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The Chain of Office of the Dutch city of Leiden is a broad and colorful ceremonial necklace that, draped around the shoulders of Mayor Henri Lenferink, lends a magisterial air to official proceedings in this ancient university town. But whatever gravitas it provided Lenferink as he welcomed a group of researchers to his city, he was quick to undercut it. “I am just a humble historian,” he told the 300 members of the Society for Interdisciplinary Placebo Studies who had gathered in Leiden’s ornate municipal concert hall, “so I don’t know anything about your topic.” He was being a little disingenuous. He knew enough about the topic that these psychologists and neuroscientists and physicians and anthropologists and philosophers had come to his city to talk about — the placebo effect, the phenomenon whereby suffering people get better from treatments that have no discernible reason to work — to call it “fake medicine,” and to add that it probably works because “people like to be cheated.” He took a beat. “But in the end, I believe that honesty will prevail.”

Lenferink might not have been so glib had he attended the previous day’s meeting on the other side of town, at which two dozen of the leading lights of placebo science spent a preconference day agonizing over their reputation — as purveyors of sham medicine who prey on the desperate and, if they are lucky, fool people into feeling better — and strategizing about how to improve it. It’s an urgent subject for them, and only in part because, like all apostate professionals, they crave mainstream acceptance. More important, they are motivated by a conviction that the placebo is a powerful medical treatment that is ignored by doctors only at their patients’ expense.

…continue reading ‘What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick?’

Image: By Elaine and Arthur Shapiro – https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/emotions/self.html , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Cebocap.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1684469

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New York Times Magazine

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