Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Stickiness of Folkways

December 21st, 2009 · 4 Comments

A Jamaican doctor has found that an alarmingly large number of her nation’s mothers aren’t breastfeeding like they should—not because they’ve been swayed by formula ads, but rather due to the persistence of several toxic myths of indeterminate origin. Chief among these? The belief that “infants needs bush tea to clear their stomach in the mornings.”

It’s discouraging to note that this is hardly the first time Jamaica’s health authorities have raised the red flag regarding the tea myth. Back in 1982, the practice was blamed for contributing mightily to the nation’s high infant mortality rate. Yet there has been little improvement in that rate over the past two decades, at least among children younger than 12 months.

We can’t help but wonder why the tea myth persists. Perhaps it’s because our brains are hard-wired to gravitate toward the seemingly obvious, and no number of pointy-headed dudes in lab coats can ever convince us otherwise. The tea myth does, after all, have it’s roots in something both rational and observable to the layperson—the fact that tea is both refreshing and medicinal. And if an infant is nothing but a little human, the logic goes, why wouldn’t he or she derive the same benefits from the drink as mommy? The physician responsible for the latest research in Jamaica neatly summed up the challenges her cohorts face when attempting to educate mothers:

“It’s very difficult in a hot country, when a mother is hot to tell her that her baby is not hot, although you’re trying to say to them, ‘look at what you have eaten versus what the baby has eaten, you have eaten pure solids while the baby has had only liquid, so you’re thirsty, the baby is not’,” Dr Samuda said. “It’s very difficult but it is something we have to work on.”

The good doctor, alas, is up against the same human foible that let bloodletting flourish for roughly two thousand years. Best of luck to her.


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    I wonder how much the fact that AIDS can be transmitted through breast feeding is changing the rates even for people who are HIV-.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Fascinating point, and one not mentioned in the article (though perhaps it’s in an accompanying paper?). That would certainly make sense.

    I wish I had more time to work on this post. I don’t think my point got entirely across–namely, my ongoing fascination with the ways in which medical/scientific myths persist because our species’ observational shortcomings. I’m actually about to start working on a big Wired feature that addresses that very dilemma, so keep an eye peeled for more (and hopefully better written) posts along these lines.

  • capturedshadow

    I’d say torture, astrology, and most of “Chinese Medicine” are amazingly persistent myths.

    But generally I think there are a lot of cultural ideas around food, and eating that are not too scientific but persist for various reasons.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @captureshadow: You mean like taboos against eating certain animals? I’ve recently been thinking about that–it’s weird to me that a staple food in one culture can be completely forbidden in another. I’d love to read something about why our species if like that.

    The bugs one is particularly interesting. I’m a little skeeved out by the prospect of eating a scorpion, for example. But, hey, I’ll eat crawfish like it’s going out of style. They’re both arthropods–how much of a difference is there, really?