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Reading an article (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/02/bad-air/618106/) regarding historical responses to pandemics and the author brings up an interesting point contrasting our modern response with that of previous generations:

A few years ago, when I still had confidence in our modern ability to fight viruses, I pored over a photo essay of the 1918 flu pandemic. How quaint I remember thinking, as I looked at people bundled up for outdoor classes and court and church. How primitive their technology, those nurses in gauze masks. How little did I know. I felt secure, foolishly, in our 100 additional years of innovation. But it would soon become clear that our full-body hazmat suits and negative-pressure rooms and HEPA filters mattered little to Americans who couldn’t find N95 masks. In our quest for perfect solutions, we’d forgotten an extremely obvious and simple one: fresh air. A colleague joked, at one point, that things would have gone better in the pandemic if we still believed in miasma theory. Miasma theory—discredited, of course, by the rise of germ theory—held that disease came from “bad air” emanating from decomposing matter and filth.

My question stems from the observation which I've put in bold above: is there an English word, phrase, or concept, for when a false idea has a pragmatic outcome better than that of the truth?

The example here (agree or disagree) is that the emphasis on ventilation of Florence Nightengale borne of her belief in the "witchcraft" of miasma theory would've produced a better outcome in a pandemic than that of the "more advanced" and empirically correct germ theory which replaced it.

Again, this can be applied to other scenarios or "debunked superstitions", and I am not asking whether you agree or disagree with the central point here, but just wondering if there's a nice concise word or phrase which expresses this phenomenon.

Thank you!

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  • Soounds like riding the placebo effect. Feb 25 at 19:31
  • Not placebo, but doing the right thing for the wrong (or poorly understood) reason. Folk medicine.
    – Xanne
    Feb 25 at 19:45
  • What puzzles me is why anyone would think there’s a single word for this complex idea. You need German for that sort of word.
    – Xanne
    Feb 25 at 19:48
  • While I gave an answer, I think this question would be better suited for a Philosophy or Psychology StackExchange. You're basically asking for the name of a complex philosophical concept, one that describes how false beliefs can nonetheless lead to positive effects. Feb 25 at 20:04
  • It's sort of an inverted placebo: you're actually getting the cure as a result of the doctor's lack of understanding, while a placebo is not the cure but you receive benefits because of the doctor's understanding. I agree that this is a complex concept, however there are certainly words or phrases which encapsulate similarly complex ideas, in many languages. I posted here since that is what I am looking for: a word or phrase to describe the complex idea which I encountered. I'm not looking for how this works psychologically, just wondering if people ave agreed on it's name.
    – Claz
    Feb 26 at 4:15
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A recent coinage for the concept you raise is epistemic innocence. This term comes from the interdisciplinary Project PERFECT, which investigates whether false beliefs (especially delusions, distorted memories, and beliefs that don't reflect social realities) could have positive effects. When inaccurate beliefs do convey a benefit, they may possess epistemic innocence (Philosophy Now):

Similarily, Bortolotti argues that inaccurate or imperfect cognitions, for example delusions or factual misrepresentations, can be epistemically innocent if:

(a) They provide ‘epistemic benefit’ – meaning, they’re beliefs that can help us.

(b) There is no available alternative that would confer the same benefit without higher cost in terms of knowledge or beliefs. (‘Epistemic’ means ‘referring to beliefs or knowledge’.)

The trickiness with a usage like this is that it's jargon (even if it's on Wikipedia), and very recent jargon at that; it is likely that even philosophers and psychiatrists will need the phrase to be defined for them. In using the term, you may be signalling that you agree with the theories of a particular group. So keep that in mind if you decide to appropriate the phrase.

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  • Thank you! This is a nice response and I appreciate it especially as a jumping off point.
    – Claz
    Feb 26 at 3:57
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I would go with "old school". Not exact. But fits the sentence without added complexity of determining if an idea is false.

A colleague joked, at one point, that things would have gone better in the pandemic if we still believed in old school "get some fresh air".

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