Facts are only facts until they are not, especially in medicine. That people who suffer from all sorts of illnesses generally improve when they get a sham treatment has been a fact since at least 1955. That year Henry K. Beecher published a study called "The Powerful Placebo" in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Reviewing 15 clinical trials, Beecher claimed that on average about one out of three patients found relief from placebos alone. Although some specialists have challenged the placebo effect for years, in the minds of most physicians and in the public consciousness, it remained a fact--until this past May.
That's when Peter G¿tzsche and Asbj¿rn Hr¿bjartsson of the University of Copenhagen concluded in the New England Journal of Medicine that "there is no justification for the use of placebos" in medical practice. They had pooled data from 114 previously published clinical trials that compared patients who received placebos with those who got no treatment whatsoever. Sifting the numbers through statistical sieves, the doctors found no significant overall difference in how the two groups fared. The media responded to the Danish study by gleefully vivisecting the placebo effect. "It's a scam," sneered the Boston Globe. "More myth than science," pronounced the New York Times. Within several weeks, a new medical fact was born: placebos don't do diddly.
This article was originally published with the title All in the Mind.