Here’s a story that I’ve always rather enjoyed; it comes from Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The book recounts Paul Farmer’s attempt to create an alternative treatment regimen for tuberculosis.
So he got some people together to find out why the current treatment wasn’t working. One group of people (perhaps unsurprisingly, the relatively poor villagers that were typical of his patients) put their finger on the real problem: giving people Tuberculosis medicine when they don’t have food to eat isn’t all that great. Using this insight, Farmer went on to develop a treatment programme that ensured that all the Tuberculosis patients received food money and extra attention.
What interests me, though, is the other perspective. The other group of people — typically more affluent doctors — felt that the problem was related to the superstitiousness of the patients. According to them, the patients didn’t really believe that microbes caused Tuberculosis: instead, they believed that Tuberculosis happened because of sorcery, and therefore they didn’t stick to the medication regimen.
After talking to a lot of his patients, Farmer learned that although a lot of his patients actually believed this, the belief didn’t make much difference to their recovery rate.