The Six-Foot Social Distancing Rule

I think that Cory Franklin is being a bit hard on Dr. Anthony Fauci in his piece at sp!ked rehashing the six-foot social distancing recommendation:

It speaks volumes that no one from either the CDC or the WHO has come forward to refute Fauci’s claim that the six-foot separation recommendation arose out of thin air. The scientific papers from the start of the pandemic include references to those older studies and are in plain sight.

This is all too typical of the Covid-19 response. The ‘science’ that was presented to us was nothing of the sort. It was simply the consensus view of certain experts, given a rubber stamp of authority by key scientific institutions. All too often, that narrow view was wrong. This unscientific approach resulted in economically destructive lockdowns, disastrous school closures and a lethal inattention to the dangers of inadequate indoor ventilation.

Fauci and his collaborators at CDC and WHO certainly bear significant responsibility for each of those debacles. We can’t let him get away with trying to whitewash his legacy.

or, more specifically, singling Dr. Fauci out for criticism doesn’t cast a wide enough net. Why was the Centers for Disease Controls test for COVID-19 so badly flawed? Why didn’t they use the German test? Why did it take the FDA so long to approve tests made by private companies? Why was our pandemic response so politicized so quickly? The list of questions is legion.

In my view a dispassionate consideration of the U. S. pandemic response would call into question the entire structure of the federal public health apparatus, how they are managed and by whom, how physicians are selected and educated, and the very concept of technocracy.

Let’s start with the last matter first. In theory technocracy means that experts rule. In practice it means that, if you have expertise or even credentials in one area it makes you an authority on areas that are only tangentially related or even completely unrelated to your area of expertise. Adding increasing specialization aggravates the matter to impracticality if not outright impossibility. It is possible to be an expert in medicine, epidemiology, public policy, public health management, and being a political apparatchik in a federal agency but it is vanishingly unlikely. In practice a genuine expert in epidemiology is unlikely to be a good manager or good bureaucrat, etc. but highly likely that the expertise will be parlayed into some general expertise but that’s not technocracy.

Furthermore, having the highest grades as an undergraduate pre-med, the highest scores on your MCATs, and graduating from medical school does not mean that you automatically possess the personal skills to be a good manager or good politician. I would also point out that the qualities that some are complaining about in Dr. Fauci, e.g. overstating his own knowledge and “arrogance” are precisely the qualities inculcated into physicians 60 years ago which is when Dr. Fauci attended medical school. So I think he should be cut some slack.

I have no opinion on the six-foot social distancing rule. In the final analysis I think that most of the measures put in place, particularly early on, in reaction to COVID-19 fit the “politician’s syllogism” pretty well:

  1. We must do something.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore we must do this.

I would also point out that the decision to lock down schools unfolded precisely as I predicted. It wasn’t made scientifically, maybe not even logically, and it certainly didn’t put the good of the students as the highest priority.

9 comments… add one
  • TastyBits Link

    I hate people being within an arm’s length of me, and while three feet would be adequate, the six feet rule got them away from me.

    To me, it seems like common sense that a closer distance facilitates pathogen transmission, and re-circulatincing air has the same effect. Both can affect surfaces, as well. Now, I suspect that there is no ideal distance.

    I wish Dr. Fauci would just go away, but like Trump, I suspect neither his haters nor lovers will allow that.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Franklin would be awful in Fauci’s job. He complains that “There were no studies involving six-foot distancing, . . . those studies [that existed] did not pertain to Covid-19.” What should we do Advisor Franklin? Do nothing until the studies come in, of course. Meanwhile, the world is our laboratory, it’s people are our test subjects.

  • Zachriel Link

    Fauci was the director of NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases). The guidelines came from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), not from NIAID. And while direct experimentation is difficult, respiratory diseases, such as influenza, are known to spread via droplets, which fall out of the air due to gravity in a few feet (when speaking, ½m, coughing 1m, sneezing 2m, per Cheng et al., Trajectories of large respiratory droplets in indoor environment, Building and Environment 2020). However, because COVID is much more transmissible than influenza, even aerosols can be a significant source of infection. Once this was better understood, ventilation was recognized as important. That doesn’t mean droplets can’t spread infection.

    PD Shaw: those studies [that existed] did not pertain to Covid-19

    Heh. Quite. Covid was a novel virus. All in all, the social distancing guidelines were within reason. Notably, areas that tended to be more compliant with the guidelines had lower rates of death.

  • steve Link

    Zachriel nails it. I would just add two things. First, the old rule was 3 feet. Some scientists went back into the historical record and realized that there were no studies to base the number on. Someone just made it up and it kept getting repeated. Second, as noted above spread is both by droplet and aerosol. The covid was a hoax crowd keep saying it is aerosol spread, but its both. Anyway, knowing that the 3 foot rule was made up what did they do.

    They looked at lab studies showing that spread, especially droplet, but also aerosol was much less dense farther away from the infected person. They chose 6 feet as a reasonable distance. So, the hoax crowd complains this is not science, but it is. An awful lot of medicine and in other areas we do stuff based upon the consensus opinion of people with expertise in the field. While we would like to have good RCTs to confirm those sometimes the issue is new so we dont have studies yet, sometimes the studies are difficult, maybe expensive or maybe immoral to carry out. We operate based upon consensus while awaiting better information.


  • PD Shaw Link

    I meant to add that this study published in July 2020 on-line found that there was a reduction in COVID spread from the UK’s introduction of social distancing measures (two meters) in March 2020. It showed significant decline in the infection rates at least in the areas with the highest population density.

  • steve Link

    PD- It looks like it also changed some other measures so you have multiple effects. It also ignores compliance issues like so many other studies.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    I’d like to drop something into the COVID relief and treatment discussion.
    Kind of long, testimony of an experienced pulmonary nurse who feels like we really screwed it up:

  • Drew Link

    “They looked at lab studies showing that spread, especially droplet, but also aerosol was much less dense farther away from the infected person. They chose 6 feet as a reasonable distance. So, the hoax crowd complains this is not science, but it is.”

    No, its not. But that’s OK. Its really nothing more than an acknowledgement of a version of the mathematical inverse square law. Its what engineers do all the time in shop floor practice: a reasonable guess. Its what I have referenced many times here: wait until you have all the facts in many real world situations and you are useless; one almost always has incomplete and imperfect information, so one must rely on experience, judgment and intuition.
    Physicists can wait for ultimate truth. And even then, Newtonian physics (“settled science”) broke down later, as we all know, at speeds approaching that of light.

    The need to call it all science was born of a totally different motivation. The appeal to an authority so that the rules given by our overlords could be justified: “the science says.” That’s the problem.
    Didn’t work on those of us who come from science backgrounds. It was control. Further, no need to consider cost/benefit, the point I was making since at least April of 2020.

    All the mistakes are coming out. They always do over time. But so late. Including the fact that Fauci funded GOF research, but in Clintonesque fashion claimed he didn’t because he funneled it through ECO. A crook. Blood on his hands.

  • steve Link

    Scott Alexander put online the debate between the rich Israeli guy and his chosen virus guy against an IT guy about the lab leak theory. The IT guy wiped the floor with them supporting the zoonotic theory. In that they touched upon the GOF stuff and as I recall pretty convincingly showed they weren’t really set up to do that in Wuhan and there is no evidence it took place. If we focus on facts and not unsubstantiated claims then the pandemic mgt doesnt look so bad.

    I think the use of science and scientific are being abused a bit here. It was a new disease. Wee had no studies or data specific to that virus, so you can be super pedantic, and kind of stupid about it and claim we therefore made all decisions absent some science. However, we had tons of science on similar viruses and lots on how stuff like masks actually work. So we used that science by people who understand that science to make decisions, waiting until we had the studies we really wanted to come in.

    Also, since I am at it, I dont really get then claim about the decisions on schools weren’t made in the kids best interests. We had no info early on about medium or long term effects and no idea if the virus was stable or going to mutate. So some people prioritized health for the kids. Other school systems chose to keep kids going to school so parents could keep working. (Note that the NAEP scores coming out are showing little difference in outcomes for states with short vs long periods of no in person schooling.) Both approaches made guesses and accepted different trade offs. It was also not clear early on how much the kids were a vector for disease.


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