Posted by: aboutalbion | February 18, 2014

Placebo power

I appreciate the BBC keeping viewers in the UK up to date with recent research into the ‘placebo effect’ [“Horizon” BBC2 last evening].

The research results in the UK and US seem to be so conclusive that I am inclined to think that the evidence for the reality of the ‘placebo effect’ appears stronger than, say, the evidence for human activity driving climate change.

For me, there were two interesting take away points from the programme.  The first is the issue of deception, and the second is the implication for freelance healers.

The evidence for the ‘placebo effect’ in the first part of the programme – in the varied contexts of sports performance, spinal surgery, and Parkinson’s disease – involved the ‘patient’ being deceived into believing that the treatment was the orthodox one.  However, in the context of a patient with irritable bowel syndrome, researchers at Harvard have shown that the ‘placebo effect’ is present when the patient consents to receiving a placebo pill, and that the patient relapses when the placebo pills run out after three weeks.  It appears that deception is not actually necessary to access the ‘placebo effect.  Rather, the spotlight is now on the relationship of trust between a patient and a practitioner.  The programme suggested that the evidence (from brain scans) is mounting that our expectations do have neurological consequences that affect our bodily well-being.  The parallel was drawn between consenting to a placebo and consenting to hypnosis.

I also think this research review raise the bar for freelance healers who use a religious frame of reference.  This research suggests that the standard of evidence to support a ‘miracle’ claim (to be ascribed to a non-natural source) now has to exceed the standard of evidence which supports the ‘placebo effect’.  And to judge by the witnesses who spoke in the programme last night, this latter standard is now remarkably high.


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