why alternative medicine spreads like a virus

May 7, 2009

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

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  • Anonymous

    Nice try, but there’s a very simple alternative explanation: medical quackery spreads exactly in those cases where traditional treatments simply don’t exist. Take for example Chronic Fatigue, Multiple Sclerosis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, etc. etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean that alternative medicine is of any help there, just that it’s the straw that patients cling to.

    In short, it would be both foolish and dishonest to think that all human diseases are understood or even known (recent example: Helicobacter pylori) and to consequently blame some other effect than the lack of medical knowledge for the rise of quackery.

  • Mark

    Anonymous: When both traditional medicine and alternative medicine fail it’s neither foolish nor dishonest to look for an explanation for why people turn to alternative medicine anyway.

    Also, if the blame lay solely with a lack of medical knowledge, in those cases where there is *no* lack, we should not find anyone resorting to quackery. That’s not the case; we know a lot about HIV and its role in AIDS and despite a lack of a cure we have developed viable treatments, yet people like Matthias Rath think vitamin supplements are the cure. We know a lot about the dangers of vaccines including what is not dangerous about them, yet many people still believe they cause autism, and that autism can be *cured* through diet. We know that distilled water treated with minute traces of a contaminant has all the influence of plain distilled water, yet many people still believe that homeopathy can cure everything from the common cold to cancer, not to mention all the ailments for which we do have very effective treatments or cures such as skin problems, asthma, headaches, migraines, various gastrointestinal problems including ulcers caused by the bacteria you mentioned, and much more.

    So your alternative explanation fails. Quackery spreads even when knowledge and viable treatments are available.

  • Greg Fish


    Actually the entire point of the study and the detailed write-up was to show that medical quackery spreads not because there’s knowledge, but due to social modeling over long periods of time in which relatively harmless alternative remedies, i.e. ones that don’t work and treat by the placebo effect, are seen as viable by numerous people.

    To many humans, it doesn’t matter what the medical literature says or what studies have been done. If we see our friends drinking homeopathic remedies and getting over their colds and minor infections, we’ll be swayed into thinking that maybe there’s something to this homeopathic stuff. Despite the fact that we know colds and minor infections are usually just shaken off by the body anyway.

  • WhatsYourProblemDude

    You’ve already presumed a negative slant on traditional and alternative medicine by calling it “quack”. Why bother arguing when the proponent is law, judge, and jury? And why do so-called “scientists” react in such juvenile ways by name-calling? How can real scientists take you seriously?

  • Greg Fish

    All the righteous indignation in the world won’t raise efficacy rates of folk remedies and alternative medicine. The remedies that work are either recommended by doctors and have been, or are being adapted into medications and treatment plans. There are other names for cures that don’t work, but the most straightforward is to call it is quackery.

    Of course you could show me a study in the Lancet or JAMA or Pediatrics or any peer reviewed collection of medical research that provides efficacy rates of most folk remedies on par with comparable modern medications, and I’ll post a retraction and all the details of the study.

    I might not necessarily agree with all its findings, but I would have to consider it as an effective piece of evidence to the contrary.

  • Mark
  • vargas

    I don’t understand why some people actually think that the man-made chemical poisons masquerading around as “medicine” is better than what the earth naturally provides in the way of plants/foods.

    Some people turn to alternative medicine because conventional medicine fails them when it comes to chronic disease and in many cases makes things even worse. Open your mind and broaden your thinking.

  • Mark

    If you truly value an open mind and broad thinking, vargas, here’s a few bits of info for you to consider…

    Eating good quality fruit and veges is good advice, but it’s often not enough. People who eat well still sometimes get sick. If they’re otherwise healthy and their illness is transient, they won’t need anything more than rest. However there are many diseases which, if left untreated, can kill even the most healthy person. For example bacterial infections. I’m not aware of anything superior to antibiotics for the treatment of severe bacterial infections. “Natural” plants/foods certainly won’t suffice.

    Just because something is natural, does not mean it’s better. For example “natural” Ayurvedic products which contain large amounts of toxic metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. Unlike alternative medicines, conventional medicines are tested for toxicity. – http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/300/8/915

    Also, conventional medicines are tested to ensure they actually do what it’s claimed they do. That’s not the case with alternative medicines – they’re no better than a placebo: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31190909/ Sometimes all that someone needs is an elaborate ritual which convinces them that they’re being looked after in a way that they’re convinced conventional medicine doesn’t. However, too often the results are far less desirable… – http://whatstheharm.net/alternativemedicine.html

    Finally, “natural” products which are found to work are incorporated into conventional medicine, to the benefit of everyone. Aspirin and penicillin, as two examples.