Of all the archetypal American figures that we’ve lost over the last century or so, none is missed more dearly (by me, at least) than the itinerant medicine man. Rushing from town to town with his case of useless elixirs, patiently erecting his wooden platforms, standing atop these platforms and barking outrageous claims on behalf of his various snake oils — it must’ve been quite a sight. Of course this figure persists — in the form of the right-wing junk-supplement-peddler, the bogus Covid-cure merchant, etc. etc. Throughout U.S. history each of these figures has found a wildly receptive audience despite selling useless garbage (at best) and/or literal poison (at worst). Our question, for this week’s Giz Asks, is: why?? What is it about these miracle cures — for cancer or Covid, depression or dysentery — that people, some of them otherwise level-headed, find so appealing? Below, our experts weigh in.
Associate Professor, Psychology, Ohio University
People may believe in miracle cures in part because doing so helps to fulfil powerful psychological needs. For example, human beings are motivated to seek structure and meaning in their environments. Because miracle cures offer explanations for unlikely or implausible phenomena (e.g., a person suddenly recovering from illness or disease), we may gravitate toward these explanations in an attempt to make sense of an otherwise uncertain and unpredictable world.
Indeed, social psychological research demonstrates that when individuals are made to feel uncertain about themselves or other important aspects of their lives, they will subsequently seek certainty in other domains — in this case, perhaps by attributing something they cannot explain to “a miracle.” Additionally, human beings are motivated to both fit in with and be unique from others. Believing in miracle cures may function as a “social glue” that connects people who hold similar beliefs to one another. Interestingly, beliefs in miracle cures are often associated with membership in certain religious groups/organisations, which underscores the importance of such beliefs for social cohesion/belonging.
At the same time, though, believers in miracle cures are a numerical minority group in many societies, and this means that such beliefs could simultaneously satisfy individuals’ needs to be distinctive (by holding a relatively uncommon belief) and fit in (by belonging to a group of people, such as a community or religious organisation, that shares one’s beliefs).
Chief of Breast Surgery and Associate Professor of Surgery and Oncology at Wayne State University and editor of Science-Based Medicine, who has written extensively on pseudoscience and anti-vaccination
I think it comes down to a fear of the disease, as well as distrust of the medical profession, with magical thinking sprinkled on top. Some of it’s also fear of the legitimate treatment — which in the case of chemotherapy, for instance, is not unreasonable. There’s no way to sugarcoat chemotherapy — it’s not pleasant.
As a surgical oncologist, this tendency towards miracle cures is one of the most frustrating things I see. More than once, I’ve encountered women with breast cancer which would require not-too-onerous surgery (i.e., not a mastectomy) — something treatable, with a high likelihood of long-term survival — who have opted for naturopathic or alternative-medicine “cures.” And then I’ve seen these women return months or years later with fungating, bleeding, ulcertating masses which are no longer curable and require much more invasive treatment.
It is, in my opinion, tragic. And when it comes to cancer, there’s a whole industry devoted to peddling these “cures.” Take Stanislaw Buzynski. He’s a Polish expat who came to America as a young man, in the 1960s. He found these proteins that he believed were the body’s natural anti-cancer defence, and developed a treatment he called “antineoplaston therapy.” His claims were entirely groundless, but that hasn’t stopped him for treating patients for the last forty-plus years; the FDA and the Texas Medical Board have been unable to shut him down, despite this treatment being not only useless but costly and dangerous.
That said, as more and more have come to acknowledge during the pandemic, this patient distrust is not always entirely irrational — Black Americans and other minorities have real reasons to be mistrustful of institutional science. As for vaccine hesitancy more broadly — and the embrace of drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine — that can be, as we know, ideological. If you have a miracle cure for Covid, then (the thinking goes) you don’t need masking, or vaccines mandates, because the disease can be effectively treated by other means.
Associate Professor, History, Kean University, whose work focuses, among other things, on ideas and belief systems in the realms of fringe and pseudoscience
There is a thread of thought that winds all through our society; it’s always been there, but it’s become fairly pronounced recently. It’s a distrust of people who are specialists, experts. What you see with increasing frequency is something called knowledge-source reversal. People encounter experts who have studied a particular topic professionally for years and years, who know their subject in great detail, and they think: this person’s lying to me. These people would rather trust someone less informed, because this less-informed person is not beholden to some fanciful power structure (or so the thinking goes). This attitude has been around for a long time; it flares in and out of fashion. In U.S. history, we see two competing traditions since the colonial period: one that posits education and expertise as a good thing, another that distrusts both.
Snake oil, too, has a long tradition in America. Today it’s a massive industry: people are selling huge numbers of supplements and making claims on their behalf that they have no business making. Many of these are actively harmful.
Partly, people are attracted to these ‘cures’ because they promise a quick fix. There is a political component, too, because these supplements are often hawked by partisan media figures, who are telling their adherents to not trust the hospital or the doctor or the chemist or the pharmacist. And so a major reason people seek out miracle cures is because non-specialists looking to make a profit, who are trusted by their audiences, expend tremendous energy trying to sell those cures.
Decision Science specialist at the University of Washington who studies how decisions are shaped by psychological and sociological forces
Do you want to believe in a miracle cure? Here’s how.
First, start by strongly holding the worldview that those in power (big corporations, politicians, the media) always screw over the little guy for their own benefit. You can even go ahead and believe that they form conspiracies to get away with it — just leave no room for doubt.
Second, make sure something negative happens to you, to the point that you’re confused about what to do. You should feel uncertain and anxious, like you’ve lost some control over your life. Psychologically, and because you’re human, you will crave to have that certainty back more than you’ll crave the truth.
Third, assume that a solution to your problem does not exist, is harmful, or does not work. If the media, a big corporation, or particular politicians tell you that a solution does exist, you can’t believe them, because they’re the bad guys.
Fourth, make sure you listen to a podcast, read a social media post, or watch a YouTube video where you hear an “expert” talk about a solution that they say really works. This solution is positioned as an alternative to what the evil conspiracies are forcing on you, making it automatically trustworthy and explaining why you haven’t heard about it before. This “miracle cure” is messaged provocatively, maybe even with marketing dollars behind it, usually with anecdotal, inaccurate, incomplete, or fabricated evidence to support it. But you don’t care that the evidence is shaky, because…
Fourth, the human brain is wired for efficiency, so you’re not going to think through the credibility of the explanation, or vet the evidence. Your natural tendency will be to take a mental shortcut, where you assume that if something sounds right then it must actually be right, even when it isn’t (this is the illusion of validity). Because certainty is what you crave, you’ll believe in the cure because certainty is what it delivers.
Do you have a burning question for Giz Asks? Email us at [email protected]