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FIGHT NIGHT: Luke O’Neill challenges Luke O’Neill on masks

As NPHET advises that Ireland should drop masking rules, a fierce debate as broken out between Ireland’s favourite scientist and himself.

Yesterday, in the wake of the new advice, ISAG’s Professor Luke O’Neill tweeted that “masks are still useful even if everyone isn’t wearing one.”

O’Neill has sworn by masks so adamantly, that he’s urged people to “wear an effing mask,” even going so far as to say that “God wears a mask.”

This was apparently a subliminal diss and callout directed at rival scientist, Professor Luke O’Neill, who had previously stated that “If you’re not infected there’s no reason to wear a facemask.”

“Two reasons: one, people fidget with it anyway. And secondly it goes in through the eyes as well. It’s an evil virus that will penetrate the eyes. And that’s not covered anyway. So there’s no evidence that wearing a face mask will protect you at all.

“If you don’t have this [virus], there’s no need to wear a face mask – absolutely not.”

“At all?” asked Ryan Tubridy.

“At all,” O’Neill replied flatly.

When asked why people were panicking about the mask issue, he replied “They’ve seen too many horror movies.”

“It’s understandable that people are scared. It’s in the media, and people are frightened in a sense. So wearing a facemask might make you feel a bit better maybe. But there’s no evidence at all that it will stop you catching the virus.”

Truly a clash of intellectual titans – and very evenly matched in terms of education and credentials.

Now jokes aside, people are, of course, allowed to change their minds on issues. In fact, that’s exactly what you want in people who are in positions of authority – if new evidence presents itself, we’d all rather we had experts and leaders who would adapt their view rather than staying entrenched. Obviously.

But when they do change their minds, you’d like to think they’d issue a bit of a mea culpa – to put their hand up and say “You know what lads? I was wrong – I’ve changed my view and here’s why. I’m sorry.” I don’t think any reasonable person could find fault in that.

But instead, very often in Ireland, a respected figure will say something one day, then totally contradict themselves another day, and not only do they not acknowledge it, but nobody else does either. It just gets memory-holed.

In the space of about a month, O’Neill went from asserting that masks were useless if you weren’t sick, to saying that they are absolutely essential. Now that masks are being done away with, he’s urging their continued widespread use.

He didn’t initially say “We believe there’s no reason to wear a facemask.” He didn’t say “The evidence seems to suggest there’s no reason to wear a facemask.” He said categorically, with 100% confidence, “If you’re not infected there’s no reason to wear a facemask.”

Smash cut to 2 months later, and he said just as confidently that “Masks save lives.”

After extensive searching, to the best of my knowledge, this has never been mentioned in any Luke O’Neill interview, despite him being virtually omnipresent in Irish media for the past 2 years.

This is not to single O’Neill out mind you. The same could be said of Professor Sam McConkey, who first predicted that as many as 120,000 Irish people could die from Covid – a figure which we now know was way, way off, but which the government said it took seriously and which likely set the first Covid lockdown in motion.

Or take NPHET, whose predictions and models were consistently off by radical margins at almost every turn in the pandemic.

Again, so far as I can tell, none of these individuals or groups have ever admitted their mistake, nor have they been asked to during their countless media appearances. And these statements and proposals have real-life consequences for our society.

We don’t expect perfection from our leaders or experts – everyone makes mistakes and it’s quite possible that many of us would do no better in their shoes. But when we never admit those mistakes as a society, we will never learn. We will simply continue to put blind faith in the suggestions of people who have been wrong before and could easily be wrong again. And that can have devastating consequences.

If we’ve learned anything as we come out of the pandemic, it’s that scientist worship is not all it’s cracked up to be, and more honesty about “oopsies” is badly needed – even from people who are viewed as respected experts.

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