Why People Believe In Fake Cures

Because they work

Contagion predicted a powerful conspiracy theorist, but not that he would be the President

You walk into the marketplace of ideas. There are three stalls. One person is selling a cure. Another is selling immunity. The third stall is science, and it’s empty. There’s just a sign that says OUT TO RESEARCH.

Who do you buy from? Most importantly, what are you buying?

Bear in mind that you’re not sick, you’re just worried. You don’t need the medicine to work right now, you just need to feel safe. So you buy the cure and, heck, you also buy the immunity. Why not?

And you know what? It works. You actually feel better.

That’s why people believe in fake medicine. Not because it cures the disease, but because it cures the fear. A fake cure is just a story. Science needs to tell a better one.

WhatsApp University

I keep trying to leave my family group, but they won’t let me. They’re all lovely intelligent people, smarter than me in many ways, but they share a lot of bad medicine. A lot of my loved ones do. In a very real way, it works for them.

Note that they don’t follow the fake medical advice. Like with any medical advice, they mostly just do whatever they were doing anyway. They just store this information in their heads for ‘later’ and it makes them feel better.

For example, I got one forward that said to prick someone’s ears till you draw blood when they’re having a stroke. I can’t imagine anything worse while having a stroke, and I doubt anyone has followed this advice, but that’s not the point. It’s like have a fire extinguisher, you don’t need to use it right now, but you know it’s there. This fire extinguisher just spits gasoline, but nevermind. As long as it stays in the can, fake and real medicine work the same.

Again, it’s not about curing the disease, it’s about curing that immediate fear. Any bullshit, as long as it’s in the right packaging, works the same.

That’s all you need when you’re scrolling through WhatsApp. You hear that there’s a problem, and also that there’s a solution. You don’t have the problem right now, so you don’t actually need the solution. You just need to feel secure now, and it that sense it works great. Better than actual medicine, which is confusing and dull. So you forward it to your friends, to your family, to the people you care about.

In this way, ignorance is an act of love.

The First Religion

Sometimes I wonder if the first ‘wise’ apes were sitting around a fire and someone asked ‘where did we all come from?’ The wisest ape scratched his head and said nothing, because he didn’t know. The next wisest ape said we came from a turtle fart, because it didn’t matter. And thus the first religion was born.

When you’re scared in the dark, who cares? You just need to feel better, to get to bed, to tell your kid something so they’ll leave you alone. Religions aren’t accurate, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true. They’re just answers to a different question.

‘Am I OK?’

‘Do we know what’s out there?’

‘Am I safe?’

So turtle farts or rebirth or resurrection — it’s immaterial. The value is in how it makes you feel.

Bad Medicine

That brings us back to bad medicine.

There’s one medicine that’s included in every major study and which has a wide efficacy across a range of ailments. The placebo. Nothing at all.

By design, a placebo is included in every double-blind study ever conducted. And very often it ‘works’, in the sense that none of the above is often true. Maybe time passes and the problem gets better. Maybe you feel less stressed. Maybe there’s some other variable that isn’t controlled.

It doesn’t matter. The placebo is a catch-all for something else, and something else happens all the time.

When my children stub a toe, I tell them to count each one, to make sure they’re all there. This is not a painkiller, but it works, because 10 seconds will pass. More to the point, this just gives them something to do. It gives them some control. It makes them feel better, and that’s why people take medicine in the first place.

Nobody takes medicine because they want to suppress a cytokine storm, or because they want to bind to a receptor that prevents RNA replication. We take medicine because we want to feel better. That’s it. And that’s why bad medicine is good.

Bad medicine can make people feel better just as well as the real stuff. Often even better. You say I can lose weight by just drinking tea (and having low-grade diarrhea)? Sounds great. It’s certainly better than the science that tells me it’s nearly impossible.

Yes, in the long run, it doesn’t actually work, but in the long run, we’re all dead. Bad medicine at least makes you feel better now.

My Corona

Which brings us back, finally, to where we all are. In the middle of an epidemic without end. A scientific consensus of ‘we don’t know, here’s a tube down your throat, 50/50'. Who wants that medicine? It is both ambivalent and violent at the same time.

Of course people want a cure, and not a hypothetical one in 18 months after three stages of trials. Even in the excellent film Contagion, a single scientist just jabs herself with one needle and that’s the vaccine. This isn’t just an artifact of story-telling, this is how human beings understand the world.

The fact is that 99.98% of the world does not have coronavirus, but 100% of the world is worried. And that’s the malaise — that’s the ailment that they actually want medicine for.

They’re not really looking for a COVID-19 cure because they don’t have the disease. They’re just worried about it. So the people selling snake-oil — from the President of the United States to the governments of India and Sri Lanka — are meeting a very real need. They’re selling at best a placebo and at worst death, but it at least takes the edge off right now.

And yet of course

And yet, of course, it’s incredibly destructive. Because this isn’t a harmless ignorance, and it doesn’t stay constrained to the world of belief. It spills over into unsafe behavior, into what’s funded, and even into what’s given to the truly sick.

Chloroquine can cause seizures and heart arrhythmia. People that feel immune don’t take sensible precautions, they parade through the streets holding candles, or go to crowded churches. And then, of course, it’s a huge waste of money and time that could be spent finding real treatment and cures. Enough bad medicine can poison an entire society and cripple their political response.

What science can sell

So how do you confront the powerful forces of ignorance? How do you confront your own relatives?

When people come to the science stall it cannot be completely empty. It’s hard, but it must also give some hope. And this is something science can do, because science isn’t a thing. Science is a method.

We don’t know which treatment will work, but we do know that the scientific method works. We have conquered disease before not because science has the right answers, but because science has the right questions. Can my statement be proven false? Am I sure that I’m not missing something? Has someone checked my work?

Science cannot put a pill or bottle in the window because it doesn’t exist, but we can at least put a scientist there. Which is why public health officials and public scientists are so important. Someone that can get out there and say, ‘We don’t know, but we know how’.

That’s something even an ape around a campfire can understand. We understand people, and heroes, and the amazing, impossible things that human beings can do. We can also understand patience, and that great epic tales are, by definition, long.

And let me reassure you, this story is actually winning. Vaccines were some Prometheus shit that we discovered decades ago and most people understand and respect their awesome power. Even though the US President is a snake-oil salesman (with financial interests in the snake-oil company), most political leaders are listening to scientists and putting them in front.

With COVID-19, most people can see that public health actions have worked and, aside from the dying empires of the west, most countries are following good advice. Concepts like flattening the curve, though distorted, have gotten into the public consciousness quite quickly, and the idea of vaccines is of course already there.

So science is winning, because it’s the only thing that can win, but it still has to show up. We still need to sell science in the marketplace of ideas, even though we don’t have the same shiny packaging and easy answers of the snake-oil.

So maybe don’t leave your family group (I can’t, they keep re-adding me), and maybe tell people that though we don’t know what, we do know how to beat this disease. That we have the scientific method, we have science, and we have a lot of brave people sacrificing to buy us time.

Because, at the end of the day, life is just a story. That’s what we buy medicine to preserve. We want the story to keep going. We want a happy ending, or at least some more adventures before we go to sleep.

So, when people come to the science stall, don’t feel the pressure to sell them a pill, or even to negate the hucksters next door. Just tell them a story. Of heroes and villains, twists and turns, superpowers and superhuman challenges, all overcome in the end.

We don’t know what will beat COVID-19, but we do know how. We’re going to hold that motherfucker down with public health until scientists build a gun and vaccinate it in the head. I’d buy that. It’s a hell of a story.