Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Placebo Power Behind Many Natural Cures

This is a terrific example on why we do not accept anecdotal evidence, because our mind can play plenty of tricks on an individual, strong enough to affect our physiology.

This article describe why many of the "benefits" of alternative medicine cannot be distinguished from the placebo effect.

Swear-by-it stories and anecdotal reports of benefit are one thing. Proving a treatment helps is quite another. Many alternative medicine studies have not included a placebo group — people who unknowingly get a dummy treatment so its effect can be compared.

Acupuncture is especially hard to research. Positive studies tend to lack comparison groups that have been given a sham treatment. Or they are often done in China, where the treatment is an established part of health care.

One U.S. study found that true acupuncture relieved knee arthritis pain better than fake acupuncture, in which guide tubes were placed but no needles were inserted. But a European study involving twice as many patients and using a more realistic sham procedure found the fake treatment to be just as good. The conclusion: Pain relief was due to the placebo effect.

The one bad thing about reports in mass media news like this is that they never give exact citation for all of these research and results that they are quoting. It's as if we are expected to just accept these things without having to know the source of what they used to draw up their conclusions.



matxil said...

You´re right, of course, that without giving proper links to the actual research data, one could accuse this article of being just as un-scientific as any article defending pseudo-sciences as homeopathy, chiropractice, reiki, etc...

On the other hand, this articles mentions a lot of names and the institutes they work for, so that with a bit of googling one can easily find links with more detailed descriptions of their work.

All in all, I like this article very much. I think a lot of people prefer to believe in pseudo-scientific explanations instead of the "placebo effect", simply because the placebo effects sounds like something "shameful", as if they are fools to fall for a trick like that (ironically, it´s the other way around, it´s much more foolish to believe in supernatural explanations). This article explains nicely what the placebo effect is all about, without making it sound like a foolish thing.
I think it makes a clear case that the placebo effect is a much more likely explanation than any of those new-age quackery story could offer.

ZapperZ said...

Still, it would be nice to actually know the exact reference. Name dropping is a common tactic of many crackpot and crank. Creationists often ignorantly cite Thermo's 2nd Law as a "proof" that evolution cannot occur. The rebuttal against another creationist's speech shows the same name-dropping that was bastardized (see previous blog entry).

My point here is that, no matter how much one likes the message, one should always see if one can verify the sources of such information. Whereas articles in Physics Today, Physics World, etc. make exact citations of the sources, popular media, and even pop-science journals such as SciAm and New Scientists, do not! No one seems to want to double-check if such information has been correctly and accurately conveyed. Thus, we have rumor and erroneous information spreading like wildfire (ref: the US Health Care reform). People seem to just take whatever is the message that came out of talking heads and assume that it is valid, without making any effort to really check if it is true.

The strict requirement of science, and the practice of science, while it is imperfect, is certainly far superior than the cavalier attitude that the general public has regarding knowledge, facts, and what is actually valid. It is why I keep saying that the public should be more scientific literate. It doesn't mean that they have to know and memorize various science facts. Rather, they have to be aware of how one arrives at such-and-such a relationship or such-and-such a conclusion.

But having said that, I'm severely pessimistic that such an education or awareness will happen.


matxil said...

I completely agree with you. It´s a form of populism, which actually not only in subjects of science but also in literature, or politics or other fields of society pops up. It´s difficult to find a balance in between bringing knowledge to the masses and presenting this knowledge accurately and correctly.
Especially in the subject of physics. Most people want simple truths and don´t have the patience to read "complicated articles".

In that respect, I agree with your criticising this article. Putting links to the actual research results would improve it. But let´s face it: very few people would actually read those results.

Besides, the two links at the end of this article are actually rather good, and give more details both about research done in this field and about the nature of the placebo effect.