Monday, April 9, 2012

In defense of placebos


I'm pretty much a non-interventionist when it comes to health and healing.  Whether that's a luxury I enjoy because I'm usually in good health -- or whether I'm usually in good health because I stay away from the meddling of healers -- I can't say.  I hit up my doctor for doxycycline when I get the tell-tales for Lyme disease, I had surgery when a salivary gland went bad, but otherwise I mostly rely on my body to heal itself.  I listen to my body when it has something to say to me, and eat plenty of multi-grain bread with butter and Monica's fantastic cooking.

As an anthropologist and sometimes pagan, I'm sympathetic to the theatrics of "alternative healing" even if I'm fairly skeptical of the mechanics.  But when Brian Kaller, of Restoring Mayberry, of one of my favorite blogs, laid out a more consistently skeptical takedown of alternative medicine it struck a chord.  An excerpt:
Most people I know, in one way or another, yearn for a simpler and more natural way of life, a way to get around big government and big corporations and deal with authentic people, to buy products whose ingredients they can pronounce. And so markets and movements have arisen to meet that demand, and give people the illusion of doing that . . .
Some of the ways people try to live a more natural life, however, just do harm. Refusing vaccinations does not restore the collapsing plankton levels in the ocean, it just makes your children more vulnerable to disease. Buying “herbal” medicines sends money to corporations – just corporations that can work outside of mainstream medicine’s public rules, and so get to sell things that don’t work. 
I'm neither a doctor nor a politician, but I can think of a number of ways people can improve their and their neighbours' health. They could persuade many people to garden, getting excercise and fresh vegetables. They could persuade lawmakers to force herbal companies to abide by the same standards as pharmaceutical companies . . . Americans could also persuade lawmakers to change health-care laws, imitating what seems to work best in other parts of the world.
If more people feel sick, stressed and helpless in years to come, however, the danger is that, instead of doing any of these real things, they will be a prime target for hucksters selling placebos – things that only make them think they are fighting the good fight. 

With slightly tipsy ambivalence, I tried to think through the redeeming features of quackery:

(more below the fold)