Quack Therapies Spread Because They Don’t WorkWritten by: Cameron Print This Article
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Mathematical biologist Mark Tanaka of the University of New South Wales (Australia) wanted to know why ineffective health therapies, often called “quack therapies”, spread and develop reputations for working. He and other researchers interested in that paradox worked on creating a model of why people often try therapies and medicines which have no evidence of working and how they become more popular despite their ineffectiveness.
The headline to this article must seem counterintuitive. The very idea certainly seemed bizarre to me until I understood why its likely true after reading Quack remedies spread by virtue of being useless in NewScientist magazine.
Why does an ineffective therapy for an illness become more popular because it doesn’t work? It’s primarily because it didn’t kill patients, many of those patients recovered for other reasons, and when people who knew about their recoveries got similar illnesses, many of them tried the same ineffective therapies and had similar results. Even more perversely, as quack therapies don’t work it means people stay sick longer and thereby talk about the quackery with more other people, thereby convincing them to give it a try:
Under a wide range of conditions, quack treatments garnered more converts than proven hypothetical medicines that offer quicker recovery, Tanaka found. “The very fact that they don’t work mean that people that use them stay sick longer” and demonstrate a treatment to more people, he says.
This reasoning implies that the quackeries didn’t have immediate deadly consequences, a good thing for the people who tried them. Frankly, it can be very hard to know what treatments work and what ones don’t work without investing large sums of money and time into doing well-designed studies that can take years to gather results.
What is particularly frightening about this is that both quack therapies and “well-tested” therapies may sometimes be believed to work but in fact they can be like band-aids that cover up the symptoms of a problem only to later cause the death of a patient. Given the complexity of determining whether a therapy or medicine really works, even reasonably designed drug and therapy studies done by well-intentioned researchers can come to the wrong conclusions. It’s possible that the therapy being investigated may appear to work, the patient may appear to recover, and then years later many of those patients develop a recurring illness or other medical problem that was caused by the seemingly effective treatment.
A case in point is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) that was believed for decades to help post-menopausal women with health problems. The treatment was developed starting in the 1960s. By the 1990s, the American Heart Association and other medical groups believed that it had been well-studied and was safe and beneficial. Doctors began to prescribe it widely. By 2001, 15 million American women were taking HRT medications.
But after decades of increasing popularity, longer-term studies started to show that HRT was actually quite adverse for long-term health. In 1998, a study was released that tied HRT to elevated risks of repeat heart attacks. In 2002, another study concluded that HRT raises risks for heart disease, stroke, blood clots, breast cancer, and dementia. You can read more about the HRT debacle in Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?.
In the near future, we’ll be bringing you more information on a debate that is starting to go widespread about the use of vitamin D. Vitamin D is being recommended ever more widely as a possible way to reduce risk of heart attacks, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, autism, and other diseases. Yet there’s a school of thought that seems very well-informed that argues that vitamin D actually suppresses the immune system and its seemingly beneficial results are caused by a short to medium term drop in inflammation symptoms like pain and fatigue, but that the long-term effect will be adverse because the immunosuppression increases long-term health damage by allowing the proliferation of latent bacterial infections that cause much damage years later.
It’s not clear to us what the truth of the vitamin D debate is, but it looks to have the potential to turn into a debacle even bigger than the HRT mess, a cure-all that addresses a lot of illnesses, or some mixture of the two. Since we can’t be sure what the truth is, we’ll be presenting multiple sides of the vitamin D debate in future articles.