The Fascinating Story Of Placebos – And Why Doctors Should Use Them More Often


By Jeremy Howick in The Conversation.


Plato’s cure for headaches involved:

a certain leaf, but there was a charm to go with the remedy; and if one uttered the charm at the moment of its application, the remedy made one perfectly well; but without the charm there was no efficacy in the leaf.

We would now call Plato’s “charm” a placebo. Placebos have been around for thousands of years and are the most widely studied treatments in the history of medicine. Every time your doctor tells you that the drug you take has been proved to work, they mean that it has been proved to work better than a placebo. Every tax or insurance dollar that goes towards a treatment that is “proved” to work is proved to work because it is (supposed to be) better than a placebo.

Despite their importance, doctors are not allowed to use placebos to help patients (at least, officially), and there are debates about whether we still need them in clinical trials. Yet the science of placebos has evolved to the point where our views should – but have not – changed our prejudice against placebos in practice and the privileged position of placebo controls in clinical trials.


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