Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Placebo Effect

A random thought...

If someone is taking alternative medicine, is it right to mention that is the placebo effect at work? After all, if it is indeed the case that the solution is having a positive effect then what value is there is destroying the one thing that could possibly work?

To tell someone that they are taking a placebo is to destroy its effects. That is, of course, unless they don't believe you. Then telling them will have no effect whatsoever and the placebo effect remains!

Though chances are that if someone is taking alternative medicine (an oxymoron if there ever was one) then they aren't going to suddenly stop believing in its healing powers. Just hope that if it's a loved one that such negative reinforcement between treating illness and quack cures will mean that if the condition is serious they'll seek tested medical treatment.


aliendreams said...

"[...] is it right to mention that is the placebo effect at work?"

I guess it depends on what you mean with being "at work". I think a placebo might just hide the symptoms, at most, thus delaying real diagnosis and treatment, in the case of "alternative medicine". If someone is taking a placebo prescribed by their doctors then there's perhaps a reason for that. Just my 2 cents...

Kel said...

The placebo effect has been empirically shown to work, and the opposite - the "nocebo" effect has been too. In Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, he goes into great detail about what is known regarding the placebo effect. It even works on other animals! There was also a good article in New Scientist a few months ago on the nocebo effect [it's subscriber only unfortunately].

aliendreams said...

I haven't read those articles/book, and I might need a few updates on this subject. So after reading your comment I've googled it a bit and was actually amazed that the placebo effect can actually reduce the size of a tumor. I stand corrected.

But I still think that when we're talking of a placebo effect in "alternative medicine", we're just taking too many chances. Without proper following from people who actually understand and can make real diagnosis about a patient's condition the dangers far outweigh everything else.

Just noticed that its the first time I'm posting in your blog and it seems I'm trying to pick a fight, but in reality I've been around before and I've come to like your style and your clear thinking.

Kel said...

I didn't take it as hostile, rather I tried to be informative in my reply. I fully admit that my impersonal nature means that it comes across as defensive. Merely I was just trying to pass on information.

On this note, I was listening to a podcast with James Randi on it, and he made the same mistake. It seems there is much widespread in terms of misinformation about the placebo effect (reading Ben Goldacre among others turned my way of thinking around) so if I sounded defensive I apologise.

On your comment, I agree with you. It seems downright dangerous to leave it up to alternative medicine, though for mild ailments I personally don't really see the harm in them taking a placebo while the immune system does its job :P