Via Ars Technica comes a link to a paper which seeks to explain with game theory why people continue to use unscientifically proven and usually useless medical treatments such as folk remedies or “alternative” medicine.
The researchers created a model to explain this behavior based on humans’ genetically programmed behavior to imitate. This surprisingly simple model shows that quack cures spread simply because their ineffectiveness means that people must use them more often and for longer times. This in turn means that more people see the use of quack cures than they see the use of effective cures, which creates more opportunities for imitation. In short, every person who uses a particular cure becomes an advertiser for that cure. The longer the cure takes and the more elaborate the cure, the more people accidentally advertise it.
For example, consider two people treating a bacterial infections. Individual A uses antibiotics while Individual B uses some New Age method. Individual A takes a few pills and becomes symptomless in a few days. In Fifteen days or so, he even stops taking the pills. The actual act of taking the pills takes a trivial amount of time and effort. Once the infection is cured, Individual A will not spend a lot of time talking about taking the antibiotics. There is little time or opportunity for anyone else to see the antibiotics-taking behavior and imitate it.
By contrast, Individual B uses an ineffective treatment and the infection persists, possibly for years. Individual B has a lot of time to talk to other people about the treatment. The treatment itself may be fairly elaborate and time consuming requiring special diet, special drinks, totems and numerous visits to practitioners. All of this creates more opportunities for imitation.
The more effective a cure, the less people are aware of it. Take the fate of vaccinations, the most effective medicines ever. Vaccinations have saved more lives than have all other forms of medical intervention combined, and they have done so at a trivial cost. Yet today, no one talks about vaccinations save in debates with people who criticize them. Almost everyone today knows about the debate over whether vaccinations cause autism, but very few people even know which diseases they are vaccinated against, or could tell you any of the symptoms of those diseases or the consequences of contracting them. Vaccination takes a trivial amount of time and effort, so there are few opportunities for imitation. By contrast, refusing vaccinations or suing vaccine makers creates a lot of noise and opportunities for imitation.
This mechanism could be applied to any behavior which could be imitated, such a political ideologies. If so, ineffective political ideas might have a competitive edge over effective ones. Like vaccines, effective political policies solve problems, which makes the policies themselves seem unnecessary. People don’t spend a lot of time talking about policies that quickly and efficiently eliminate problems. By contrast, ineffective policies don’t solve problems, which means that people talk about the policies more. This creates more opportunities for imitation. There are many thousands of times more books written on socialism of all forms than there are books written on the free market, because the failure of socialism makes it more visible and thus easier to imitate. If socialism worked neatly and efficiently, no one could make a living writing about it. One book would suffice, just like one book suffices to teach the basic of engineering.
I think a similar effect underlines the political culture of places like Detroit and other places in the Rust Belt. The very failure of the socialist policies means that people talk about socialist policies more, just as people talk about quack treatments more than effective ones. People’s natural imitative nature leads them to adopt the more visible and advertised political ideas. As the community grows sicker people cling even tighter to the most talked about policies just as people in the developing world cling to folk cures instead of risking the leap to scientific medicine. Even as they stand beside the graves of their loved ones, they can’t shake the instinct to imitate the most visible behavior.
This mechanism alone does not explain the persistence of ineffective medical treatments or ineffective political ideas. Many other factors obviously contribute, such as the economic interest of those who peddle ineffective treatments and ideologies. However, I think the researchers have pointed out a very powerful and previously unsuspected mechanism by which ineffective ideas spread due to that very ineffectiveness.
The world just got a little more explicable and little more weird.