Others feel cloth, reusable face covers represent and over-hyped issue by the mainstream media promoted by Bill Gates and the deep state designed to control our behavior…and increase the sales of cotton fabrics and elastic ear ties.
The reality is many Americans do not agree on the value of Facemasks…except for scientists, epidemiologists, hospitals, The Center for Disease Control, The World Health Organization, The Joint Commission, The American Medical Association, The National Institute of Health, …..so almost no one.
Undoubtedly, many of us are reading contrarian views on our social media feeds. Our friends, colleagues, and people we respect have other views. The diversity of American opinions are part of what makes us a great nation. Our disagreements are also a source of frustration and social tension.
How should the public decide to wear a face mask or not?
The answer lies in the work of the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal. He is well-known for a concept called “Pascal’s Wager.”
Pascal was not studying the epidemiology of viral transmission. Pascal wanted to answer the question, “should we believe in God?” He posited that humans live their lives in a gamble whether or not God exists.
We do not get to choose to play the game. The game is in progress as soon as we are born. God exists, or He/She does not. It is a yes or no question. Two options. The answer to this eternal question is known, but humanity discovers the truth at the time of death. We wager with our lives.
Pascal argues a rational person chooses to live as though God exists. Regardless of the actual existence of God, it is a good bet.
If correct, a believer would gain eternal life in heaven and avoid eternal suffering in Hell. If the gamble was wrong, and God does not exist, the believer would only experience a small amount of sacrifice during their lifetime.
Pascal recommended believing in God because the potential win, eternal happiness, far outweighs the risk of believing — even if it turns out God does not exist.
The rational decision is to choose infinite gain over a finite loss.
According to Pascal, a life lead gambling as though God does not exist is irrational. One might experience a slight increase in earthly gains but risk eternal damnation after death.
Pascal’s Wager: A coin toss we all must play. In the end, there is only one winner.
Pascal’s Wager and face covers
Let’s apply Pascal’s Wager to the donning of face coverings.
- Masks either stop the spread or they do not work. For some people, reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
- We are in the middle of a game … heads or tails /yes or no/protect or infect.
- All of humanity must wager (it is not optional).
- We weigh the potential gain vs. the loss of wagering on a face cover. We estimate these two outcomes and (for the sake of this thought experiment) assume history will show masks donning protects others. If you wager in favor of face covers, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. If you wager against a mask, you maintain the freedom to live mask free but risk the lives of others — Infinite loss with finite gain.
- Wager, then, without hesitation, that masks work to stop the spread. If we cover our face and the science is correct, then we prevent infecting and possibly killing others. We suffer minor inconveniences and temporary invasion of personal liberty — Infinite gain with finite loss.
Pascal’s wager demonstrates the rational choice is to wear a mask when around others.
Coronavirus is nonpartisan
We are living in dangerous times. SARS-Cov-2 is a nonpartisan virus. The virus does not care about our opinions or where we get our news. It infects and kills without considering its victim’s political views.
Some cover their face and glare at the maskless with scorn. Others feel contempt for the fear-mongering face-covering sheeple who threaten our world’s economy. Some people hedge their bets by wearing a mask but keep their noses exposed.
As a physician, I openly admit I do not enjoy wearing a mask all day. Masks are hot, sweaty, sometimes suffocating, and fog up my glasses. Masks also interfere with my ability to interact with my patients. I like to see my patient’s faces. I want them to see my smile.
I wear a mask to protect my patients. Using Pascal’s Wager, I conclude the temporary discomfort of placing a mask over my face is a minor inconvenience with infinite gain; protecting my patients and those around me.
My mask is an act of kindness towards others.
I understand everyone’s frustration. The mixed-messaging from leaders causes social dichotomy. The White House Taskforce recommends social distancing and face covers, but we see the same leaders standing side by side faces uncovered. Social media amplifies false or misleading content filling the vacuum of information and satisfying society’s need for constant new information. Less exciting, but more important, epidemiological research lies buried in the peer review process and scientific journals.
As American citizens, we must decide who to believe and how to live our lives for ourselves. We must decide now. As Pascal demonstrated, the game is in progress. We are playing whether we like it or not. We must place a wager.
As some states move to ease restrictions and reopen local economies, scientists warn us to continue hand hygiene and social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also asks all Americans to wear a nonmedical face mask when out in public.
Any one of us may be a carrier
Widespread testing is still not available in most areas of the country. We do not yet know the rate of asymptomatic carriers in the US. An asymptomatic carrier is someone who has the virus but does not know it.
We now know some people are carriers of SARS-Cov-2 and may spread the virus before they develop symptoms. Others may pass the infection to another without ever developing symptoms at all. These are the silent spreaders.
No human wants to be Patient Zero, the index case, the vector that leads to an outbreak in a pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. No one wants to be the choir member who only wanted to share fellowship through music but infected the Skagit Valley Chorale in Mount Vernon, Washington. President Trump’s personal valet certainly did not want to POTUS at risk.
Until widespread testing, a vaccine, an effective treatment or better preventative measures are available, the safest course of action is for every American to live as though we are all asymptomatic carriers.
Following 17th Century philosopher Baise Pascal’s logic, our best bet is to live our life wagering that masks work to stop the spread.
Will you be wearing a face cover to protect others?
Previously Published on Medium