Posts Tagged Nature

Is “harnessing the power of placebo” worthwhile to treat anything?

We frequently write about placebo effects here on Science-Based Medicine. The reason is simple. They are an important topic in medicine and, at least as importantly, understanding placebo effects is critical to understanding the exaggerated claims of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently called “integrative medicine” (i.e., integrating pseudoscience with science). Over the years, I (and, of course, others) have documented how CAM advocates have consistently moved the goalposts with respect to the efficacy of their pseudoscientific interventions. As larger and better-designed clinical trials have been done demonstrating that various CAM therapies without a basis in science—I’m distinguishing these from science-based modalities that have been co-opted and “rebranded” as CAM, such as exercise and nutrition—have no specific effects detectable above placebo effects, CAM advocates move the goalposts and claim that CAM works through the “power of placebo” and do their best to claim that “harnessing” that “power of placebo” is a justification to use their treatments. It turns out, however, that when placebo effects are examined rigorously there’s just not a lot of there there, so to speak. Results are underwhelming, and trying to “harness the power of placebo” without an intervention that actually impacts the pathophysiology of disease can even be dangerous. That’s not to say that learning to maximize placebo responses (whatever they are) while administering effective medical treatments isn’t important; rather, it’s to point out that, by themselves, placebo effects are not of much value.

Unfortunately, none of this has stopped what Steve Novella refers to as the “placebo narrative” from insinuating itself into lay discussions of medicine. That narrative proclaims in breathless terms (as Steve put it) the “surprising power of the placebo effect” without putting it into reasonable perspective or even really defining what is meant by “placebo effect.” First, as we have tried to explain time and time again here, there is no single “placebo effect.” There are placebo effects. Second, the only really correct reference to “the placebo response” or “placebo effect” is the outcome measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial. The problem is that, all too often, discussions of placebo responses conflate the placebo effect measured in a clinical trial with all the other various placebo effects that add up to the response that is measured in that trial. Those effects include reporting biases, researcher biases, regression to the mean, conditioning, and many other components that contribute to what is measured in the outcome of a clinical trial. Another common misconception about placebo effects is that they are somehow “mind over matter,” that we can heal ourselves (or at least reduce our symptoms) through the power of will and mind. This is not true. Placebo effects are not the power of positive thinking.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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The problem with preclinical research? Or: A former pharma exec discovers the nature of science

If there’s one thing about quacks, it’s that they are profoundly hostile to science. Actually, they have a seriously mixed up view of science in that they hate it because it doesn’t support what they believe. Yet at the same time they very much crave the imprimatur that science provides. When science tells them they are wrong, they therefore often try to attack the scientific method itself or claim that they are the true scientists. We see this behavior not just in quackery but any time scientific findings collide with entrenched belief systems, for example, medicine, evolution, anthropogenic global warming, and many others. So it was not surprising that a rant I saw a few weeks ago by a well-known supporter of pseudoscience who blogs under the pseudonym of Vox Day caught my interest. Basically, he saw a news report about an article in Nature condemning the quality of current preclinical research. From it, he draws exactly the wrong conclusions about what this article means for medical science:

Fascinating. That’s an 88.6 percent unreliability rate for landmark, gold-standard science. Imagine how bad it is in the stuff that is only peer-reviewed and isn’t even theoretically replicable, like evolutionary biology. Keep that figure in mind the next time some secularist is claiming that we should structure society around scientific technocracy; they are arguing for the foundation of society upon something that has a reliability rate of 11 percent.

Now, I’ve noted previously that atheists often attempt to compare ideal science with real theology and noted that in a fair comparison, ideal theology trumps ideal science. But as we gather more evidence about the true reliability of science, it is becoming increasingly obvious that real theology also trumps real science. The selling point of science is supposed to be its replicability… so what is the value of science that cannot be repeated?

No, a problem with science as it is carried out by scientists in the real world doesn’t mean that religion is true or that a crank like Vox is somehow the “real” intellectual defender of science. Later, Vox doubles down on his misunderstanding by trying to argue that the problem in this article means that science is not, in fact, “self-correcting.” This is, of course, nonsense in that the very article Vox is touting is an example of science trying to correct itself. Be that at it may, none of this is surprising, given that Vox has demonstrated considerable crank magnetism, being antivaccine, anti-evolution, an anthropogenic global warming denialist, and just in general anti-science, but he’s not alone. Quackery supporters of all stripes are jumping on the bandwagon to imply that this study somehow “proves” that the scientific basis of medicine is invalid. A writer at Mike Adams’ wretched hive of scum and quackery,, crows:

Begley says he cannot publish the names of the studies whose findings are false. But since it is now apparent that the vast majority of them are invalid, it only follows that the vast majority of modern approaches to cancer treatment are also invalid.

But does this study show this? I must admit that it was a topic of conversation at the recent AACR meeting, given that the article was published shortly before the meeting. It’s also been a topic of e-mail conversations and debates at my very own institution. But do the findings reported in this article mean that the scientific basis of cancer treatment is so off-base that quackery of the sort championed by Mike Adams is a viable alternative or that science-based medicine is irrevocably broken?

Not so fast there, pardner…

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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