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Placebo enthusiasm cannot be curbed

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Enthusiasm for the power and mystique of placebo is like the mole in Whack-A-Mole: curb it over here, and it just pops up somewhere else! I get pushback whenever I share anything about how placebo isn’t actually all that exotic or potent — like this study showing placebo does almost nothing for back pain, which I shared on Facebook a couple weeks ago. Someone invariably responds with their favourite “is so powerful!” example … which, so far, has never persuaded me to renounce my skepticism and start worshipping the power of placebo.

For instance, there’s the whole placebo-without-deception thing… which isn’t really a thing at all.

Or the animal thing: I have lost count of the times someone has responded to a bummer about placebo with “yeah, but dogs and horses aren’t affected by it, so it must be an impressive example of the power and weirdness of the human mind.” Bzzzz, nope, thank you for playing!

Trying to debunk the power of placebo is like trying to debunk ice cream. People are determined to be in awe of placebo. And I get it: we all badly want a bit of magic to be left in this world (please), and placebo seems like a decent candidate. So people have latched onto it, drawn to something a wee bit magical — but unfortunately that’s mostly just based on some misleading old hype. It’s essentially a form of superstition, a manifestation of the belief that things are stranger than they actually are.

And it’s always easy to avoid messy, boring truths.

If there’s a way to convince people placebo is not all it’s cracked up to be, it’s education, of course. Superstition is just the misplaced awe of the ignorant. We must learn enough to be amazed by the genuine marvels of science. We must be nerds! We must be fascinated by that which requires lots of hard work to understand, and would otherwise be opaque and boring.

You can read more about placebo power hype on, of course.

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