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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Medical writer's '08 resolution: Do not report results from poorly designed experiments

Earlier this month,* Newsweek’s “Health Matters” columnist Jerry More resolved that
“I will not report on any amazing new treatments for anything, unless they were tested in large, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials published in high-quality peer-reviewed medical journals.”

He was “shamed” into this by biostatistician R. Barker Bausell’s book Snake Oil Science. Based on observations of his own loved ones, Bausell explains how immensely powerful placebo effects make almost any medical treatment appear to work, even though they are often caused by faith alone. Those who feel the benefits, whether it be placebo or physical (double-blind verified), usually do not care how this comes to pass. However, Bausell makes the case that placebo effects tend to be mild and temporary.

In an ironic twist of Jerry More’s resolution, Bausell advises that those afflicted with chronic health problems seek a promising remedy from an enthusiastic promoter and take the plunge with no reservations, thus maximizing any placebo effect!

Obviously one must be extremely cautious about side effects from any such purported therapy or substance. For example, some years ago my wife and I hosted a weight-obsessed exchange 16-year-old student from Mexico who harbored strong faith in alternative medicines (an oxymoron?) for curbing appetite. One day while shopping at a local mall, she got away from me and made a bee line to a health-food store. I found her at the counter with half a dozen bottles of very potent natural (?) substances that the teenage clerk recommended to her. I hustled us out of there without making that purchase.

Blind faith just does not work well for me. I like the double-blind approach much better.

* A Big Dose of Skepticism


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