Sunday, 21 February 2010

Placebos for everyone!

We ('we' being a vague general group of skeptics and scientists and careful minded folk) have known that placebos can have an actual effect. This has now been backed up by a new study. This isn't really that surprising. (I was thinking to think of a 'placebo study' joke about studying studies that produced no results... couldn't get it to work, so feel free to suggest your own.)

That there is a placebo effect at all means that any medical treatment needs to be compared to placebos in controlled trials to see if there is any actual impact outside of the placebo effect. This is the problem that many alternative medicines fail to pass (which leads to such things as 'even placebo acupuncture is as effective as real acupuncture!'... yes, but not in the way you are thinking). [As has been said before: what do we call alternative medicine that passes such trials? Medicine! If it provably works, it wouldn't be alternative.]

The results of this study suggest that the impact of placebos is stronger than thought before (a result revealed in the URL!). Human delusion is quite a powerful thing, and can lead to physiological changes. This has been seen in the trials mentioned above, but this study says 'it's better than we thought!'. If so (and one study does not a confirmed result make), then that power of mind over matter is something that needs to be examined. Perhaps 'good thoughts' will become part of a doctor's prescription...

...although I'm not sure how it will be delivered in some cases, especially for cynics like me. The real power of placebo is that you don't know you're being placeboed, but if these treatments become standard, and, more relevantly, known that this is what's happening... that's gonna be a toughie to pull off...

I am reminded of the Dilbert episode:
Dogbert: This'll cure you immediately.
Dilbert: Really? What is it?
Dogbert: A placebo.
Dilbert: A placebo? Now that you've told me it's a placebo, it's not gonna work.
Dogbert: It will if you think it will.
Dilbert: But I already know it's a placebo!
Dogbert: Maybe it isn't.
Dilbert: You just said it was!
Dogbert: That's precisely the power of the placebo.


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