Bike riders sporting masks — however not helmets — a metaphor for our unscientific occasions

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In April of this yr, I witnessed one thing on the Stanford University campus that’s seared into my reminiscence: a scholar on a bicycle, sporting flip-flops, AirPods in-ear, going the improper means by way of a roundabout in an energetic building zone, with no helmet.

But like all good follower of science, the scholar was sporting a disposable blue face masks — for security, I suppose.

I feel this anecdote is instructive in understanding the social dynamics which have emerged within the COVID-19 pandemic. Seemingly clever and well-rounded folks (Stanford college students, for instance) have adopted weird, pointless habits to comport with new expectations about learn how to “stay safe” — like sporting masks outside — all whereas persevering with in far more dangerous behaviors. This is to not say that using a bicycle with no helmet is particularly dangerous, or that I consider helmets needs to be mandated (they shouldn’t). But it’s completely an even bigger danger than COVID-19 for a vaccinated twenty-something.

Unfortunately, it turned out that what I noticed within the spring wouldn’t be anecdotal in any respect. When I obtained again to our 99% vaccinated campus final week, I spotted that masking outside and on bicycles could be a customized.

So, I made a decision to try a measurement to quantify this phenomenon. On Wednesday, September twenty second, within the 1 pm hour, I noticed 400 Stanford cyclists on Lasuen Mall, a well-liked campus avenue for bicycles. I merely famous whether or not every bike owner wore a masks, a helmet, neither, or each. Here are the ultimate tallies:

Total cyclists 400 (100%)
No masks, no helmet 195 (49%)
Mask, no helmet 134 (34%)
Helmet, no masks 42 (10%)
Mask and helmet 29 (7%)

That works out to a masking fee of 41% and helmet-wearing fee of 17%. So, Stanford college students are about twice as prone to put on a masks on a bicycle as a helmet. To make certain, there’s a margin of error right here — I can solely depend so many cyclists at a time, and I’m positive I missed some. But the purpose stands that at one among America’s main analysis universities, college students put on masks on bicycles at a better fee than they put on helmets.

Is it a delusion? Do college students truly assume that sporting a masks on a bicycle to stop transmission of a respiratory virus they’ve been vaccinated towards is a good suggestion? Maybe it’s simply laziness — simpler to maintain the masks on for 5 minutes, then take 5 seconds to take it off. I feel a mix of laziness and signaling might be the best reply. Masking has turn into an essential technique to sign that you’re “conscious” about COVID-19, although I’d submit that sporting a masks on a bicycle is definitely a fairly clear sign of ignorance, not consciousness.

A bicyclist wearing a face mask.
A masking fee of 41 p.c and helmet-wearing fee of 17 p.c was noticed at Stanford University.
Rich Fury/Getty Images

If our authorities handed out dunce caps with “follow the science” embroidered on them, a double-digit proportion of the inhabitants would begin sporting them (perhaps even on bicycles) and look askance at individuals who don’t. Stanford would possibly even mandate them if the State of California or the County of Santa Clara requested them to, as a result of we not have any scientific insurance policies at Stanford. We solely observe political orders.

Stanford is considerably distinctive amongst prime universities in that we’ve got precise scientists in management positions, together with a neuroscientist as our president. So, what does it say about our brain-scientist-in-chief that he has didn’t persuade Stanford college students to put on bicycle helmets (together with when the college gave out free helmets!) however has efficiently created an surroundings the place bicycle-masking is routine? In my judgment, it’s a reasonably large embarrassment.

A couple riding a bike and scooter wearing protective masks in Central Park.
A girl bikes whereas a person scooters whereas sporting face masks.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

But it received’t be seen as a scientific failure, as a result of science is lifeless; idiocy and innumeracy have received a complete victory. And although I’ll proceed to be deeply confused once I see masked bicyclists on campus, I’ve realized that there’s an ironic logic to their determination: in spite of everything, there’s no level in defending your mind should you don’t plan on utilizing it. At Stanford, no person expects you to do both.

Maxwell Meyer is editor-in-chief of The Stanford Review.