The Placebo Effect refers to someone receiving measured, observed, or perceived health improvement through means other than medicine. For the skeptic, it has two distinct manifestations. First is in controlled experiments, where some volunteers are given an inert substance with no active ingredients and others are given authentic medication. Neither the volunteers nor the researcher knows if the pill being popped is potent or a placebo.
If the tested product substantially outperforms the placebo, it is a good indication it has medical value, especially if this happens in repeated experiments. Even when the medication is valid, some receiving the counterfeit version are reported to have improved, owing to the Placebo Effect. These improvements could be due to the fluctuating nature of illness, spontaneous improvement, stress reduction, an original misdiagnosis, or Pavlovian conditioning.
The second manifestation of the Placebo Effect is it kicking in when an alternative medicine practitioner employs the likes of kinergetics, ionized jewelry, or lavender oil. For the practitioner, any seeming improvement is proof of the product’s efficiency. For the skeptic, it means the Placebo Effect may be coming into play.
The power of the effect has obvious limitations. No matter how convinced the clinician and patient are, a placebo will not cure ALS, restore sight, or regrow limbs. But it may work on pain, gastric ulcers, upset stomachs, or depression. Scientist and author Ben Goldacre found that placebos are seemingly more potent if they cost more, have shiny packaging, or require two large pills instead of one small one. Likewise, injections are considered preferable to pills and an intimate consultation is a better augmentation than just handing the patient a bottle of tablets.
The Placebo Effect is not just in the head. It also has a physiological component, and psychologist Martina Amanzio has shown people can be conditioned to release beneficial chemicals. This helps to explain why patients credit both acupuncture and pretend acupuncture with working. Neither are genuine medicine, but both stimulate the opioid system, accelerating pain relief.
Placebos can be especially effective on stress-related illnesses. A soothing massage, an attentive clinician, and a relaxing koi pond, along with a hopeful attitude, can affect the patient’s mood. This can in turn can spark physical changes, such as release of endorphins, cortisol, or adrenaline.
Lacking a series of properly-conducted tests, there is no way to determine if any improvements are attributable to the alleged medicine or the Placebo Effect. But even if magic hands or oil have no medicinal value, if it indirectly leads to the patient feeling better, isn’t that OK? Well, it may be innocuous in limited, specific instances. But the potential danger is the patient becoming dependent on nonscientific practitioners who employ placebo therapies and treat serious conditions with astrotherapy, bioharmonics, chiropractic, dolphins, or Joy Touch.
Alternative medicine practitioners point to patient testimonials as proof and seldom put their products to the double-blind test. Normally, they employ ad hoc reasoning for this refusal. Aromatherapists have said double blind testing is difficult because there is no way to mask the smell of the authentic oil. Homeopaths say their pills need to be tailored for each individual. Energy healers have said their magic powers might infuse the research laboratory and also impact those receiving the placebo.
These excuses vary in their level of ridiculousness, but the double blind study remains the standard for determining a medicine’s legitimacy. Any products that fail this test, or resist taking it, should never be touted as cures or treatment. And it is a supreme irony to take advantage of the Placebo Effect while zealously guarding against testing for it.