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Why statisticians vouch for using surgical masks (and why you should too).

During World War V (V stands for “virus”), we have received conflicting advice on how to protect ourselves and others better. Institutions that were previously thought to be larger-than-life, like the World Health Organisation, made several mistakes along the way. From failing to challenge China about their response to the crisis to infamously saying that there was ‘no proof of human to human transmission’ of the virus, the organism’s failed attempts at controlling the situation also included a controversy about the use of surgical masks. 

Many also fear that the delayed response the WHO had regarding the use of surgical masks to prevent transmission will have a negative result. 

Meet one of the top statisticians in the world.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, statistician, and former option trader and risk analyst, has built a career on analysing randomness and uncertainty. His book, The Black Swan, is considered to be one of the fundamental works of modern-day Economics. He accurately predicted 2008’s financial crisis and centres his work around the building of robust societies that can withstand difficult-to-prevent events. 

Infographic detailing some takeaway points from ‘The Black Swan’.

During the coronavirus crisis, Taleb has been openly critical of the World Health Organisation and a sector of the press’ suggestions, pointing out that most of it derived from fake science and a misunderstanding of statistics. He has thoroughly explained on his Twitter account that lack of understanding of exponential (non-linear) growth has caused a lot of misinformation. 

A case for masks

Nassim’s take on the mask controversy can be addressed by understanding his response and arguments against the most common talking points against the use of masks. These arguments, and the theories they refute, can be found in the following list:

  • We “have no idea if the virus is airborne, and therefore don’t need to wear masks”. Taleb considers this an unnecessary risk. He believes that people should wear a mask to avoid spreading the virus while we learn more about this subject. 
  • There is “no evidence that mask usage helps slow transmission”. Nassim looks at this as a risk asymmetry or, taking a high risk to avoid performing little to no effort. In other words, he highlights that “no evidence” doesn’t mean complete assuredness, and that anything that shows promise should be used unless confirmed otherwise, particularly when involving little effort or cost. 
  • Masks could “cause more damage when handled unproperly than good when used, potentially”. Ironically, the statistician encourages us to try and use the same argument to assess condoms, seatbelts, aeroplane security staff, fire alarms, etc. 
  • “There is a low supply of masks worldwide, and users should leave them to medical professionals that need them the most”. This point, sadly, was valid for a brief time, when the virus took the world by surprise. Ever since, however, nations have upscaled their production of masks, Nicholas points out that, even if you don’t want to buy a mask, imperfect, homemade masks are better than no masks due to a phenom he calls convexity: A “flattening” on the “elbow” of an exponential curve, which in this case can provide relief for healthcare systems. 

Now you may be asking yourself, “why haven’t I’ve read about any of these arguments before?” To that, we can quote one of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s most famous books: Skin in the game is about finding those that bring out systemic danger and filtering them out of the system.

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