If there was an award for most counterintuitive results from a study, a recent project that tried to determine why quack medicine is still used by between 60% and 80% of the world, would win hands down. Despite growing volumes of clinical studies linking virtually all gain from traditional and alternative medicine to what’s known as the placebo effect, it seems nothing can damper people’s desire to use witchcraft and roots of odd herbs to cure anything from common colds to HIV. And that’s exactly why they’re so popular.
After applying a mathematical model which assumes that a person is either ill or healthy and has a period of time to demonstrate a traditional cure to others, converting a certain amount of people, the researchers found that bad medicine spreads like a virus. Literally. When someone is sick for longer periods of time but actually manages to recover in the end, this person has more time to show the traditional or alternative treatment to a greater number of people and when he gets better, it convinces those who saw his traditional cures that they really work. On the other hand, when a medication clears up the disease quickly, the same person has a lot less time to show people how well the science-based medicine worked.
Ironically, it’s the same strategy that makes viruses which cause many diseases so effective, The longer the host is alive, the more he can spread the virions to others. The damage that viruses do to our bodies as they try to reproduce is purely coincidental. Their goal is to multiply, not to kill us in the process. The viruses that do trigger immensely high mortality rates tend to burn themselves out very quickly by running out of hosts. And a related weakness applies to the spread of medical quackery. Recurring diseases for which folk remedies are just not working all that well tend to lead people back to standard medicine or other treatments. So when big outbreaks of common viruses keep coming back and witch doctors or eyes of newt or plant roots do nothing for them, the quack cures are discarded in favor of something different.
But wait a second. What about developed nations where science-based medicine “tends to reign supreme?” The study points out that about 66% of Americans are projected to be users of alternative medicine like folk remedies and homeopathy by next year. Study lead Dr. Mike Tanaka of the University of New South Wales at Sydney, says that people just look at what works for others, regardless of the information they might see in medical journals or from the FDA since we’re still not 100% sure of the exact efficacy of many medications we use today. And that brings us to an interesting conclusion we can draw from the study’s results: the next time you see an article about the prevalence of quack medicine around the world, you should place a good part of the blame on our evolutionary heritage as social primates.
After all, the behavior of observing what we see and copying it is ingrained in us over millions of years. When we hear that up to 80% of the world still goes to see their witch doctor, shaman or neighborhood homeopath for primary medical care, our fancy ape brains tell us: “well if so many people use it, it must be okay.” And this instinctual impulse to jump on the bandwagon is what gives alternative medicine it’s power to sway perfectly logical people to try very illogical, useless and sometimes harmful things while praising quack doctors for all their help in treating what ails them. Evolution can be such a cruel mistress…
See: Tanaka, M., et al., (2009). From Traditional Medicine to Witchcraft: Why Medical Treatments Aren’t Always Efficacious PLoS ONE, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005192