Is Ivermectin Really the Hill We Want to Die On?

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

Yesterday someone posted in the Facebook group for my general geographic area, telling neighbors about a pharmacy that would fill prescriptions for Ivermectin. Many had refused to do so, apparently, perhaps because the scripts are primarily written through online clinics, the same kind of pill mills that also fueled the opioid epidemic. The poster included a link to one of these as well and told readers it was easy to obtain a prescription if they hadn’t been able to get one yet. And you need to do it while you still can, she warned.

The reaction from group members was immediate and heated. “Thank you for doing God’s work,” was one Team Red response.

Another said her doctor wouldn’t write her a prescription. She was advised to get a new doctor from a commenter who added, “I wouldn’t give my money to a quack like that.”

“Your doctor refused because your doctor’s educated,” Team Blue members piped in. “And they know you’re not a horse that needs deworming. You need to get the vaccine instead of Ivermectin, and stop being a chump.”

Some Team Red members tried to convince Team Blue that they were educated about the topic, too. They repeatedly referred to Ivermectin as a Nobel Prize-winner (its originators did share the prize with another recipient in 2015) and included links to a PubMed article that referred to it as a wonder drug.

I had heard of Ivermectin but knew only that it was the flag being flown over the most recent culture-war battlefield. I read the article Team Red referred to and looked through the academic articles in my college’s library for a broader view. In doing so, I learned a lot of interesting details, such as that Ivermectin can cause blindness in lions and that it shows promise as a treatment for rosacea, but my search primarily left me with this general impression: the drug is very effective against parasites in people and other animals; it has antiviral properties; it has some unwanted side effects but when taken in appropriate dosages is considered to be safe, and some scientists are trying to determine whether it’s effective specifically in the fight against COVID-19. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the jury is still out on that one.

If you’re on Team Red, you’re sure Ivermectin will be proven to work wonders in the treatment of COVID just as it’s worked wonders in the treatment of Onchocerciasis. You can’t wait to say, “I told you so” to the people on Team Blue.

If you’re on Team Blue, you’re sure the drug will not be effective against COVID, and may, in fact, cause other serious health problems. If it does, you can’t wait to say, “I told you so.”

In that way at least, there’s not much difference between the teams. I guess that’s a good thing for the minority of people who keep trying to find some commonalities between us. People on both sides want to be right, and they want to lord it over their opponents. There is no high ground on this battlefield.

The Robber’s Cave

The Robber’s Cave experiment was conducted in 1954 at Robber’s Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The “laboratory” was set up to look like a regular summer camp for 11- and 12-year-old boys, but the camp counselors were behavioral scientists studying intergroup conflict.

To have conflict, you need opposing teams, so the boys were divided into two groups called the Eagles and the Rattlers. You could call them the Republicans and the Democrats, too; any name will do, as long as it provides a shorthand for membership, loyalty, and team spirit. Soon, the group members began to relate well to members of their own team and to engage in conflict with members of the other.

The competition and hostility became so fierce the counselors knew they had to do something to diminish it before summer camp was over and the boys returned to their homes, so they introduced a series of external threats that required cooperation instead of competition to solve. As one example, a truck bringing food to the camp quit running and had to be pulled by the boys of both teams working together.

The experiment ended with a shared bus ride home in which the boys provided refreshments for their former enemies. At least, that’s the way the story of the Robber’s Cave was first reported by the experimenters.

And if things really worked that way, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to see that COVID could have provided us with the superordinate goal we needed this summer or any time last year, no matter which team we’re on. The virus could have been the equivalent of a stalled truck, providing an external problem that requires all of us to pull together to solve.

But that’s not the way things are working out. Then again, it’s not really the way they worked out in the Robber’s Cave experiment either.

The manufacture of conflict

You see, the experiment's architect, Muzafer Sherif, was a pretty crappy scientist. He had his preferred results in mind before he began recruiting participants for the study. And even though he manipulated events and people to get the outcomes he wanted, he wasn’t successful at first. He tried similar experiments prior to his work at Robber’s Cave, but they all failed because the children involved were simply not as suspicious, vindictive, or vicious as he’d imagined they would be.

They were pretty savvy, too. When one team’s laundry was stolen in the Middle Brook experiment, a precursor to the Robber’s Cave, camp counselors put the blame on the other team, hoping to stir up some animosity. But the boys didn’t fall for it. They instead “…concluded that the missing clothes were the result of a mix-up at the laundry.” Disappointed, Sherif closed up shop on Middle Brook and kept trying.

The results that matter

Even though the results of the Robber’s Cave experiment are suspect, there’s a lot that can be learned from it. For one thing, it demonstrates that not everything you read can be taken at face value, even when it’s written by a scientist. Scientists are people too, and they have their own motivations and agendas. I highly recommend The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment by Gina Perry if you’re interested in learning more about Sherif’s motivations. I don’t think I’ll ruin the surprise if I go ahead and tell you that one of them was money.

Another thing we can learn is that people want to work together when we’re all threatened, as we are by COVID-19, high drug prices, unequal access to healthcare, job loss, unaffordable housing, and all the other challenges we’re facing. We can work together to solve these problems, and that’s probably exactly what we would do if we weren’t being manipulated by people who are benefitting from our enmity. They may not have our best interests at heart. They may be motivated by desires for money, power, or fame (if you can imagine that).

They may try to get you to believe that members of the other team are evil, even though the people with different colored uniforms are an awful lot like you. And those people, the ones on the opposite team, they’re being played to see you as the bad guy, too. Someone is telling them that you’re deplorable or elitist, that you’re smug or that you’re stupid, that you’re unAmerican or that you don’t give a damn about anyone but yourself.

In psychology, the experiment that participants are told they’re in is never really the experiment they’re in. Stanley Milgram’s experiment wasn’t really about whether people would learn better if they received electric shocks whenever they gave an incorrect answer to a question. It was about whether people would obey an authority figure who told them to administer harm.

For the boys at Robber’s Cave, the experiment wasn’t really about which team could pull the hardest in a game of tug-of-war; it was about what it would take to turn competing groups into enemies willing to go to war with one another. And the Facebook bruhaha over Ivermectin isn’t really about Ivermectin. It’s not just a battle of the culture wars, which either side may win. It’s a battle for integrity. It’s a battle for the soul.

It’s a test to see if you’re going to degenerate into nastiness and name-calling if someone disagrees with you. It’s a petri dish that can show you whether, under pressure, you’re a condescending asshole or a decent human being. It’s an experiment to see if you can figure out the smartest way to win a tug-of-war — stop pulling. Stop pushing. Stop waving your team’s flag and start working together to address the challenges that face us all. That’s the only way we’re going to come out on top of them. It’s the only way we’re going to win.




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K M Brown

K M Brown

Retired psychotherapist who loves a good story. Author of From Fear to There: Becoming a Confident Traveler