Placebos can work – evidently some people are desperate to believe
More and more, I realise our lives are based on faith. Not in a goddy sense, more a domestic, personal, dull-edged way. Relationships, for example: faith. The economy: faith. Health: faith. I come to this having spent some time recently thinking about placebos, as I watch ministers consider whether homeopathy should be put on a prescription “black list”. I don’t believe in homeopathy, and I say that as someone who really loves little sugary sweets.
Every ounce of science says there is no way it works, there is no way that diluting an ingredient until there are no molecules left, diluting it so extremely that it equates to one molecule of the substance in a sea whose diameter is “roughly the distance from the earth to the sun”, will cure what ails you. There is no evidence that homeopathy will help your eczema, or your hay fever, or your ear infection.
But as I read the scoffing responses to the conversation – that people who do choose to spend their cash on placebos are fools – I’m surprised to disagree. These are not idiots, I realise, these people with faith in sugar pills. They’re not stupid – they’re desperate.
This week Tom Hanks was quoted on his wife’s cancer. “One thing I have noticed through this,” he said, echoing the complaints of many of us civilians, here on dry land, “is that there are people out there in the world who, when they find out you have cancer, they will immediately try to make money off you … They are dealing in false hopes. It is astounding the amount of that that goes on. They’re predators.”
It’s true – and there is something sickening about selling a dying person a lie. They are too easy a mark. And when patients reject or delay chemotherapy in favour of natural cancer cures, not only are they burning their money, they’re risking everything. I can see the appeal, however – the suspicion when told by a doctor your options are chemo or die, that there must be a secret door, a hidden tunnel. After all, we have been taught since we were children that if we eat broccoli and wash our hands we should be healthy forever. The idea of “natural remedies” is one that has been lurking in the language of our diets all our life. So it’s not such a leap, is it, to assume that the extremes of cleanliness (colon cleanses), of vegetable diets (raw food) are the answer to our biggest, finallest question. But one of the big differences between chemotherapy and homeopathy is that the former tells you both its benefits and its dangers. The latter, having no evidence that it works beyond a placebo effect, claims only that it might make you feel better. Maybe. Possibly. Did you drink the tea? Ah, you should have drunk the tea.
When you’re not dying, though, when your problem is a persistent rash, a dull exhaustion, snot, ennui, I see clearly the benefits of a homeopath with her chair and sympathy. If we call something medicine, then often it works. Our human bodies are dying to believe. In many cases, placebos have been shown to work. It’s the taking of the pill, the conversation, the little bottle, the kiss on the bruise. Because simply believing in a treatment, scientists agree, can be as effective as the treatment itself. People who suffer from headaches will associate the shape, the colour and the taste of a pill with a decrease in pain. Recently, a study suggested that even if you know the pill you’re taking is a placebo (“I shall please” in Latin), it will still benefit you. Even if you know it’s sugar, your body will read the ritual around it as a cure.
Increasingly I can see the charm of the “alternative”. Cancer cannot be cured by homeopathic placebos, but small pains, perhaps. And as doctors have less time to listen to our anxious murmurs, unfortunately room opens up for… something else. When I called the GP this week, I was put on hold for 25 minutes, on a premium phone line. Eventually the exhausted receptionist told me I could make an appointment for two weeks’ time, or I could call again at 8am, but to bear in mind that they usually get booked up by 10 past. It was fine – of course our flu didn’t kill us, but all I wanted, really, was for someone to tell me the baby and I would live past Tuesday.
Homeopaths should never promise results or be allowed to market themselves at people in trouble. But the point of them, I see now, of a business selling sugar pills is that there is a person there handing them over, telling you they care.
Our bodies believe in rituals. For all the money wasted, for all the promises broken, there is the one thing being forgotten in the NHS’s homeopathy debate. The NHS shouldn’t pay for magical thinking, but I understand the need for homeopathy on the high street. When reality fails, there’s a place for placebos.
Email Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org
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