Thursday, December 28, 2006


I am interested in the idea of placebos and of specific social beliefs – such as religion – which operate as placebos. But the most interesting modern placebos are associated with medicine. Despite the obvious huge advances of modern medicine, like most people, I am skeptical of its claimed powers. So too is psychiatrist Patrick Lemoine.

He claims that 35-40% of prescriptions are impure placebos – placebos with a tiny amount of some active ingredient that is insufficient to have any clinical effect. Use of impure placebos is what remains of the witchdoctor’s craft. And good witchdoctors need to sell a patient on a placebo cure – a white coat and a mysterious unintelligible script handed to a pharmacist (also wearing a white coat) can help.

You must know the idea - magnesium for nervousness, antibiotics for viruses and so on. It often seems impossible for a general practitioner to send a patient away without a prescription – and dangerous to prescribe such drugs as antidepressants for mild depressions because of their side-effects – a placebo does less harm and may help.

Of course we should be rational enough to understand that there are various paths for healing. Sport or romance might be more helpful than pills and potions. Or going to Holy Communion and doing the cannibal bit.


Corin said...

Harry, I thought in medical research they did controlled experiments. i.e. 30 people taking a drug and 30 people on placebo and 30 people taking nothing - all at the same time - then seeing what the result is. Unfortunately many experiments are confidential.

conrad said...

I think the issue is even further complicated by the type of illness you happen to have and the type of placebo.

One place I worked did a fair bit of fMRI & behavioral work on acupuncture (which has been around since pre-history), and there were pretty decent effects on people that believed in acupunture (and almost none for those that didn't), so I wouldn't be too sceptical about placebos for some types of minor illness.

hc said...

Conrad, I am not skeptical at all - the evidence supports the efficacy of witchdoctery.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

harry - there is even some evidence that placebo surgery can work in some cases.