In September last year we took a look at Dylan Evans's book on the placebo. And now the medical correspondent of the magazine Private Eye has drawn attention to the data on the British Medical Journal's web site devoted to clinical evidence.
According the to Eye, Clinical Evidence have found that only 15% of the thousands of orthodox scientific treatments that they have reviewed have been proven to be beneficial. A further 23% are likely to be beneficial, 7% are a trade-off between benefit and harm, 5% are unlikely to be beneficial, 4% are likely to be ineffective or harmful, and a whopping 46% are of 'unknown effectiveness'.
Meanwhile, it seems that the placebo, or placebo-type treatment, works pretty well. Patients with osteoarthritis who have had air blown into their joints (while under anaesthetic) have as much pain reduction and improved movement as those who've had proper arthroscopy. And one of the reasons why it costs drug companies nearly $1 billion to get a new drug to market is that many of them have a hell of a time demonstrating that the wonder drug performs better than a placebo.
One study, of 15 neurotic patients, proved that a placebo works even when the patients are aware that they're being given a sugar pill. The 15 patients were told: 'A sugar pill is a pill with no medicine in it at all. I think this pill will help you as it has helped so many others. Are you willing to try this pill?'
Of the 15 patients, 14 agreed to try it, and 13 improved over a week, some a great deal, and including one patient who had previously been suicidal.
The Eye's medical man suggests that 'all medicine is in large part placebo... But far from wasting money, complementary therapy does in many cases save it by avoiding the prescription of far more expensive, and potentially harmful, drugs.'
Meanwhile Dylan Evans himself has got a bit bored with run of the mill science, and has embarked upon a utopia experiment. You can volunteer to help if you like. Among other things, he's looking for people who can tell stories.