Some placebo-bashing from Slate

12/20/2014 02:39:00 PM
Jeremy Samuel Faust says
"Browse the cold and flu aisle at the pharmacy or watch certain famous doctors on TV, and you'll encounter a number of products claiming to boost your immunity, “naturally.” Research on these products shows that they are expensive placebos. However, many people remain convinced that these potions can keep them healthy. Millions of people are taken in by the seemingly friendly—but ultimately cynical—marketing of these products, and they happily fork over their money for what overwhelmingly amounts to snake oil."
It's true that these remedies don't perform better than placebo in randomized placebo-controlled trials. But many of these remedies make cheap and effective placebos! We tend to treat effects of drugs that perform no better than placebo as fake, but the placebo effect is in fact real, and can easily be cheaper than the alternatives such as, for example, more expensive drugs that aren't just placebos. In randomized controlled trials, the placebos are usually cheap sugar pills. But in real life, people suffering from a cold can't go to the store and buy a sugar pill as a placebo--it just doesn't work that way. And it would be far more expensive for them to pay a doctor to administer a placebo pill to them. And we definitely don't want these people to start taking expensive and harmful medications instead of a placebo for mild colds. And besides, placebos often work. Even if we aren't doing any better than a sugar pill, that placebo effect might just be enough to keep a person out of the emergency room.

Something like a dose of vitamin-C or garlic when you get sick is a pretty darn cheap and safe placebo. If it makes someone feel better, who cares whether it is more effective than a sugar pill? We should steer people away from harmful placebos (like antibiotics for viral illnesses), but I'm not sure we've done them any favors by informing them that their favorite non-toxic home remedy doesn't work.
Anonymous 12/20/2014 05:21:00 PM
"If it makes someone feel better, who cares whether it is more effective than a sugar pill?"

You start to care when they're being used to self-treat potentially serious progressive illnesses, either knowingly or not.
Anonymous 12/20/2014 05:23:00 PM
You also start to care when the placebos offered as cures end up being not as cheap as the occasional shot of Vitamin C or garlic.