There’s a famous scene in the movie Fight Club where Tyler Durden is on an airplane thumbing through one of those safety manuals in emergency exit rows.

“An exit door procedure at 30,000 feet,” says Durden (Brad Pitt). “The illusion of safety.”

It’s a memorable scene because it touches on the strange things humans do to make ourselves feel secure in frightening situations. Which brings me to America’s latest fad: wearing masks in public.

Polls show that more than half of Americans are now choosing to wear masks when they go out, presumably to prevent catching or spreading the COVID-19 virus. What one chooses to wear is up to them, of course, but the trend is a bit surprising considering government officials spent months telling Americans not to wear protective face coverings.

“We don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said on January 31. “And we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus.”

Throughout February and into March, similar statements were made by numerous other top government officials and agencies.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said “the average American does not need a N95 mask. These are really more for health care providers.” He was echoed by Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that there “is no role for these masks in the community.” In February, the US Surgeon General chimed in on Twitter, “STOP BUYING MASKS.”

Despite these warnings, the popularity of masks grew. “Maskies”—selfies of people wearing masks—are the latest trend on Instagram, Fast Company reports. They’ve become a symbol and form of expression, a way to show social solidarity and empowerment.

“When everyone is wearing masks, I feel respected,” one woman recently told National Geographic. “The message is: I’m protecting you, you’re protecting me, I can feel safe.”

Feel safe. That’s the key word. Whether masks actually prevent the spread of respiratory infection remains a subject of debate.

There’s a reason public officials made the statements above. An abundance of research shows masks offer little or no protection against infection…

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