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Pascal’s Wager and Face Masks

Wear a mask!

I like to think of Blaise Pascal (1623 — 1662), the French mathematician, as the western world’s first practitioner of Twitter. His collected Pensées were brief, enigmatic thoughts about mathematics, religion, and philosophy. Collected after his death, they read like tweets from the 17th century (though they were intended to be a much more comprehensive defense of religion).

In the Pensées, Pascal made his famous wager. We all bet with our lives on whether God exists or not. We can live as if God exists and practice the traditional forms and virtues of religion. Or we can do the opposite and ignore our religious duties, assuming that God does not exist. If we live as if God exists and we’re right, then the rewards are infinite. If we’re wrong, the loss is finite. Indeed, it’s quite small – we’ve wasted some time in church and in prayer. Thus, Pascal argues, it’s only rational to live a pious life. The wager is heavily stacked to that side.

I’m applying the same logic to face masks in the time of coronavirus. I don’t know if face masks will protect me – or those around me – from a viral infection. Most scientists seem to believe that masks help dampen the disease’s spread. But some scientists take vigorous exception and argue loudly the face masks do no good at all.

So, who’s right? Like most Americans, I’m not qualified to judge. But I am qualified to apply Pascal’s wager. Let’s say that I bet that face masks offer useful protection and decide to wear them regularly. Now let’s guess that I’m right; I win the wager. What have I gained? The face mask may have protected me from a nasty and long-lasting infection. Indeed, since I’m over 60 and have some underlying health conditions, the mask may well have saved my life.

But what if I’m wrong? What have I lost? A few dollars for a supply of masks and a few hours of discomfort while wearing them. In other words, not much. So, the bet is stacked. I could gain a lot. But even if I lose, I don’t lose much. As Pascal might conclude, it’s only rational to wear a mask.

And, when I’m not wearing a mask, I’ll reflect on one of Pascal’s most famous tweets: “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit still in a room.” Pascal sums it up pretty well. Either sit still in a room or wear a mask. Thank you, Blaise.

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