Monday, December 10, 2007

Smart rats and the evolution of quackery

We skeptics have a hard life facing a woo prone majority around us, but the evolution of one of the most successful animals on this planet may tell us why. And knowing why, hopefully, will help us to do a better job.

Evolution of quackery has been the subject of some skeptic posts recently, beginning with Martin's selective pressure towards a null effect, and I have tried to use the model of the random reward Skinner box to explain how methods without any measurable effect can evolve, survive and gain market success.

Both explanations are not yet good enough in letting us understand why quackery is flourishing. Orac, over at Respectful Insolence, points out that applying a homeopathic remedy is not a random setting such as a Skinner box, and he misses the concept of "regression to the mean" or the regressive fallacy. I must admit that I missed to mention this concept, although I had it in mind somewhere. Skeptic's Dictionary:

"The regressive fallacy is the failure to take into account natural and inevitable fluctuations of things when ascribing causes to them. Things like stock market prices, golf scores, and chronic back pain inevitably fluctuate. Periods of low prices, low scores, and little or no pain are eventually followed by periods of higher prices, scores, pain, etc. To ignore these natural fluctuations and tendencies leads to self-deception regarding their causes and to post hoc reasoning."
It is a very strong concept, and I suspect that a very powerful selective pressure must have been working to make it evolve.

Poison-smart rats

So let's step away from pigeons and Skinner boxes and look at another of Skinner's lab animals, but this time in their natural environment. Rats share three traits with us humans: They are smart, they have conquered nearly all regions of this planet, and they are omnivores. The problem with eating a wide variety of food is the danger of getting poisoned by toxic fruits, seeds, roots or, after the evolution of Homo sapiens, rat poison.

The reason why rats have survived even the poisons specially designed to kill them is a smart food behaviour. Whenever they encounter a new food for the first time, they try a very small amount. If they feel well after some hours, they return and try a bit more. If they feel worse, they avoid this food forever. Therefore, smart poisons have been designed against rats, poisons without a short-term adverse effect to circumvent the smart food behaviour of the rats.

A powerful selective pressure

The only reason I have used the rat example is for showing how important a smart behaviour is. Evolution has put an enormous selective pressure on linking behaviour to well-being. Only organisms who are fit in linking causes to effects have survived. Our life is full of examples. Oops, fire is hot. The child never will touch it again. These sorts of things.

When it comes to homeopathy, snake oil or any other quackery, the same mechanism is at work, and it works well. We feel worse. We apply the remedy. We feel better. Now, with our built-in cause to effect linking mechanism, it is very hard not to assume that we feel better because of the remedy.

The illusion of mastery and woo pragmatism

Using snake oil and feeling better is much more rewarding than doing nothing and feeling better. This may be the main reason why snake oil, homeopathy and other quackeries are so successful - not in real effect but on the market. Everybody likes to be in control of things. If we could ask the pigeon in the Skinner box, maybe it would tell us that it is happy to have everything under control.

Knowing this mechanism, does this help us in debating against woo? Not quite, I am afraid. Our problem is that we come along with science and logic, and they counter it with pragmatism. And if a pragmatism is working well in everyday life, there is nothing against it. Every smart trainer knows that you never change a winning team. He will listen carefully to any scientist and logician suggesting a better solution. He even may agree to the reasoning. But then he will just say hey, we have won our last game with this team, and I am not so stupid to change it.

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