By Jean Brissonnet, translation by Harriet Hall
Note: This was originally published as “Placebo, es-tu là?” in Science et pseudo-sciences 294, p. 38-48. January 2011. It came to my attention in the course of an e-mail correspondence with the editors of that magazine, where one of my own articles was published in French translation in January 2015. I thought this was the best explanation of placebo that I had ever read. It covers the same points my colleagues and I have addressed and more. It describes the pertinent research and uses particularly effective graphs to illustrate the principles (a picture is worth a thousand words). The author, Jean Brissonnet, kindly gave his permission for me to translate it and share it with our readers.
In fact, you don’t need to give a placebo to get a placebo effect and therefore we can now think about how we can maximize the placebo component of routine care.
~ Damien Finniss, 2010
The scene takes place in a surgical suite where they are preparing to do a cataract operation. The patient is lying on the operating table. A few minutes earlier the anesthetic gel was applied to the cornea to permit an operation under simple local anesthesia. The surgeon arrives in the company of the anesthetist. They are engaged in a spirited discussion and don’t seem to be agreeing.
“It has been proven,” says the surgeon, “that 30% of the action of a medical treatment is due to the placebo effect.”
“I doubt that,” retorts his interlocutor, “I think that placebo story is one of those medical myths on a par with the idea that we only use 10% of our brain, that nails and hair grow after death, or that cellphones create interference in hospitals.”
“No,” insists the surgeon with a superior tone, “the fact is established and has been proven by numerous studies.”
The anesthetist shakes his head with a slight smile, but he doesn’t reply. As for the patient, who might have much to say on the subject, he keeps quiet, because it would not be prudent to argue with someone who is about to suck the lens out of your eye.
This true anecdote would not be of interest if it didn’t concern two members of the medical profession. Why such uncertainty? Why such lack of knowledge about such a fundamental subject? This faith in an all-powerful, magical, and mysterious placebo is common among the general public and it serves as justification for resorting to unconventional medicines that have never been able to show solid proof of efficacy; but we see that it still persists among the medical profession.
To know whether the placebo effect is real or should be relegated to the same category as poltergeists, it will help to go back in history.