By Steven Novella in Science Based Medicine.
Placebo effects are largely misunderstood, even by professionals, and this leads to a lot of sloppy thinking about potential treatments. This problem has been exacerbated by the alternative medicine phenomenon.
Several decades ago, the proponents of so-called CAM promised that if only their preferred if unconventional treatments were properly tested medical science would discover how effective they are. “Effective” (or more precisely, “efficacy”) has a specific definition in medical science – it means that a treatment has been found to perform statistically significantly better than placebo in a blinded controlled trial. Several decades and thousands of studies later, the most popular CAM modalities (homeopathy, acupuncture, reiki, manipulation for medical indications, and more) have been shown to be no more effective than placebo. This means they don’t work.
Not to be deterred by reality, CAM proponents simply shifted the goal posts. Now many of them are saying that placebo effects are real, and therefore being as effective as placebo means that their treatments “work.” As part of this strategy they have promoted and amplified common myths about placebo effects. Let’s take a closer look at these myths and show why they are wrong.
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