22 April 2006

Truth in Advertising

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we can learn a thing or two from bees. Tom Seeley, a Professor at Cornell reports (subscription required; for a precis of the original research, check out the media relations story from Cornell) that honeybees use a clever strategy for decision making, in this case, moving the swarm to a new hive. 'Scouts', a subset of the group, head off to find plausible sites for the swarm to settle. When they return, they use the infamous waggle dance to let the others know where the site is, and most importantly, how good it is. The group assesses the scouts' reports, and then the swarm moves to the best site.

The system is not really all that surprising - but it does represent a remarkable display of decision by committee. The authors highlight the fact that the collective decision "is a product of disagreement and contest rather than consensus or compromise". What I found notable about the piece was the honesty of the scouts. If the site that an individual scout finds is excellent, the resultant waggle dance is exuberant. On the other hand, if the site is only acceptable, the waggle dance is more muted. The competition for having found the best site does not result in deception: given that the objective is the overall welfare of the swarm, the scouts are scrupulous about being honest in their assessments.

Being highly evolved animals, you would think that we humans would treat important decisions with equal candor. Unfortunately the evidence goes against us. Earlier this month, Carl Elliot published a damning piece in the Atlantic entitled The Drug Pushers. Even more alarming, this past week witnessed the Inaugural Conference on Disease Mongering in Newcastle, Australia. Draw your own conclusions, but this much is clear: we would be better off if humans treated the marketing of medicines with the same veracity as honeybees.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

1 comment:

Mimi said...

Oh yes, drug pushing is all about profits. Sadly, it seems that almost everything in the health field has become so. Can't remember the name of the book, but a few years ago, I read one that suggested that drug-addiction, for instance, has been hyped to an enormous extent. Years ago, many (at least beginning) addicts were able to stop using on their own; now it's assumed you have to enter an (expensive) rehab center, take (expensive) medication, and get (expensive) counseling. Once you're clean and resume your life, you run a very strong risk of falling back into the abyss and the cycle starts over. I know about this personally: When I was much younger, my obstitrician prescribed anphetimines to control my weight during pregnancy. Boy, I loved the stuff, had the baby fine, got to a size 10, and had energy to burn. I continued to use it everyday--I actually had an open-ended prescription. Of course, I had to keep increasing the amount to get the same effect and was finally taking 5 times the amount originally prescribed. The FDA then cracked down on the stuff and I couldn't get any more. Well, I just stopped taking it. It was unpleasant for a time, but in a few weeks, I got over it. Was I an addict? Of course, but I didn't know I was and I didn't know there was "help" available, so I just kicked it myself. My husband did the same with cigarettes: Smoked 2 packs a day for years, decided to quit cold turkey, and did, overnight. Thanks for your blog--wonderfully thoughtful insight, notably this entry and the one on the Iraqi carnage.