The politics of masks: From Copernicus to climate change to coronavirus

The politics of masks: From Copernicus to climate change to coronavirus
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President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE won’t wear a mask. Many of his supporters won’t either. At his “campaign kickoff” in Tulsa, his Phoenix rally inside a church and other recent events, Trump and many of his followers seem committed to defying science. They’re doing this as COVID-19 cases are spiking in many states that reopened — in some cases, prematurely, without a plan or both.

As a physician and as an American, I’m concerned. Science is the process of arriving at verifiable, quantifiable facts through hypotheses, testing and refutation. When partisanship drowns out science, the results can be deadly.

A month ago, America began reemerging from lockdowns. Workers went back to their jobs, stores reopened and many people ditched their masks, acting as if the pandemic that has killed over 125,000 Americans since February never happened. 


Then, people started getting sick again. Arizona is running out of ICU beds and deaths are rising. Infections in Texas and Florida keep breaking new records.  

Amid rising fatalities, the simple act of wearing a mask has, for some, become a proxy for political affiliation or, more accurately, loyalty to President Trump. 

His most ardent supporters refuse to wear masks, following Trump’s disdain at covering the lower half of his face. Those who oppose him or support Democratic presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE are more likely to wear masks. On the whole, an overwhelming majority of Americans want President Trump to model good behavior and wear a mask in public. In spring, some people protesting state governors’ stay-at-home orders showed up with weapons but no masks. In summer, many Americans who rallied against police violence and racial inequities wore masks and even handed them out, although clearly they couldn't and didn't maintain any degree of social distancing.

We’re learning more about COVID-19 every day. Much of medicine and science works this way.

As a doctor who finished medical school 22 years ago, I’ve learned many treatments for stroke, heart disease and cardiac arrest that exist today but were not used in the 1990s. We’re always learning new things because the science behind medicine is always evolving as we make new discoveries.


What we know about masks follows a similar dynamic.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans not to wear masks. The reason: Not enough data to indicate whether masks reduced the transmission of the coronavirus. 

Now, public health experts are unanimous in urging individuals to wear masks in public, especially when social distancing isn’t possible. These cheerleaders include the CDC and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who says masks promote greater freedom.

So why is there a seemingly partisan divide around masks? Do Republicans care less about their loved ones and neighbors? Or is there a deeper reason why some people reject science-based opinions?

In 1633, Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest for being “vehemently suspect of heresy” for publishing views that Earth was not the center of the universe. At the time, the church was busy silencing scientists who challenged church dogma because it feared the budding spirit of enlightenment would undermine its absolute authority.

Fast forward to the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan made climate change a political issue. 

The National Academy of Sciences released a report in Reagan’s first term that corroborated the earlier Charney Report in 1979, compiled from a century of data, linking fossil fuel use to global warming. Yet Reagan appointee William Nierenberg, who ran the media briefing on the 1983 NAS report, lied about its findings, claiming the report found no need for action.  

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry began funding a fringe group of scientists to sow doubt in the public mind, by questioning whether the science behind climate change and its adverse impact on public health are real. Corporate dark money and right-wing organizations continue to funnel campaign money to Republican candidates who deny the climate crisis.

When one political party so thoroughly dismisses science, a good part of the American electorate will reject facts and mistrust experts. This is where we are today.

Scientific research increasingly shows that the widespread use of face masks will reduce the number of deaths and decrease the need for lockdowns to mitigate COVID-19 transmissions. Yet President Trump and many of his allies continue to question the efficacy of face masks, with his more extreme supporters suggesting that masks take away personal freedoms because they’re a form of government control.

Some Americans take their cue from the president. His mask aversion is their mask aversion. By stubbornly refusing to wear a mask, Trump is not-so-subtly telling his supporters that his own public health experts are wrong, the data is irrelevant and the science is wrong.

Today’s anti-mask, anti-science denialism is different from the church’s persecution of Galileo 400 years ago. The church’s repudiation of evidence resulted in Galileo’s house arrest for the rest of his life. Refusing to wear a mask amid today's pandemic can sicken or even kill people.

Dr. Rob Davidson is an emergency room physician in West Michigan and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, a coalition of doctors devoted to protecting Medicare and advocating for health care for all. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRobDavidson.