I’m a professional astronomer, and because I’ve spent the last 25 years studying astronomy, I consider myself an expert. It’s not boastful to say I can count on one hand those in the Ogden area who know more than I do about stars, planets and galaxies. Even in the nation, I am somewhat of an outlier. Only 7,000 people are members of the American Astronomical Society. There are probably only 10,000 professional astronomers on the entire planet, or, as far as I know, the whole universe.

So that makes me an “elite,” an expert on everything astronomy. It also makes me a nonexpert when it comes to everything else. In nearly every other aspect of my life, I am at best a novice or, worse, completely ignorant.

That’s why I trust other experts, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. Experts tell me the United States has only 5% of the world’s population and over 25% of the world’s COVID-19 fatalities. Unlike every other industrialized nation on the planet, we are running the risk of overwhelming our healthcare resources.

The experts are also telling me that despite all of our efforts over that last four months to stop the spread of the disease, daily fatalities — which had been decreasing — are rising again.

And right now, experts are telling us that if we want to get a handle on this pandemic, we must wear masks. We need to stay 6 feet apart. We must wash our hands frequently. We should avoid large gatherings and limit our activity outside the home.

If we don’t, people will die.

And yet, here we are, the only country in the world simultaneously overrun by the disease and arguing about wearing masks. Perhaps there is a connection.

I understand there’s a lot of competing “information” on the internet. Some nonexperts have suggested we shoot for herd immunity, despite the fact that we would have to infect people at six times the current rate for an entire year to reach such a level in Utah, and herd immunity may not even be possible with this disease. Other nonexperts are telling us not to wear masks because they “don’t work” or cause other health problems. This despite the success of mask wearing and social distancing in other countries that have brought this disease under control.

A lot of nonexperts also tell us Earth is flat and that NASA never landed on the Moon. In fact, one poll extrapolates that 12 million Americans believe lizard people run the country. And they all have equal access to Facebook and Twitter (the Americans, not the lizard people).

Some have suggested that wearing masks impinges upon our personal freedom, something that experts in constitutional and public health law would dispute. I would argue that instituting a law requiring you to wear a mask might be legally contested as an infringement of your liberties, but as a member of society, you are duty bound to wear one when you leave the house. Doing anything else at this point is a dereliction of your civic responsibility and a threat to public health. You are free to choose not to wear one, but please stay home or away from other people if you do.

The window of getting the outbreak under control before we attempt to open the schools is rapidly closing, and the experts are saying the outbreak is just getting worse.

Right now, our trust in experts is at an all-time low and yet the importance of listening to experts has never been more important. We are in the middle of a global pandemic that has so far cost 140,000 lives in this country alone. With cases approaching 1,000 per day in Utah, our hospitals are at risk of being overrun. Doctors, nurses and experts in infectious diseases are sounding the alarm bells, telling us to wear a mask when we leave our homes, stay 6 feet distant from others and avoid large crowds. If we all do this, we could bring this under control in as little as four weeks.

At the beginning of this pandemic, I wrote that if we all did our part, it would look like we overreacted. While the rest of the world has managed to get this under control, we as a state and a nation are currently not reacting strongly enough. The time we have to turn this around is running out.

Please, I’m begging you, on behalf of experts everywhere, wear a mask or stay at home.

Dr. John Armstrong is a Weber State University professor of physics. Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong

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