When it comes to science, most laypeople prefer to deal in absolutes. The Earth revolves around the sun. Gravity keeps us rooted to the ground. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
But if there’s one thing a global pandemic can teach us, it’s that science takes time. Things change. An experiment shows one thing and another experiment refutes it. Sometimes a consensus forms, often slowly. Indisputable scientific laws can take years or decades to become, well, indisputable. Just ask Copernicus.
The coronavirus isn’t offering that type of timeline. Important decisions must be made in a fog of conjecture and speculation. Enter what we’ll call the Neck Gaiter Debate.
First, a Duke University study indicated that neck gaiters — cloths that people wear around their necks and faces that more closely resemble scarves than masks — could actually be counterproductive. Not only were they not as effective as wearing a mask, but they might have actually been worse than not wearing one at all.
The finding sent part of the world into a tizzy. What was thought to be an effective face covering could now be hurting more than it was helping. Not great news for neck gaiter users, or anyone who has gotten close to them.
But a New York Times article emerged about a week later to announce that, actually, neck gaiters are probably safe. It turns out that the linchpin of the anti-neck gaiter argument came from an examination of a person wearing a neck gaiter releasing more saliva particles while speaking than when not wearing anything over the mouth. But that was based on a test of one type of neck gaiter. Only one. And even the study’s co-author, Duke chemistry professor Martin Fischer, urged caution in the Times article: “Our intent was not to say this mask doesn’t work, or never use neck gaiters.”
In reaction to the Duke data, researchers at Virginia Tech tested the hypothesis that neck gaiters did more harm than good. The answer? Not quite. Both single-layer and two-layer gaiters stopped very large droplets from coming through, and the two-layer did a better job with finer particles.
Of course, you don’t have to wear a neck gaiter. You can choose to wear a more traditional cloth mask. But the recent debate is just the latest example of how we’ve watched scientific guidance change in real time. Back in March, the emphasis was on how the virus lurked on surfaces like door handles and countertops, and also spread when people coughed. The message: You’ll probably be fine if you wash your hands and don’t stand too close to someone with visible symptoms. Then, we were told it was actually primarily spread through droplets.
We saw the guidance change on wearing masks, too. First, the U.S. Surgeon General begged us not to buy masks. Save them for front-line medical workers, we were told. “They are not effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus,” he said. Now, masks are considered one of the most potent defenses against the virus. We are encouraged — or in many places — mandated to wear them.
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This is not an argument to ignore science. But it shows how results change as more information comes available. In fighting a pandemic, scientists and other experts can’t wait to run thousands of experiments. They have to use the best available information, some of which will turn out to be wrong. One day, neck gaiters will be a problem, and the next day, they’ll be fine. That doesn’t make the researchers liars and it’s not “fake news.” In fact, it could move them that much closer to a breakthrough.
We are all part of this experiment and will be for a while, so don’t be discouraged when the science evolves. When the answers change, we can change with them.
Elizabeth Djinis is a member of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @djinisinabottle.