Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Placebo of Placebo

Well, I thought we had a little bit of good news to round out the end of the year's pseudoscience news. Basically some scientists tried to see if people knew that they were taking drugs that were fake, would they still work. Glory be, the scheme worked! Here is an article and the paper.

But alas, there is a problem with scientists looking into magical effects. Yep, magical. A pill that does nothing but causes an effect and that is magic, right?

First, credit where credit is due. Orac, a computer best known for his contribution of the Blake's 7 crew, looked close at the paper and saw the flaws. Here is Orac's analysis.

The upshot is that the study unfortunately did what most studies of pseudoscience do, they let the cat out of the bag and that probably skewed the results. First, the advertised ads looking for study participants sounded cool. You always get skewed results when patients think there is something cool going on.  

The second problem was that it was not a double blind study. They either gave the patients placeboes or told the participant to go home and do nothing. A double blind would have had placeboes, a fake placebo (a drug not cleverly labeled 'Placebo' like the one in the study).

Not sure if they should have had people that were told to do nothing.... Seems sort of odd. Back to that cool advert, if you found out you were in the "do nothing" group, wouldn't you go home all depressed and maybe your results would be better than getting a pill bottle labeled 'Placebo' (remember, very cleverly labeled).

Experiment - Placebo Crystals

Time for another great experiment!

1) Head to your favorite purveyor of fine rocks and pick up a few hundred quarts crystals.
2) Create envelopes that will hold the crystal and one of three different notes written thus:

    Note 1: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. This envelope contains a crystal from a mountain in the Andes near the mystic city of Kolumbunga. It is used as a very powerful placebo. In three days, please send an email to xxxx@xxxx.xxx and tell us if you feel better or worse.

   Note 2: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. This envelope contains a crystal. It is used as a placebo. In three days, please send an email to xxxx@xxxx.xxx and tell us if you feel better or worse. 

  Note 3: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. This envelope contains a crystal. In three days, please send an email to xxxx@xxxx.xxx and tell us if you feel better or worse. 

   Note 4: Greetings! You have been selected to take part in an important study. In three days, please send an email to xxxx@xxxx.xxx and tell us if you feel better or worse. 

Put crystals with notes 1, 2 and 3, but nothing in the 4th envelope. 


4) Recruit a few hundred people to run your experiment. If you want to be reasonably random, stand in front of your school, a supermarket, department store or Mickey D's and recruit.

5) Tally your results from the emails and any comments you may have received along with the better or worse indicator. Don't forget to count the numbers of non-respondents as people not saying anything is like someone talking and saying nothing (sounds Buddhist, but trust us, it is important).

Did you get better results for Note 1? We bet you will, so perhaps you should start selling mood enhancing crystals from Kolumbunga.