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Dr David Grimes: challenge claims and stand up for science


Dr David Robert Grimes is this year’s winner of the John Maddox Prize for standing up for science. In this guest post, he argues that it’s important for us all to challenge extraordinary claims.

We often take for granted just how incredible the era we live in is. We’re the first generation in human history for whom information on any and all subjects is available quite literally at our very fingertips. This is incredibly empowering, but can sometimes be a double-edged sword…

While instantaneous access to practically the entire wealth of human knowledge is something that is now part of our lives, it is somewhat paradoxical that this same freedom of information allows falsehoods and misinformation to perpetuate further and faster than ever before.

Obviously then, sources matter when we must ascertain the veracity of any information. But evaluating sources can be a difficult task, and often impractical for an individual. Objective, well-sourced information is crucial if we are to make informed and pragmatic decisions. And evidence should be paramount in everything we do, from selecting a political candidate to support to choosing the best car to buy.

‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’

From practically every aspect of the modern world, we are accosted by a multitude of claims, promises and warnings. But it is vital to remember that without evidence, any claim is merely sound and fury. Unless supporting evidence is offered, healthy scepticism should be our default position to any claim.

Carl Sagan’s dictum that ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ is an excellent guiding principle in not only the scientific world, but in our everyday life too.

Continue to insist on evidence

However, while the onus for substantiating a claim almost always lies with the party asserting it, it is not uncommon for those making questionable assertions to claim it is the responsibility of others to prove them wrong, rather than for them to verify their statements. This is a rather devious tactic and it pays to be wary of this rhetorical fallacy.

It is important we don’t accept such attempts to wrangle out of providing evidence, and continue to insist on it. Asking for evidence is therefore important as it reminds those promoting their wares that the onus is on them to support their assertions.

From a consumer point of view, objective and verifiable information is of vital importance in making good decisions, and this is certainly something that the Which? Convo community has much to contribute to.

Do you challenge products that make extraordinary claims, such as the ‘drinkable sunscreen’ that Which? uncovered? What was the outcome?

This is a guest post Dr David Robert Grimes, a scientist at the University of Oxford. He was awarded the 2014 John Maddox Prize for promoting science and evidence on controversial issues, such as nuclear power and climate change. The award is named after the late Sir John Maddox, who was editor of Nature for 22 years. All views are David’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


Whilst the assertion that only now have we unprecedented access to information of dubious veracity is true, it is a bit marginal. We have always been given information through newspapers, many of which have political support or agendas, correspondents of dubious expertise, prejudiced and partisan. So we have always had to use our judgement – if we could be bothered – to try and assess the truth. But unless you have all the evidence and good analytical skills that is very difficult. Which is why we have to rely on impartial experts and expert bodies to do this for us. And can we trust them? Climate change is perhaps a good example – conflicting views from so-called experts, and worse, from ignorant politicians.

I agree that evidence should vbe provided to support a claim – but this can be “economical” in supporting the claim.

What’s the answer? Probably only experience and education to help you make a best judgment.

My view is that all claims made in advertising should be scrutinised before products are put on sale. In the absence of evidence to support a claim, the advertisement should be rejected. The same would have to apply to claims made in other ways, e.g. packaging, product information and articles written by a company to promote sales. That’s a tall order and my view is that we are going to have to move towards companies paying for this scrutiny. This is not something that will happen overnight.

It is good to see the ‘Ask for Evidence’ campaign, promoted by Sense About Science: http://www.senseaboutscience.org Hopefully the new Ask for Evidence website (David has provide a link in his introduction) will engage with more people.

Even schoolchildren can be aware of marketing hype but how many of us are in a position to question whether claims used in current advertising are honest?

As in other “policing” areas this is a question of scale – imagine the number of adverts and then the number of experts, bodies and beaurocracy needed to adjudicate. I do not think it feasible.

I would rely on people in general and expert organisations reporting blatant advertising misrepresentation and requiring supporting evidence form the advertiser to support their claim. The cost of investigation should be paid by the advertiser, refunded only if the claims were true. If untrue, the company should be fined and, if fraudulent, criminal proceedings take. Is Trading Standards the starting point – if only we had a well-funded national organisation.

We do have to learn how to deal with persuasive adverts that are not untrue but appeal to our emotions. Every organisation that sells products or services wants to persuade you to buy, so will miss out the negatives. Is that misrepresentation?

How would MPs survive in this scenario?

Ask for the Evidence I am proud to say I used a few days ago querying the lifetime use claims on electrical drills.

However the problem remains that unless there are penalties for making unverified or unverifiable claims we are not much further forward in preventing them. The interesting case of Cokes Vitaminwater where its US counsel argued that a normal person would not believe that it contained vitamins is on record and googleable.

What’s the relevance of that piece? Cancer diagnosis has been rising for decades and will continue to rise as the population ages. You have to die of something, and the more you don’t die of injury, infection or heart disease, the more you’re likely to die of cancer.

Drinkable sunscreen I recall was vigorously challenged on Which? Convo as too absurd and real evidence of its efficacy was never substantiated. Claims such as these need science to protect the inexperienced young and the more vulnerable from exploitation. On the other hand, one cannot help but question where science is taking us. It has taken us to the moon and back and we have just landed a sophisticated piece of tackle on a comet 300m miles from our planet at great expense to determine our watery origins and yet one in three people are still dying of cancer.

One problem our scientific friends have never been able to explain to me is fundamental. I remember reading somewhere that to a scientist “if it can’t be measured then it doesn’t exist.” Paradoxically to produce something from nothing is the very essence of a scientific mind anyway.

Sorry for delving a little too deep but in my lifetime there are soooooo many things that have happened at a personal level that can be explained but not measured and I have yet to be convinced they did not exist.

Homeopathy has no supporting evidence so, on this basis, should be banned. However the NHS has some Homeopathic hospitals and some GPs practise it. Presumably these are scientifically-trained logical people. Just to illustrate the difficulty.

Is it just is important to disprove something as it is to prove it? On the one hand homeopathy may work, or the thought it will work might be sufficient to help some people; against that, using homeopathy instead of a mainstream treatment might be damaging or fatal.

I think Malcolm a lot more research is needed in the field of homeopathy and the placebo effect.
Each and everyone reacts differently to a variety of remedies which is evidence of our uniqueness. Tighter regulation is essential to prevent charlatans from profiteering from other people’s misery. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) is the official governmental body appointed to approve and regulate malpractice and misrepresentation.

All the research so far has shown no demonstrable effect. So far. As you say, maybe more is needed. I think we may share a view in principle. However, my point was where do you penalise advertisers when proof for and against can be vague? And, as you say, at what point does misrepresentation become an issue? Do we all need multivitamins?

Charles says:
13 November 2014

Beryl – I agree that more research should be done on the placebo (and nocebo) effect. But you’re giving homeopathy a level of legitimacy by comparing it with placebo. It’s a sham and I don’t want any of my taxes to go towards it.

Charles, being given a treatment you believe can help you, even if it has (to others) no proven beneficial effect, is surely good enough for it to be classed as a placebo? And if that belief works, then surely that is good? I have not a clue whether placebos can be beneficial. Do we have any research to demonstrate any effect?

I’m almost sorry I introduced homeopathy. As an engineer I do not see how it can work, and I see proponents of it but not evidence to support it. Lack of evidence is good enough for me to discount it for my own use. But – evidence is not always easy to find, even though we believe some things work. I’m sure it is a myth but I remember being told that by the laws of aerodynamics a bumble bee cannot fly, yet it does. Some believe in dark matter but, as yet, I don’t know whether we have found any, have we? Hypotheses are used to help explain situations when proof is scarce.

The key in this conversation is critical thinking – keep an open mind and look at available facts. Then make your best judgment. You might make the right choice.

Malcolm, “more research is needed” is the endless mantra of those who promote quackery. Sometimes no more research is needed.

Homeopathy is, by now, solidly shown to be worthless, but they still want “more research” because every now and then chance will throw up a positive result they can use to keep the flame alive.

It is ethically indefensible to conduct any further human studies on homeopathy until the following conditions are met:

1. Proof that like cures like as a general or useful principle. It’s based on a single speculation by Samuel Hahnemann over 200 years ago, that cinchona bark cures malaria because cinchonism is “like” malaria. Actually it cures malaria because it contains quinine which kills plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. There is absolutely no reason to believe homeopathy should work in the absence of a robust proof that like cures like, and that symptomatic similarity has any role in the treatment of disease.

2. Proof that dilution increases potency. Thus far not one study has decisively answered the question of how many shakes are required, how many strikes of what force, or whether the shaking and striking is even necessary, and no test, however sensitive, can tell the difference between two similarly prepared remedies at normal potency.

3. A credible – or even remotely plausible – mechanism of action. Homeopaths focus on bits of research showing apparently anomalous effects in water, but in reality even if water did have a memory and it was persistent and somehow related to the magical property involved in symptomatic similarity, the bioavailability in a remedy as normally presented would be zero. It’s very common for drugs to fail to make it to market because it’s simply not possible to deliver them to the affected organ in a meaningful dose without unacceptable side effects. The human body has a superb engine for preventing things we consume form making it into the bloodstream without being broken down into the usable parts.

Of course homeopaths will arm-wave about “energy”, but they are never able to specify what form of energy or how much. Energy is measured in Joules and is physically measurable, it’s not a synonym for magic.

Charles: Looking at it from a psychological point of view my research has come up with the best and most interesting study I think on http://www.psychologytoday…/exploringtheplaceboeffect/11nov2012. Dr Novella explains how endorphins in the brain contribute to and people with high levels of dopamine are more likely to experience placebo effects. Fascinating stuff!

And I’m not picking on you, it’s just that homeopathy is a particularly unambiguous example. Acupuncture is an interesting one – it has by now been convincingly demonstrated that it doesn’t matter where you put the needles, so meridians and qi are out (as expected, given their inconsistency across traditions and lack of empirical evidence of their existence). Recent experiments also cast serious doubt on whether it actually matters if the needles are even inserted, so it’s very likely that acupuncture is purely a theatrical placebo – a small amount of research may be justifiable, but there are risks associated with the practice so careful attention is required to the ethics of any trials.

Interestingly, the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has spent about two billion dollars on trials of various CAM practices, and failed, thus far, to validate a single one. It’s my strong belief that anything still in the “alternative” bucket is, by now, not worth looking at, and that’s doubly true for those which have become alternative only after being refuted scientifically – HCG for weight loss, chelation therapy for heart disease and autism and so on.

Minchin’s Law applies.

Guy, as I said I do not believe in the principle – so I agree with your comments. However I also believe in the freedom of people to carry out research into whatever they choose – but to present those results for peer review and not launch them on the unsuspecting as proof of their belief (or opinion). MMR vaccine acceptablilty was damaged by, I believe, lack of a proper approach, wasn’t it, and that was by supposedly reputable people. People whose views we would normally respect.

But, we make little progress if we stifle free thinking – even from cranks. Our belief and opinion might just turn out to be wrong.

Sure, people should have freedom to investigate anything, scientifically, but there are ethical considerations too. The rules for conduct of human studies are set out in the Declaration of Helskinki and they require that there should be evidence that the experimental population be likely to benefit from the outcome of the research. This is a very hard sell with homeopathy. While there’s undoubtedly a strong case to be made that there would be benefit from withdrawal of homeopathic nostrums as purported treatment and/or prevention of serious disease, there’s compelling evidence that no negative study outcome is likely to influence the practice of homeopaths. The Society of Homeopaths has publicly stated that homeopathy should not be promoted for prevention or treatment of serious disease, but in submissions to the House of Commons on antimicrobial resistance and homeopathy generally they have pretty much stated the opposite.

The problem with treatments not anchored in reality is that they have no system for self-correction. The entire purpose of medical research is precisely that: self-correction. Marshall and Warren corrected centuries of incorrect practice by demonstrating that duodenal ulcers can be caused by infection with helicobacter pylori, and that changed the standard of care very quickly. I have never seen any evidence of any alternative practitioner amending their practice in response to a study that finds any part of their beliefs to be incorrect.

I suggest we turn our attentions from homeopathy to some of the dodgy claims currently used in advertising. Any reasonable person will understand the scientific explanation why homeopathy cannot work, so that puts homeopathy in the category of belief – like religion. Both are interesting to explore but extended debate achieves little.

David’s article in Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies uses the solar system to help visualise the dilution involved in homeopathy. This is a useful approach for anyone who finds it difficult to comprehend very large/small numbers. I don’t believe the full text is freely available.

That is precisely the problem: As long as homeopaths can advertise even the vaguest health claim without being challenged, the controls on dodgy claims are insufficient. It is a litmus test.

I am a big fan of the ASA, and have met them in person. They are one of the few groups who will challenge dodgy health claims. MHRA have done nothing about sale of Rife machines, Trading Standards have now woken up to the Cancer Act and scored some convictions but the consumer protection from unfair trading regs are essentially unused against quacks and charlatans.

And may quacks use code in adverts anyway but make bogus claims dace to face. Some for example advertise chelation and CEASE in one place, talk vaguely about autism in another, and let the public join the dots.

I completely agree. As Brian Cox said: The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it. The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!

We’ve had issues in Which? conversations with a tireless promoter of woo who wound the reality-based community up to such an extent that people ended up being put on moderation. I think any responsible outlet should be prepared to step in when nonsense is being promoted, and that includes removing advertisements.

If you want to be really, really angry, pick up a copy of What Doctors Don’t Tell You at one of the outlets that still stocks it (Sainsbury’s had it in pride of place recently). The editors howl censorship and freedom of the press when skeptics ask that retailers stop stocking it, but it is packed full of misleading adverts for quack remedies and gizmos, and the editorial content is just as bad. Around 200 stories on vaccines, every single one of which promotes an anti-vaccine agenda. Vitamin C cures AIDS and cancer. Homeopathy cures the non-existent “chronic Lyme disease”. There’s no bit of nonsense they won’t publish, I reckon.

Given the huge and ultimately pointless previous Conversations on homeopathy it would be nicer to look at other areas.

Just to re-state my open-mind position.:
A] Placebo effcts exist and simply require a belief in the system
B] If you believe in quantum physics:
then you must also believe that everything is not tied down in the world of physical interactions.

Now off the benefits of placebo perhaps we should look at astrology and religion as all areas that are highly suspect. Given attacking peoples belief systems is usually a waste time perhaps it would be helpful to decide what areas could effectively be attacked for providing duff evidence – and penalised,

BTW I would urge everyone who has not signed up for AllTrials to do so today and lobby the WHO to prevent pharmas hiding adverse trials etc.

Should there be awards for programmes, companies, people who consistently use statistcs loosely or in a misleading way? I have listened to Today this morning and a reporter gave the isolated fact that self-harm had increased by 1,000. The obvious question is that a 1% increase or a 500% increase. Without providing both figures the evidential comment is worthless.

So lets institute an award system – and perhaps eventually the database of duff claims will lead to the realisation that prosecution may be a beneficial way to stamp down on deceit.

Asking for the Evidence is the start : )

I very much agree that we need to raise awareness of false product claims and to have suitable penalties in place, but the problem with this approach is that companies are likely to have a period in which they can profit by the sales of these products and some of the customers will be miffed when they are withdrawn. One thing we don’t want to encourage is public distrust of science.

As I suggested above, product information and advertising claims need to be scrutinised before products are put on sale, and this will have to be funded by the companies. Companies can save costs by not constantly changing their products and marketing. Since that would apply to all companies, it’s an even-handed approach.

Thanks for the reminder about the AllTrials campaign, Dieseltaylor. I signed up during an earlier Conversation.

Accounts auditing is funded by the companies – look how well that works (Tesco??). It would have to be independent and expert – where are all those resources? I’d rather see them deployed doing something more constructive. Instead, respond to significant reports of advertising malpractice with a properly funded body – Trading Standards? Ensure that adequate penalties are in place for misleading, deceptive or untrue claims to make it commercially not worthwhile; we want to prevent it, not just catch culprits.

Malcolm – I agree that claims would have to be vetted independently and experts. That would have to be funded by the companies wanting to market their products. If no claims are made then there are no claims to be tested.

Trading Standards is not coping at present and there is no indication that this will change soon. Even if more money was available, the current remit of TS is to investigate reported problems. What I am suggesting is to vet claims before products go on sale. In many cases it has been established what product claims are permissible for ingredients used in foods, so other producers of similar foodstuffs can make the same claim.

Introducing a novel claim will be what costs money, but a company should be prepared to provide good evidence to support their claim and pay for this to be independently vetted. What I am suggesting is that claims are scrutinised before the product goes on sale instead of waiting until the Advertising Standards Authority has received a bunch of complaints.

wavechange, I understand what you are proposing, but simply believe that there are too many new claims for it to be practical to vet every one – good, bad or indifferent – before they are marketed.

If there are many new claims (I was not aware of this) then all the more reason for having these vetted before products go on sale. If these claims are just new to a product but acceptable for similar products, there may be no reason for investigation or delaying the launch of a new product.

I don’t see that it is impractical to vet new claims before products go on sale.

It won’t happen because the supplement industry won’t allow it to happen. We’re not quite as bad as the US, where supplement industry stakeholders in government pushed through the DHSEA, an Act that effectively prevents the FDA from even looking at a supplement unless people are clearly being harmed by it, but we’re not far off.

It’s interesting to see the fallacies used by the supplement industry when Europe looked at restricting maximum vitamin doses on sale (i.e. pushing back against vitamin megadose quackery) – they presented this as Europe wanting to take away your vitamins. This claim was of course entirely false.

I appreciate that the supplement industry is a big problem, Guy, but that should not stop us making inroads elsewhere.

I agree, but I don’t think you’d ever be able to have a system where all marketing claims are subject to prior approval – that would be a bureaucratic nightmare. The ASA do a pretty good job, I think the only thing that needs to change is that there should be an offence of false advertising, and it should be possible for courts to issue injunctions forbidding people form repeating advertisements that have been adjudicated as false.

It’s the difference between moderation and retromoderation, in online discussion terms. Moderation is a guard, a deterrent, and means that only the most motivated even participate, whereas retromoderation is a traffic policeman, keeping people’s minds on the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries.

Charles says:
18 November 2014

I agree the ASA does a job – but they are so outgunned it is unreal. We need to reset the average punter so the default setting is to be a little skeptical – question what you see/hear – or as David describes: Ask for Evidence. Great little campaign and will be interesting to see where it goes.

I totally agree. I think critical thinking should be a core curriculum subject in schools, but I suspect that no politician in the world would risk giving rise to a generation capable of analysing their claims rationally.

Charles says:
19 November 2014

If (and this is obviously a massive if) politicians are using good evidence then there’s nothing to fear – I hope we see lots of people cheering when Ask for Evidence finds people/companies are using good numbers to justify statements.

The increasing use of antibacterial products concerns me because I would like to see evidence that they are needed. Most of the handwash on sale is now labelled as antibacterial.

If I visit someone in hospital, I will use the alcohol-based antibacterial hand-rub provided to help avoid spread of pathogenic organisms, but I am not convinced that every home in the land needs to use any of the wide variety of antibacterial products on the supermarket shelves.

What is wrong with washing hands properly, like many of us were taught to do? My main concern is possible harm to humans and wildlife. Most chemicals that are harmful to one form of life are harmful to others. (Considerable effort has gone into creating antibiotics that kill bugs without harming us, but that’s an exception.) Even if the risk to humans is minimal, antibacterial products can play havoc with the environment, for example when waste water gets into our rivers.

Some of the nastiest ingredients – for example triclosan – in antibacterial products are no longer used, and manufacturers have responded by changing the formulation of their products.

A common antibacterial handwash is Carex, and I will focus on this one because it specifically mentions ‘The Science’. http://www.carex.co.uk/hand-hygiene
I would like to see a statement that hand washing in the home is effective without antibacterial handwash, but a company selling the stuff is hardly likely to do that.

There is no indication that ingredients of handwashes and other household products could be harmful to people or the environment or where the formulation has been changed, presumably because of concerns in the past. Skin irritation and true allergies to components of household products is one example of the problems caused by household products.

I feel that science has been misused to convince us of the need to buy antibacterial products, such as handwash.

I agree with you. Handwash has become a ‘lifestyle’ product promoted in fancy bottles with alluring names, pretty colours and beguiling fragrances. This is marketing, and more or less what i would expect. What annoys me is that this stuff is given added currency by the editorial content of ‘lifestyle’ magazines and other media that probably knows better but is frightened of losing valuable advertising. The hygiene-in-the-home scare has even reached the point where manufacturers have come up with battery-powered no-touch dispensers of hand cleansers. No doubt automatic sterile latex glove applicators will be next [put your hands in the pod and they come out ready-wrapped for household chores]. This is another area where sensible education would make a difference.

One of the issues I see with the widespread use of alcohol hand disinfectants is that poeple stop looking at the wider picture.
We are encourgaed or even mandated to use these when visiting hospitals, dentists, blood donor sessions , but no attempt is made to stop almost instant recontamination by everything we then touch which has not been cleaned. i.e. seats contaminated by clothes, forms or leaflets handed out.

I can see the value of alcohol-based disinfectant where there is a risk of transmission of an infection from a sick person or where someone is very ill in hospital and at risk of infection. I see no reason for using antibacterial handwash in the home, when ordinary hand washing does an adequate job.

What concerns me is that the manufacturers are implying that we need these products in the home.

Exactly. I am not aware of any credible evidence that the antibacterial products confer any benefit over good old fashioned soap, when used correctly, and I seem to remember a publication showing precisely the opposite, but I can’t find it now.

Soap, hot water, a decent nailbrush, and none of your microbeads thanks all the same.

The general consensus would indicate that homeopathy does not work for some but can work mainly as an adjunct to conventional medicine albeit IN THE MIND where further research is needed (and is in fact ongoing) by neuroscientists.

No debate should be considered pointless however as there is always another side to a debate and much knowledge and understanding acquired in the process. I did not see any evidence in this debate of anyone condoning the practice of homeopathy, only very strong opinions of condemnation without considering reasons why it does not work. What did become apparent was the difference between concrete and abstract thinking, the latter particularly concerned not only with the fact that something does not work but reasons WHY something does not work Personally I have never considered resorting to homeopathy but have used alternative therapy (NICE approved) such as chiropractic which has completely eradicated the crippling back pain I used to suffer enabling me to lead a very active and normal life in my advancing years.

As previously stated I fully condemn any charlatan who makes money out of other peoples misery but do accept the need to explore the workings of the mind and its powerful effect over all physiological aspects of the human anatomy.

Beryl – You have asked for the reason that homeopathy does not work. The reason is that the extent of dilution is huge and any active component will no longer be present. A disproportionate amount of time and effort has been put into investigations of homeopathy already. We need to move on, but I don’t know how that can be achieved.

wavechange, I belive that as well. However clearly some people do not – including people within the NHS. Just because we hold a particular opinion – even when quite well founded – it does not mean we should be dismissive of contrary views. If someone wants to continue investigating an apparantly dead-in-the-water topic, that is their affair – providing public money is only used for more promising projects.

What we need to do is first, educate people not to take everything at face value, second to do some basic research – internet and books – and third to use critical thinking and common sense to reach their own conclusion. May get it wrong, may get it right, but at least they have made their own judgment.

Malcolm – I’m normally very guarded but I put homeopathy firmly in the same category as perpetual motion machines. We have a well respected explanation – the placebo effect – of why homeopathy appears to work. I hope that the NHS will discontinue involvement with homeopathy but maybe not until we have a Health Secretary who does not support the approach.

Critical evaluation helps only where you have gained enough experience. It will not help if you encounter a product that claims to be beneficial to the health of your heart, for example. My advice is to be very wary about what is published on most websites.

No, the general consensus is that homeopathy is fraudulent and any claim to treat or cure any condition is without objective merit.

Wavechange: I look forward to the day when neuroscience can provide an explanation (and it will happen) as to why a sugar pill (placebo) and a highly diluted substance can help certain individuals to feel better and not others. Leaving aside homeopathy, clearly the answer lies in the workings of the neurological system in the brain which I attempted to convey in my above post. This is a plain example of “if it cant be measured then it doesn’t exist.” We have to accept everyone reacts differently to certain stimulus depending on our innate and environmental influences. Answers will come eventually, it just makes life a bit more interesting during the searching and learning process.

We already have that explanation. Naturally it’s incomplete, as most things jn medicine are. The placebo effect includes the effect of expectation, distraction, observer bias, natural course of disease, regression toward the mean, cognitive bias and so on.

People feel better because they are “doing something” so focus less on the condition, they improve because they were going to anyway, they say what they think the practitioner wants to hear, they take other treatments and so on..

Guy, I couldn’t agree more. All of which takes place in the mind or the brain whichever you feel comfortable with. One day this will all be measureable, I hope I will still be around to witness it!!!

Beryl – I’m sure we will continue to learn more about the placebo effect and maybe even use it to our benefit. A personal example is that I find pink ibuprofen tablets more effective than white ones. As a scientist I’m uncertain about whether to be embarrassed to admit this or simply to accept it as an interesting phenomenon. On the NHS page about the placebo effect, there is a short video in which Ben Goldacre mentions this aspect of the placebo effect. I have know about this for many years but only relatively recently have I been aware how much I am affected.

Like you, I have never considered using homeopathy. It concerns me that there are people pretending that it is effective and consigning its funding by the NHS is my top priority.

Wavechange: Coincidentally I have recently researched the phenomenon of different coloured pills and their psychological effect so you have no reason to feel embarrassed at all. Apparently Red (or pink in your case) are mostly the preferred colour for painkillers and blue is for anti-depressants. I cant remember what yellow pills were for but I think it was the preferred colour for stomach complaints. There is definitely a psychological hidden message behind it all. Interesting nevertheless.

I should look out for red ibuprofen because they might be even more effective than the pink ones. 🙂

“Ibuprofen may cause an increased risk of serious and sometimes fatal stomach ulcers and bleeding. Elderly patients may be at greater risk. This may occur without warning signs.”

Not for the elderly wavechange !!

Actually, Beryl, most of it doesn’t take place in the mind. The largest single cause of falsely attributing “cure” to bogus remedies is the symptoms simply getting better – either through immune response or because they are naturally cyclic.

Dieseltaylor – I’m one of these people who reads about side-effects and contraindications before taking any unfamiliar pill. I also know that ibuprofen, like aspirin, can be a problem for asthmatics like me, but I’m one of those who is not affected. A pack of 16 pills lasts a month, so hopefully I’m not at great risk.

It does surprise me that ibuprofen is on the supermarket shelves (albeit with sale restricted to two packs of 16 x 200mg pills), usually with the important information in tiny print. The ibuprofen tablets sold by Tesco have the main points on the packaging, whereas other generic versions do not.

Guy: The immune system is controlled through the CNS. Ref: sciencedailycom. ‘How the Immune System and Brain Communicate to Control Disease.’

Beryl: That does not make immune response conscious, and in fact I don’t think that’s a particularly meaningful way of looking at it anyway. The immune system includes a lot of largely autonomous closed-loop processes, like those in the gut wall.

However, that’s arguing about angels dancing on the head of a pin. The point at issue is that cranks, quacks and charlatans have no special access to the immune system – and in my view it’s just as well that the claims to “boost the immune system” are b******t given that an overactive immune response is responsible for so many disorders.

The majority of cases where the patient recovers with quack treatments, are because the patient simply gets better, exactly as they would have done with no treatment. Since “The Powerful Placebo” a lot of work has been done that tries to unpick the actual effects from the cognitive biases, and the consensus seems to me right now to be that placebo response, as in, actual physiological effects from placebo, is very weak, transient and not at all dependable, see “Is the Placebo Powerless? — An Analysis of Clinical Trials Comparing Placebo with No Treatment” (A. Hróbjartsson, P. C. Gøtzsche, N Engl J Med 2001; 344:1594-1602May 24, 2001 DOI: 10.1056/NEJM200105243442106).

I don’t think we disagree fundamentally on this though, the pathological search for supportive findings from refuted, nonsensical or wildly implausible treatments is unhelpful to anybody especially the experimental subjects.


I really really do not want a re-run of medical science so i just provide a link for those wishing to read further.

Asking for the evidence should actually be an ingrained , and if possible taught behaviour. I am not sure my analytical skills developed from having an educated picky father, or from playing chess at an early age. One thing is sure in chess never believe that what is occurring is innocuos, and being perhaps pedeantic is actually a way of teaching subtleties of meaning.

In any event I think there a relatively few people in the general population who actually pick up on weasel words and unlikely”facts”. Is it an educational avenue that could be taught …scepticisim!!

: )


Yes, Kaputchuk’s experiment is very subtle and really rather clever. This is one of those papers like Ioannidis and Dunning-Kruger that every student of bogus medical claims should read.

Jack London says:
16 November 2014

@David Robert Grimes – watch this video – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaAJQR_9Dg8.

Real science seriously challenges your reductionist arguments about cancer.

interesting that you cite someone who is not only not a cancer specialist but has been criticised for a speculative, overly reductionist and disputed model of addiction.

The idea that reductionism is somehow a problem is not one I share. The idea that science is uniformly reductionist is simply wrong. And cancer survival rates have doubled in a few generations, thanks to science. Do feel free to propose something other than uncritical repetition of the claims of a lone individual, if you have it.

Jack London says:
17 November 2014

You missed my point entirely. I wasn’t talking about science being reductionist, but rather certain scientists themselves. Science is a wonderful tool – but unfortunately it is sometimes used and sequestered by humans who don’t know how to use it alongside deeper nuance and cross-disciplinary understanding.

Jack London says:
17 November 2014

@David Robert Grimes and @Guy

Guy – what’s even more interesting is your knee-jerk reaction to immediately discredit Dr. Gabor Mate by looking him up on Wikipedia (perhaps) and scrolling down to the criticism section without taking an open consideration to his work. The criticism you cite is by no means scientifically weighted – indeed it stems predominantly from one man, who himself has had his share of criticism. Here’s the link if you care to research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanton_Peele.

Dr. Gabor Mate is highly regarded in the scientific community. Mate’s idea that susceptibility to addiction problems is correlated to childhood trauma isn’t reductionist – it’s simple. There’s a fundamental difference between the two. Scientists who claim addiction issues are largely driven by a genetic component ARE being reductionist – and Dr Mate provides plenty of scientific evidence to show that psychological processes are *far more* predictive of addiction problems later in life than genetics.

On the topic of cancer – sure, Dr. Mate is not a cancer specialist but then neither is David Robert Grimes. You don’t have to be a specialist to be able to accurately read scientific studies and convey the findings to the public. Dr. Mate is perfectly qualified to do this. How would you define a cancer specialist anyway? Given the epidemiological complexity of cancer, surely the label of a ‘true specialist’ could only be reasonably denoted to someone who takes all factors into consideration in a nuanced and comprehensive way.

By the way, I never said science is uniformly reductionist, and nor does Dr. Mate. Also, I wasn’t inferring anything about the differential prognosis of cancer over time – only the about the causality.

For anyone who doesn’t think cancer probability is significantly correlated to psychological well-being, I would say – given that we know with scientific certainty that immune system function can be drastically impaired by negative emotional states – are you really open to the whole picture? If anyone disputes the logic of a link between psychology and cancer – perhaps you should seriously question whether you have the depth of nuance and logical faculty necessary to make you a good scientist.

My first reaction on hearing a contrarian argument is always to look at what history the source has in making contrarian arguments. Mate has a significant history of this. He also has a pet theory which he advances on the back of his claims. His pet theory may or may not be right, but one must always bear in mind what Feynman said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”.

Obviously my views on these things are coloured by my experience as a Wikipedia admin resisting the pressure of groups memorably described by Jimmy Wales as “lunatic charlatans”. I could be wrong. But then, so could Mate, and by extension you. The important point to remember is that in science, one man’s view never counts for much, what matters is the scientific consensus, and Mate’s views on this do not, as far as I can tell, represent the consensus.

What is more likely is that there are multiple factors at work. The so-called “reductionists” are very likely to be targeting an entirely valid cause. Some or all may, on the back of this, choose to dismiss other causes as speculative, I really don’t know, but Mate, because he has a pet theory, goes tot he opposite extreme and makes statements entirely dismissing the cause that the so-called “reductionists” are investigating.

One stable fact in science is that once you start addressing a label rather than specific evidential factors, you’re headed towards pathological science.

Jack: what “deeper nuance and cross-disciplinary understanding” that falls outside the realm of scientific inquiry, would be relevant in assessing a scientific subject? Though to be clear, much of the very best science is done by people with cross-disciplinary *scientific* experience. James E. Rothman, for example, was awarded a Nobel Prize for work based on combining knowledge from different fields of inquiry, but this was all rigorous scientific inquiry.

Nor do I see a lack of nuance in science. It has been common practice for a long time to state the degree of certainty in a finding. This is ruthlessly exploited by charlatans, who make striking claims that are countered by much more nuanced scientific language (e.g. “Homeopathy works! versus “There is no credible evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any condition, and no specific homeopathic remedy has been convincingly shown to be more effective than placebo”.

Small wonder that a lie travels round the world while the scientific truth is still computing the correct path integral for its shoelaces!

In my experience the claimed requirement for “deeper nuance” tends to be tied to fuzzy and weak disciplines such as parapsychology, where the claims of stage tricksters are routinely validated as genuine paranormal phenomena, and the study of SCAM treatments which are unsupported by any credible theoretical basis.

I cannot think of any scientific debate where it is valid to sacrifice rigour in order to better server “deeper nuance and cross-disciplinary understanding” so maybe I have simply misunderstood your point. Perhaps you could give some examples of what you mean?

Dr Gabor Mate is obviously well versed in his particular field of expertise namely the Nurture side of addiction but he is not seeing the whole picture I feel. He is not fully conversant with the Nature side of things.

My previous post on Which? Conversation regarding the calorific content of alcohol refers to a report by Newcastle University Press Office ‘A Gene Mutation for Excessive Drinking Found.’
Recent research has uncovered a genetic gene mutation, namely Gabrb1 connected to the GABA system in the brain that controls pleasurable emotions and reward which explains why some people find it easier to control their drinking than others.

Evidently this discovery is more recent that Dr Mate’s video but this is a clear example of the importance of scientists working together in such circumstances particularly when Nature and Nurture studies are obviously inextricably linked.

Jack London says:
18 November 2014

@ Guy_Chapman / @ Beryl

Firstly, Beryl – great point about scientists working together. Regarding addiction – genes are regulated by epi-genetic factors, and so are directly up-regulated or down-regulated according to the environment (i.e. *nurture*). Dr. Mate quite clearly provides evidence for this – i.e. people with genes for specific conditions do not always develop the condition – indeed, those who do are in the minority. This fact, together with the evidence, strongly suggest that psychological forces play the greater role – but no-one is denying the influence of genes. For references to the clinical studies – Dr. Mates book ”In the realm of Hungry Ghosts”.

Now, Guy_Chapman. Thanks for your comments. You made lots of interesting points there, but some of them were not in relation to anything I had said – so I’m just gona keep to the original points I argued when replying to your question.

Firstly, just to clear something up – I am NOT saying *science* lacks nuance !!! I don’t know how I could have made this clearer. I am saying that *certain* *scientists* (i.e. people who use science) lack relevant nuance in certain situations. *Science* is a tool. You wouldn’t say that a hammer lacked nuance.

Secondly – I originally only argued that more nuance is needed around discussions on cancer – then I decided to comment on the addiction debate. Nevertheless – I was only arguing for more nuance when scientists discuss matters about health – because health matters are usually very complex and need open and integrated science from many disciplines. Obviously, a pure mathematician doesn’t need wider nuance (except in mathematics) and geologists only need to know about physical processes to be good geologists. But to be able to *truly* understand an epidemiologically complex disease such as cancer – you need a broad knowledge and deep nuance of ALL factors that relate to cancer – environmental, demographic, genetic, psychological.

Now, I didn’t mention homeopathy but since you mentioned it I will use it as an example of what I mean by nuance. You say you provide a nuanced scientific perspective to the ”charlatans” who say ”homeopathy works” – but you don’t!

Let’s break this up: You give only 2 options:

(a) Homeopathy works

(b) Homeopathy doesn’t work because it’s just the placebo effect. This is the line David Robert Grimes takes. In fact, he states it more vehemently by saying ”Homeopathy is useless”.

Both (a) and (b) are wrong. Like so many things in medicine and healthcare, the answer is somewhere in between. As an example of a nuanced position on homeopathy, I would say this –

(c) We know from randomized placebo controlled trials that homeopathy works NO better than the placebo effect. However, the placebo effect is an interesting phenomenon in medicine and has been shown to elicit real physiological changes in patients in several studies, including those by Harvard Medical School. Therefore, for certain situations, it would be irrational and un-scientific to call homeopathy ”useless’…… you could then go on to explain the ethical issues with placebo medicine and that it should perhaps only be used with more psycho-somatic conditions… you could also mention that the efficacy of almost all ”real” medicines is partly due to the placebo effect. E.g. prozca is 80-100% placebo for people with mild to moderate depression.

Do you see how (c) is the most nuanced way to approach this? Both (a) and (b) are wrong – or at best, only half-truths / misleading.

I think you (and people like David Robert Grimes) really need to start disentangling the notions of charlatanism and nuance – they are diametrically opposed. Like you say – don’t address a label! Look at the arguments, and ONLY the arguments.

You say – ”I cannot think of any scientific debate where it is valid to sacrifice rigour in order to better server “deeper nuance and cross-disciplinary understanding”.

I’m NOT saying sacrifice rigour – I’m saying, for complex issues such as cancer – RIGOROUSLY develop deeper nuance and cross-disciplinary understanding. Cancer cannot be tackled, let alone understood, without nuanced thinking. That’s why I brought up Dr. Mate in the first place – logic dictates that emotional state is correlated to cancer probability, and now the evidence is showing this too. There’s a host of other things we should be investigating regarding cancer – nutrition, for example. Just look at this recent article in The Guardian which relays the WHO’s predictions about cancer rates and the correlation to lifestyle choices: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/03/alcohol-sugar-smoking-fuel-cancer-surge.

And check out this article in The Guardian about the anti-cancer properties of a fruit found in the Queensland Rainforest: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/08/cancer-tumours-destroyed-by-berry-queensland-rainforest.

[This comment has been edited to align with our community guidelines. Thanks, mods]

Leaving aside homeopathy and placebos.

I would question your assertion that genes play a lesser role in certain conditions. Inherited gene mutation is greatly affected by ones environment, that is indisputable which is why although DNA structure remains unaltered, genes have developed a strategy whereby they up or down regulate as a kind of ‘coping mechanism’ according to environmental impact. For example if both parents are carriers of a faulty gene but do not develop the full blown condition, there is normally a 1 in 4 [25%] chance of each child inheriting the genetic condition and a 1 in 2 [50%] chance of them being a carrier. It therefore makes perfect sense to my way of thinking that a child inheriting the full blown condition will be additionally [greatly] affected by his/her environment but it does not mean a carrier although not developing the full condition, will not be affected in some way albeit to a lesser degree rendering him/her less able to cope with life’s challenges and more prone to ‘escaping’ through drugs or alcohol where addiction applies.

This is why I emphasise the need for scientists to work more closely together when a greater and more speedy resolution in such complex matters that can’t easily be measured only by genetics in cases of Nature and by observance in cases of Nurture can be understood.

JacK: The weakness in science is that scientists are human. Some are brighter than others, some are more intellectually flexible than others. The argument you are making appears to suggest that one particular person is right, according to his claims, because he adopts an approach which is, by his definition, not reductionist. He may be right, he may not, but my point was that a lot of the people he decries as reductionist could be equally right, and the dispute may only be about which cases best fit which approach.

The placebo effect is one of the biggest red herrings in all of science. It’s not an effect, it’s a mix of subjective (i.e. non-existent) effects, physical effects which are claimed, with some plausible rationale, but definitely not reliably established in any definite, specific and repeatable way, and a whole bunch of factors which are really just errors and confusion, such as patients telling the doctor they feel better because they think they are supposed to feel better, not because they actually do. In this context, homeopathy is not a way of releasing a clinically useful effect, it’s just a fraud on the unwell. It’s such an obvious fraud that I regret it’s even discussed here: acupuncture is much more interesting, since it’s only now becoming clear that it probably is therapeutically inert, because it’s so hard to blind all parties to the intervention.

As far as nuance and cross-disciplinary work is concerned, that already happens. I think I already mentioned James E. Rothman. I recommend watching his Nobel presentation lecture, in which he makes precisely this point. I don’t know anybody involved in medical research who is not collaborating across disciplines at least some of the time.

Epigenetics is also complex. Some people seem to think that epigenetics cause heritable changes by actually changing the DNA, but I don’t believe that’s true: as far as my reading of it goes, it’s down to how the environment controls expression of particular genes. I think there are actually two definitions: one used by cellular biologists and one used by psychologists. The hard science definition is much easier to pin down than the psychology definition, as usual with anything in psychology, a field notoriously vulnerable to conjecture and fashion.

A few people who believe in things like Lamarckism or morphic resonance seem to think that epigenetics validates these ideas, but I haven’t found any actual scientists who believe that apart from Brian Josephson, and he seems to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

So, to Beryl’s point, I don’t think anybody in science has any unwillingness to work with others – *where their expertise is relevant*. We won’t learn much about cancer from psychologists, and that has been established with depressing confidence.

Jack London says:
19 November 2014

@ Beryl – good points. I might disagree with you in certain aspects regrading the genetic / nurture argument, but you make your points in such a constructive, open and intelligent way that you seem like someone one could have a truly rational and scientific discussion with. I agree that, for certain conditions, genetics plays a greater role. And, most importantly, I wholeheartedly support your idea of much greater collaboration between scientists.

@ Guy_Chapman. Sorry, but I’m gona bow out of this conversation now. When someone uses words like ‘fraud’ and ‘crank’ and ‘charlatan’ my gut instinct is that they’re arguing from a preconceived or ideological position and I have no time for that.

I make very specific arguments and you reply with abstractions. Either you misunderstood my point, or your’re evading it. But you seem to support my contention of epi-genetic expression of genes according to the environment. I wasn’t suggesting anything about heritability. Saying that – you might want to check out a recent paper published Nature which shows that memory can be ”inherited” – i.e. epi-genetic alteration or toning of genes can be inherited! Here’s the link:


Re: placebo effect, I think the science is stacking up against your assertions. The placebo effect is just mind-body medicine, and if you don’t believe in the power of mind-body interactions perhaps you might consider jumping into a lion’s cage and seeing what happens to your physiology. Or alternatively, you might remember the experiments on mice subjected to random electric shocks for prolonged periods of time. The electric shock itself was relatively harmless – but the stress caused the mice to die within a short time. The point is – when you’re talking about the placebo effect, you’re talking about mind-body medicine, which is very powerful. Accordingly, your idea that we won’t learn much about cancer from psychologists is, frankly, ludicrous.

You evaded my example of nuance regarding homeopathy – (c) is still the correct answer.

Lastly, you say – ”I don’t think anybody in science has any unwillingness to work with others”. This is patently untrue, at least when people come from ideological (un-scientific) positions. Often, people who *pride* themselves the most on being ‘scientists’ and ‘standing up for science’ have a stunted and naive understanding of what it takes to be a good scientist.

For someone to assert that “we won’t learn much about cancer from psychologists” is only capable of perceiving one half of the picture. Such statements can only stifle any advancements in cancer research and treatment and counters any possible hope of finding a cure in the immediate future.

I would welcome more feedback from Dr Robert Grimes on some of the comments made by participants to this debate.

Jack London says:
20 November 2014

Well said, Beryl. This is exactly what I mean by relevant nuance.

Beryl, what can we learn about cancer from psychologists, other than the fact that, contrary tot he beliefs of some psychologists, psychological interventions have no effect on cancer outcomes? I am genuinely curious. All the cancer research I read about is focused on issues like genetic predisposition, angiogenesis, apoptosis and so on.

Jack: There are frauds, cranks, charlatans and quacks preying on patients. Earlier this year two of them were convicted and fined in London.

You take issue with my statements that the placebo reaction is overstated. I suspect the issue here is one of terminology. I do not see the release of adrenaline, say, as a placebo effect. It’s an evolutionarily selected and objectively measurable thing – we can detect the hormone and there’s solid evidence that this response would confer a survival benefit. Trying to think disease better, on the other hand, has no survival benefit and there’s no good evidence it works. It’s plausible that anxiety, say, might trigger the release of chemicals that affect disease, but I have yet to see any concrete evidence this happens and an extensive test of psychological interventions in cancer patients found no evidence that they have any meaningful effect, so it’s clearly not something that can affect diseases of that sort.

To assume that all views are equal would be the same sort of false equivalency that portrays doctors and anti-vaxers or scientists and climate change deniers as two sides of a debate with equal legitimacy. As Brian Cox put it: The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it. The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!

Maybe you’re right and I haven’t understood what you’re trying to argue, or maybe I am excessively suspicious of those who promote what’s been termed “mind-body woo”. I freely admit to being more than a little contemptuous of new-age beliefs especially around health.

There are lots of interesting new developments in medicine, and an enormous amount of really fascinating science, some of it disruptive to current practice. And then there’s quackery, which seeks to cast doubt on the legitimacy of science as a tool for testing medical claims, on the basis that science shows quackery not to work.

I think it’s very important to recognise the difference between rigorous evidential challenges and ideologically motivated challenges. I am sorry if you think I am dismissing your views as ideologically motivated: I’m not. I am, however, trying to understand specifics. Such as: what conditions show clear benefits for treatments based on epigenetic theory? Which conditions have objective evidence of effect from mind over matter – objective int he sense of measurable rather than subjective and self-reported?

Jack, I separated out the discussion of homeopathy and placebo because I think it’s a sideshow to the valid points you otherwise make.

The fully nuanced view of homeopathy is: there is no reason to suppose it should work, no way it can work, and no good evidence it does work. All effects are fully consistent with the null hypothesis and anything else would be fundamentally inconsistent with our understanding of numerous important fields of knowledge.

That leaves us with the statement that homeopathy is a placebo intervention, which you seem to agree. Which makes the question ethical, not scientific. Is it ethical to support a field of practice whose effect is entirely down to placebo, and relies for that effect on the pretence that it is *not* placebo, and whose practitioners sincerely believe they have a profound insight into health and can cure serious disease?

You can tell my answer form the way I phrased the question. People take homeopathic remedies when going to malaria zones. They contract malaria. People take homeopathy when they have cancer. They die of cancer. So I think homeopathy is actively dangerous because its practitioners exhibit unconscious incompetence: they know nothing about health and disease, and they don’t even know that they know nothing.

This is actually important. It’s been shown that when they get cancer, people who believe in alternative medicines, of which homeopathy is the most common, present later to doctors, and fare worse even when this is taken into account. Cancer is just a striking example of a disease where switching any ineffective treatment for an effective one, will seriously harm the patient. My view is that this applies to all medical conditions. If there is no effective treatment, as for the common cold, then don’t take any treatment at all.

I think it is fundamentally unethical to pretend to a patient that an inert treatment is anything other than inert. Pure placebo therapies like homeopathy and reiki do exactly that. That’s why I dismiss them as charlatans. I recognise that my view is unusually firm, but I have read some of the truly horrific case studies of people who have suffered avoidable harm not just because they used ineffective treatments instead of effective ones, but because the quacks who practised those ineffective treatments had entirely delusional beliefs about their efficacy.

I have yet to encounter any homeopath who is open about the fact that the sugar pills are inert.

There is no doubt most scientists excel in their particular field of expertise and all credit to them. Dr Grimes I am certain is more then capable of commenting in defence of his own convictions and studies. .

Notwithstanding schoolchildren, most mature adults have outgrown the days of magic, Santa and the tooth fairly and modern science has moved on beyond the slide rule and the Bunsen burner to quantum physics CAT and MRI images and scans. What is still lacking with some scientists however is the ability to see the whole picture.

To dismiss the efficacy of the placebo effect is to deny science the opportunity to probe and evaluate research into matters that cannot be authenticated or ‘measured’ at this point in time and modern science depends on such tests in order to provide vital evidence crucial to combat and find cures for both acute and chronic illness. The use of the placebo effect has enabled neuroscientists to gain a modicum of understanding and to ‘measure’ the intricate workings of the brain having established that people with high levels of dopamine show a marked response to placebo tests indicating differential equilibrium in the brains neurotransmitters. This work is vital in the study of mental illness, addictions and the effect of stress upon physical as well as mental wellbeing.

Lets keep an open mind and allow the scientists to do what they are best at, to research and explore all the realms of possibility until mankind is free of the scourge of malady and disease. As long as their efforts to not exceed ethical codes of practice who can deny them this?

Nobody dismisses the placebo effect, but as noted above the current state of knowledge shows that the actual physiological effects are essentially negligible; most of what is reported as placebo effect is basically the patient telling the researcher what they think they want to hear, and the symptoms getting better because they were going to anyway.

There is no “mind over matter” or “pure placebo” effect worth testing. Experiments since the early publications on placebo effects have (as is the case with virtually every highly cited finding) dramatically reduced the estimates of effect.

That is what open-minded scientists find. There exists also a cadre of people who for one reason or another have some emotionally or financially vested interest in there being a large placebo effect which is somehow “real”. They do indeed need to develop a more open mind. However, many of them are members of the SCAM community, and that is, sadly, a community in which the mind is permanently closed to dissenting opinion.

We did not find that placebo interventions have important clinical effects in general. However, in certain settings placebo interventions can influence patient-reported outcomes, especially pain and nausea, though it is difficult to distinguish patient-reported effects of placebo from biased reporting. The effect on pain varied, even among trials with low risk of bias, from negligible to clinically important. Variations in the effect of placebo were partly explained by variations in how trials were conducted and how patients were informed.”

Lets see “clinically important” ” variations partly explained” all seems a little less cut and dried than some would be suggesting. I get the impression that some people get rightly excited about extravagant claims for placebo and then use phrases such as ” dramatically reduced the estimates of the effects”.

I am unaware what the original claims were so to be told they are dramatically resuced does not actually mean, to me, that there is no placebo effect. Just that it is less than some people have claimed.

I believe in Ben Goldacres first book it mentions people who were given the correct medicine for their complaint but not told it was such. AFAIR the medicine had no effect. Being Ben Goldacre I am sure it would be a pukka experiment.

This from another work:
” Placebos have been reported to produce some rather startling effects on skin conditions. The most impressive of these reports involves the suggestion-related production and inhibition of contact dermatitis (6). Contact dermatitis is a skin condition produced by chemical substances to which people have become sensitized. In the study reported by Ikemi and Nakagawa, 13 students were touched on one arm with leaves from a harmless tree, but were told that the leaves were from a lacquer or wax tree (Japanese trees that produce effects similar to poison ivy and to which the boys had reported being hypersensitive). On the other arm, the subjects were touched with poisonous leaves, which they were led to believe were from a harmless tree. All 13 subjects displayed a skin reaction to the harmless leaves (the placebo), but only two reacted to the poisonous leaves.”

It could be regarded as a party trick but I think to most people it and another case quoted shows the mind has powerful mojo.

Jack London says:
17 November 2014

I urge you to read this article in Harvard Magazine:


An excerpt:

”The first evidence of a physiological basis for the placebo effect appeared in the late 1970s, when researchers studying dental patients found that by chemically blocking the release of endorphins—the brain’s natural pain relievers—scientists could also block the placebo effect. This suggested that placebo treatments spurred chemical responses in the brain that are similar to those of active drugs, a theory borne out two decades later by brain-scan technology. Researchers like neuroscientist Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin have since shown that many neurotransmitters are at work—including chemicals that use the same pathways as opium and marijuana. Studies by other researchers have shown that placebos increase dopamine (a chemical that affects emotions and sensations of pleasure and reward) in the brains of Parkinson’s patients, and patients suffering from depression who’ve been given placebos reveal changes in electrical and metabolic activity in several different regions of the brain.”

[This comment has been edited to align with our community guidelines. Thanks, mods]

As I pointed out above, the idea that there is some mystical placebo-based mind-over-matter effect, is considered refuted. The original claims in the 70s were striking, and as with most striking and highly cited results, they turned out to be overstated. There are some effects such as you describe, but they are weak, unreliable and transient. In the majority of cases the purported placebo response turns out to be either the patient telling the practitioner what they want to hear, or the patient simply getting better anyway.

This peer-reviewed publication is, I think, more reliable and comprehensive than the source you prefer: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM200105243442106

“In the majority of cases the purported placebo response turns out to be either the patient telling the practitioner what they want to hear, or the patient simply getting better anyway.” This is purely a biased assumption and is not based on any credible evidence.

Ref: Ongoing studies in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute & Harvard Medical School “Placebo can be activated unconsciously.” Updated on 2014-06-17. Further investigations to take place using neuro-imaging.

I think we have long moved away from mystics and magic Guy. In the real world scientific research will continue as long as positive results prevail over negative and I believe I have provided enough evidence to back up my assertions. I will now respectfully bow out and refrain
from any further comment on this particular subject.

I’m not saying that the narrative around placebos is wrong, only that I am wary of it, due to past history of special pleading by quacks and charlatans. Neurologist Dr. Steven Novella sums this up much better than I can: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-placebo-narrative/

And here’s the kind of dangerous nonsense that is generated fomr that kind of thinking: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/eminent-harvard-psychologist-mother-of-positive-psychology-new-age-quack/ – that is why I am very suspicious of anything that looks like advocacy of “mind over matter”, aka wishful thinking, because that has been well tested and it simply does not work.

Careful testing shows that mental attitude has no effect on organic disease (e.g. summary here http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/emotionalsideeffects/attitudes-and-cancer). And it’s been shown in several studies that while self-reported pain is reduced in patients undergoing placebo therapy for nociceptive pain, their use of pain medication does not actually reduce. That casts serious doubt on the idea that placebo effects are “real”.

It’s certainly not a straightforward question and I don’t think we have the final answer yet by a long way, but it is very clear that the boldest and most striking claims for placebo effects are at best overstated if not completely wrong.

@Beryl specifically: “I think we have long moved away from mystics and magic Guy” – I wish this were true. We (that is, you and I) may well have done but a flip through the pages of What Doctors Don’t Tell You shows that mystics and magic are alive and well.

” Notwithstanding schoolchildren, most mature adults have outgrown the days of magic, Santa and the tooth fairly and modern science has moved on beyond the slide rule and the Bunsen burner to quantum physics CAT and MRI images and scans.”



Most? !!

I have long held that we as a population are being manipulated by advertising, what the Press chooses to report, and of course now social media. I do long for a rational approach to prevent people being manipulated. A good start would be to ban :

TV adverts as they are by far the most insidious of methods.

Have punitive fines for rogue claims in print and on radio , and if necessary jail terms.

Teach a consumer literacy course to make people aware of unsafe statistical measures and the traps laid for consumers.

Be prepared to attack weedy and ineffecive regulatory bodies making manifest their failings

The velocity of price changes should be regulated to make life less complicated. Its not so much people will not or cannot understand tariffs etc it is simply the realisation that the market place could all change the following morning

I think we could engineer a cultural change and Sense in Science and Ask for the Evidence could be the channel but they need hugely more exposure. Vested interests would probably not welcome a more savvy population.

The most obviously high profile campaign for Sense in Science is Alltrials which has stalled at around 82,000 signatories in the UK . Why are we not asking questions of organisations like Which? why it does not support AllTrials – which manifestly is to the benfit of every human

Anyone interested in dodgy product claims might be interested to have a look at the ASA website, which gives a brief synopsis of concerns and the basis of ASA’s decision about whether or not advertising must be withdrawn in its present form. There is a useful search facility: http://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications.aspx

I believe that ASA is doing a good job but that the claims should be scrutinised before products go on sale.

Jenny says:
18 November 2014

@ Dr Gimes @GuyC Epigenetics can explain some aspects of the placebo effect.


In which case, what we understand by placebo needs to be fundamentally reconsidered. Since Dr Grimes is a physicist then perhaps he might like to comment on the mind-body interface and what that impact that might have in population epidemiology and claims.


Perhaps we need another form of science to evaluate evidence?

You only need one form of science, it’s a process, not a set of outcomes or procedures. If science validates that finding then it will be interesting, but one must always be wary of striking claims for epigenetics as it’s a buzzword that can, in some circles, be used much as Deepak Chopra uses the word quantum – as a synonym for magic.

Jenny says:
19 November 2014

Guy, please educate me. In simple terms, what is the one scientific process that is able to accommodate unrepeatable results because of an inherent change in initial conditions?

I’m not sure what you’re driving at, valid results tend to be repeatable.

The vital concept is to test your ideas and try to prove them wrong, or at least to pass them to others in a form that allows others to test them. This goes against human nature, and is, as far as I can tell, the defining characteristic that separates science from its precursor, natural philosophy.

I guess something like climate change might be an example, but here the scientific method works by comparing predictions with actual measurements (e.g. comparing tree ring data from past centuries with tree rings in areas where conditions have been measured over decades). You can’t conduct a falsifiable experiment on climate change, but you can still publish your models and methods and have others test them and try to prove them wrong.

The scientific method is described rather well at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

In scientific publishing there must be adequate information about methods used and the results must be repeatable by others, or the authors deserve to be treated with contempt. On the other hand, it is in order for others to use the published data and come to other conclusions.

Absolutely. Nobody can be expected to be the judge of the merit of their own ideas, and it would be both foolish and unfair to suggest that they were. Again, Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool”.

I think it’s fair to say that any truly valid scientific finding should be repeatable by investigators independent of the originator, who may or may not use the same methods. Of course if they use the same methods they might simply be repeating an error (see Blondlot’s n-rays for a great example).

Jenny says:
19 November 2014

In a complex system a slight change in initial conditions can produce a very different outcome. Current scientific method only serves us well where initial conditions are constant. In biology and medicine this has served us poorly and what is ‘evidence-based medicine’, for example, often doesn’t work, does it?

Well, yes and no: this is awfully like the “treating the whole person” strawman raised by a lot of quacks. In truth, the mechanisms of any given disease are generally the same in every patient, the interaction with other conditions, physiological variation and so on do account for the difference between response in idealised trial populations and the real population but if an antibiotic kills a particular bacterium, it will do so in a very large proportion of patients.

Evidence-based medicine is only part of the story of course. Even an inert treatment will generate a small net positive evidence base due to confounding factors and biases. It’s important that any new treatment should be reasonably plausible as well as having good evidence of effect. I also think we are waiting for the next generation of treatments. Vaccines have saved millions of lives and antibiotics millions more, but these are the easy cases. Cancer, especially, is a very complex set of diseases.

But none of that justifies throwing away the attempt at rigour and systematic analysis. Disease X is hard, therefore allow any old nonsense, is a really terrible argument, and is one of the big flaws with the proposed Saatchi Bill, which is sold as a bill to support innovation by protecting innovative doctors form lawsuits, but not one single body representing those doctors, either professionally or legally, supports the bill, and no good examples have yet been provided of useful innovations that have been impeded by fear of litigation.

Evidence is much better than guesswork. This doesn’t change however hard it is to collect the evidence.

Jenny says:
19 November 2014

I disagree with you first para, and would point to the diseasome in support of that. Treating the whole person ought to be aim for all, not just the rich who can afford it. I would agree with the rest of your comment – although I would direct your attention to The Lancet piece on ebola treatments, which also touches on the problem of lack of replicability. Wonder why that might be?

Who doesn’t treat the whole person? I was recently diagnosed with coeliac precisely because my GP treats the whole person – I was anaemic and he looked for the root cause of the anaemia rather than simply prescribing iron.

If someone has a bacterial infection then they generally need an antibiotic, not an in-depth analysis of their aura or chakras. I’ve yet to see anyone other than a quack who claims to treat “the whole person” and I’ve yet to see a real doctor who considers only one symptom in isolation.


Ref: en.m.wikipedia.org – psychoneuroimmunology

Ask for the Evidence

“Temperatures across all 50 US states plummeted to freezing, and there were snow-related fatalities elsewhere.” BBC

Perhaps the BBC should check on Hawaii the 50th state as that must be really really newsworthy.

I should add perhaps that Mauna Kea is 13,800ft high and temperatures there dips below freezing every month of the year. So whilst the report may be true but it is entirely misleading, in my view, to imply that Hawaii the state, is suffering anything freakish.

Currently on Mauna Kea according to Accuweather in C
Hi / Lo
Previous 6 Hours 28° 25°
Previous 12 Hours 29° 23°
Previous 24 Hours 29° 21°

Incidentally the sentence itself seems:
“Temperatures across all 50 US states plummeted to freezing, and there were snow-related fatalities elsewhere.” BBC
seems nonsensical.

“Temperatures across all US 50 states……………”

Reminds me of an occasion when during a local gas pipe rupture in the middle of December kindly neighbours were knocking on doors offering electric heaters to the elderly. One elderly widow well into her eighties and living alone refused all offer of help and chose to remain in a freezing house on the grounds that she could not accept anything that “had not been tried and tested.” Her late husband was a scientist.

Rather suddenly I was thinking of another thread and feeling sympathy for her. : )

” Risperdal was even bigger in the military. Over a period of nine years, VA spent $717 million on its generic, risperidone, to treat PTSD in troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet not only was risperidone not approved for PTSD, it didn’t even work. A 2011 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the drug worked no better than placebo and the money was totally wasted.

In the last few years, the makers of Risperdal, Seroquel and Zyprexa have all settled suits claiming illegal or fraudulent marketing. A year ago, Johnson & Johnson admitted mismarketing Risperdal in a $2.2 billion settlement. But the penalty is nothing compared with the $24.2 billion it made from selling Risperdal between 2003 to 2010 and shareholders didn’t blink. The truth is, there is too much money in hawking atypical antipsychotics to the general population for Pharma to quit.”

See a use for placebo medicine. : (