Eating a vulture won’t clear a bad case of syphilis nor will a drink made of rotting snakes treat leprosy, but these and other bogus medical treatments spread precisely because they don’t work. That’s the counterintuitive finding of a mathematical model of medical quackery.
Ineffective treatments don’t cure an illness, so sufferers demonstrate them to more people than those who recovery quickly after taking real medicines.
“The assumption is that when people pick up treatments to try, they’re basically observing other people,” says Mark Tanaka, a mathematical biologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who led the study. “People don’t necessarily know that what somebody is trying is going to work.” […]
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.