In the last few weeks there has been several articles and studies published on the effectiveness of alternative medicines and placebos: “Placebos Help Patients Even Without Faking It, Scientists Say“; “Sugar Pills Help, Even When Patients are Aware of Them“; and “Alternative remedies ‘dangerous’ for kids says report“; “Doctors warn over homeopathic ‘vaccines’“. The gist of these beliefs derives from several factors:
- People Tend to Get Better: most of us get well over time even without medical intervention. Colds pass; flues do too. Most infections heal with time without the aid of antibiotics. Evolution have provided the human race with a great immune system. Medicine helps, we get better faster with treatment. But in most cases, we survive. So when you hear someone recommend an alternative medicine and predict that a cold will go away in three days, chances are you will get better. And over time, we the people develop p-prims (folksy wisdoms) that link health with alternative tratments.
- “Natural Chemicals” p-Prims: there is a strong belief among industrialized societies, at the present time, that “natural” is better for us than “artificial”. There are many sources of this belief, too many to cover in this short article. And somehow, over time, a large portion of the population made a distinction between “natural” chemicals and “artificial” ones (perhaps it’s the outcome of poor science education). Herbal supplements fall under “natural chemicals” category and medications under “artificial” category. Thus developed a strong bias towards alternative medicine—it uses “natural chemicals”, which are better for us.
- Locus of Control: the one thing we all hate is being powerless to help people we love when they get sick. We want to do something, anything. Waiting for someone to get better (for their immune system to kick in) is torture. When our kids are sick we demand antibiotics, whether they will help or not. We want control over illness. Being in control reduces anxiety and helps us heal.
- Mind over Matter: a sugar pill gives us power over the affliction. Thus placebo is a powerful tool in the doctor’s arsenal—some medical professionals proscribe real drugs just to make the patient feel more powerful over the disease (read “A Curiously French Complaint“). And patients really do feel better!
- Belief in Homeopathy: what is Homeopathy if not a placebo? Homeopathic “medications” are the products of dilution to the point where only the “spirit” of the substance remains in the mixture. But since placebos work, so do homeopathic remedies…within certain limitations. There are times when a placebo is just not enough: placebo vaccines don’t work; placebo cancer therapy will not result in a cure; placebo insulin won’t lower blood sugar level; etc.
- Ancients can’t be Wrong: there is a certain mystic to ancient civilizations. They’ve built the pyramids, they’ve constructed the great wall, they’ve been around for a long long time. This is a very curious p-prim: if it’s been around for long time, then it must have value. Like all p-prims, the basic premise is true some of the time: antiques are valuable, wisdom comes with age, etc. And like all p-prims, this basic intuition is not always correct. Tiger’s penis might have been used for thousands of years to increase virility, but it works much better with a dash of Viagra. But this p-prim leads many people into the clutches of alternative medicine—if it’s been around for generations, than it must work…
- The Newer the Better p-Prim: we all love shiny, new things. We like new cars, and new clothes, and new gadgets. The newer, the better! “You have a 2010 car? Well, mine is 2011!”—the quality of the product and its owner is frequently judged by date of manufacturing. Modern is great—it’s brand new, the latest model, the cutting edge technology! Interestingly enough, “Ancients can’t be Wrong” and “The Newer the Better” p-prims can happily co-exist and influence the same decision.
So we want to believe we’ll get better, that we have control over the disease, that we not powerless to help our loved ones. And the confluence of the above-described p-prims and our immune systems produces interesting results. Consider the case of Tsarevich Aleksey, the son of the last Tsar of Russia. He was a hemophiliac—a genetic disorder responsible for poor clotting and excessive bleeding in the afflicted.
Like all father, The Tsar wanted to help his son. He hired doctors and looked for the latest modern medicines to cure Aleksey. In 1899, Bayer & Co started to mass produce a new wonder drug: aspirin. The company sent out letters with education materials to 30,000 doctors and medical practitioners around Europe—the first mass mail drug marketing! Aspirin was prescribed for all kinds of illnesses—it was the bleeding edge medical technology of its day (pun intended). Tsarevich Aleksey’s doctors were probably giving the boy aspirin and exacerbating his disease, making him bleed more and longer with each doze (read more here).
When Rasputin took over the boy’s medical treatment, he most likely restricted Aleksey’s access to medical professionals and modern drugs. The result was an abetment of symptoms! Tsarevich Aleksey got better—his bleeding was less sever, he felt better, stronger. The alternative medicine worked! The Tsar made Rasputin a trusted confidant and the course of history was changed.