Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Water and Placebos DO Have Effects

by Norman Sperling, May 15, 2011

Some substances that are usually regarded as having no effect actually do have effects.

* Water, as in homeopathic treatments.
* Placebos, as in medical tests and treatments.

I have seen homeopathic treatments strongly criticized as being useless and having no effect, because they’re “only” water. Yet water itself has many effects.

* Peeing usually makes you feel better.
* Drinking a lot of water is recommended for several medical and nutritional situations. It is suspected to dilute or flush precipitates that would otherwise form painful kidney stones, for example.
* And drinking a lot is often recommended in treating colds and other illnesses.
So plain old water, whether labeled homeopathic or not, CAN have effects.

“Placebo” is Latin for “I make you feel good”. That’s an effect, not the absence of one. (By that centuries-old definition, boyfriends and girlfriends are placebos.)

In the last half century, “placebo”’s definition and applications have changed importantly several times, but discussions rarely specify which version is meant. Always check just what speakers and writers mean by the term.

Placebos are rarely neutral and rarely have zero effects. Many different substances that have been used as placebos have known effects.
* Sugar, as in “sugar pills”, makes people feel better. Huge quantities of sugary treats are consumed because they make people feel better. Sugar levels in the blood affect athletic and intellectual performance as well as mood. Mary Poppins taught us that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. Sugar is NOT neutral!
* In some cases, the sugar is lactose, which often has major detrimental effects. For 30% of American adults, and 70% of the world’s adults, lactose intolerance generates explosive, compelling diarrhea. A good reference is Steve Carper’s Milk is Not for Every Body, published by Facts on File, 1995.
* For testing against new medicines, several other substances are combined to mimic known effects of the tested substance. Some of these qualities make people feel better, some make people feel worse. They are NOT neutral!

Scholarly books on placebos:
* Anne Harrington, ed: The Placebo Effect – an Interdisciplinary Exploration. Harvard U Pr 1997. RM331.P53 1999
* Daniel E. Moerman: Meaning, Medicine, and the “Placebo” Effect. Cambridge U Pr. R726.5.M645 2002. Says the effect is in the meaning.
* Arthur K. Shapiro: The Powerful Placebo: From Ancient Priest to Modern Physician. JHU Pr. RM331.S53 1997. scholarly source for Thompson & Moerman.
* W. Grant Thompson: The Placebo Effect and Health. Prometheus 320p. R726.5.T488 2005. excellent survey. Use the effect!

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