In Placebo We Trust

I read [. . .] an article by a highly educated man wherein he told with what conscientious pains he had brought up all his children to be skeptical of everything, never to believe anything in life or religion or their own feelings without submitting it to many rational doubts, to have a persistent, thoroughly skeptical, doubting attitude toward everything. In other words to weazen and kill in themselves all spontaneous love, passion, enthusiasm, all creative power. I think he might as well have taken them out in the backyard and killed them with an ax (Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, 173).

I’ve been reading some skeptics’ web sites, which have proved interesting and educational. It’s great to live in an era that offers so much freedom of information. I have to admit, though, that I got tickled (as my grandma used to say) about some of the skeptics’ ideas about prayer and faith healing. The research on healing prayer is ambiguous, with some studies showing positive and definite results from prayer, and others showing few or no additional benefits from prayer. Skeptics claim that the research proving the effectiveness of prayer is flawed; the faithful claim that the research proving the ineffectiveness of prayer is flawed. Jesus and Buddha taught that people are flawed.

I think I’m going to go with Jesus and Buddha on that one.

Rather ironically, and in spite of the ongoing debates between atheists and believers (or skeptics and the faithful), research has proved that faith works, beyond any doubt, and that there is a god: Placebo is his name. In his 2005 article titled “Running on Faith,” Edzard Ernst reported on research about the effects of spiritual healing through prayer, characterizing the results as “staggering. Improvements were so remarkable that several patients practically abandoned their wheelchairs during the study.” There it is: scientific proof that prayer works, right?

. . . Well, not exactly.

What happened was that researchers for this study divided 110 chronic pain sufferers into groups who were prayed for by actual faith healers, and those who were ‘prayed’ for by actors pretending to be faith healers. The recovery rate was similar for both groups; the researchers saw remarkable recoveries. All the patients improved, and all the patients believed that someone was praying to God for their recovery. They believed that someone else’s prayers would help God help them, and they got better.

Ernst’s conclusion? That the placebo effect works; it really works! The placebo effect had people coming out of their wheelchairs, inspiring Ernst to not-so-brilliantly conclude:

The placebo effect on which healing relies is one which most other medical treatments generate as well – so we don’t need an ineffective therapy in order to profit from this effect. Placebo effects rely on factors such as empathy, time, understanding and the warmth of a therapeutic relationship. It would be a serious mistake if doctors delegated these core qualities of medicine to healers. Why pay £100 a session for placebo if it comes as a free bonus with most effective therapies? [. . .]

I think the claims of healers should be taken with a pinch of salt. In the absence of convincing evidence, you might as well spend your money on something that demonstrably works.

Sadly, this is where the rational reader catches Ernst with his pants down. The placebo effect–so called because it actually has been proven in countless studies to be effective–has miraculously brought some people out of their wheelchairs. Ernst admits this. But in the next breath, he states that the placebo effect “on which healing relies” is generated (again, effectively) by “other medical treatments as well,” so “we don’t need an ineffective therapy [prayer] in order to profit from this effect [placebo effect = healing].”

Ernst then goes on to point out that the placebo effect [healing] relies on “empathy, time, understanding and the warmth of a therapeutic relationship,” therefore “it would be a serious mistake if doctors delegated these core qualities of medicine to healers.” I’m sure readers everywhere will agree that, when wanting empathy, time, understanding, and warmth, the very first person we think of calling is the family physician. Why, he’s warmer than a cup of warm cocoa and more empathetic than a foot rub! I know when I go to see my family doctor I’m quite overwhelmed by his core qualities of empathy [he knows exactly what it’s like to be me, having known me mostly from forms I’ve filled out and for only 5-15 minutes per visit, oh yeah… he’s empathic all right], time [35 minutes in the waiting room watching Oprah, 15 minutes in the examination room, 5 minutes with the doctor], understanding [let me run into my back office and look this up in the PDR] and warmth [I’ll bet most of us have a nice, smiley Marcus Welby M.D. type as our family physicians!].

Clearly, the placebo effect that helped Ernst’s patients was more effective than any of the medical therapies they had received before. This fact is undisputed. Yet Ernst claims that the marvelous placebo effect is better entrusted to medical doctors whose medicines and treatments have already failed than it is to faith healers or actors whose treatments have worked. Spend your money on something that works, he insists.

Huh? What did he just say?

You read it right right: patients who have not been helped by their doctors after numerous visits to the doctor’s office (at an average of $60 per visit) ought to continue to pay their physician. Ernst wants me to believe that if I pay money to a doctor for the placebo effect, it’s going to work, whereas if I pay money to a faith healer for the placebo effect, it’s not going to work.

Ernst lives in Great Britain and teaches at the universities of Exeter and Plymouth, where, I’m sorry to say, faith healers evidently charge fees of £100 a session for prayer–that’s $202.42, America. I imagine that there must not be enough Christians or religious of other types to pray for the sick over in Great Britain, necessitating some sort of managed spiritual care system by which the faithful share the burden–and the bounty–of faith healing.

But there’s good news: such is not the case in America. I consulted my local Yellow Pages and called seven local churches to ask their pastors or church secretaries to send me their fee schedule for prayers for the sick. Strangely enough, not one church charged fees (or even suggested donations) for prayer. All seemed puzzled that I’d ask for a fee schedule; I also think at least two of the pastors were suppressing giggles. Conclusion: In the Bible belt of America, faith is alive and well, and FREE.

There is so much scientific evidence on the miraculous abilities of placebo that there should no longer be any doubt in the rational human being’s mind: faith works. Which is what Jesus said after he healed the boy with the seizure disorder, as recounted in Matthew 17. When asked by the disciples, who could not heal the child, why they failed, Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, [. . .] nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20, New International Version).

In this passage, the Greek word for the faith Jesus referred to is pistis [πίστις], meaning the moral conviction of spiritual truth; a persuasion, adopted by the individual, of the credibility of something, including reliance of a constant kind upon a truth. Pistis has as its root the verb peithō [πείθω], meaning to convince by argument (whether true or false), to pacify or conciliate by fair means, to assent to evidence or authority, or to rely upon or believe by inward certainty and confidence. A person has to use his rational mind before he can arrive at faith, and faith can only be arrived at through the persuasion of evidence; this is what Jesus seems to have been teaching.

Probably many Christians will disagree with me on this point; but I’m pretty sure that I’m correct in saying that real faith is rational. Real faith is not a feeling, and it’s not some sort of frenzy into which we whip ourselves; it’s not a Pentecostal type of “blab-it-and-grab-it” formula for getting what we want. Faith is a settled conviction that is arrived at after a case has been argued and during which the individual is the defense, the prosecution, the jury, and the judge. Impressed by evidence that is beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury reaches a verdict, and the judge issues a sentence: I believe. Belief changes people, and this is why the placebo effect is real and why it works as effectively as medicine or prayer in many cases.

Based on the research, I propose that we set aside our silly quibbling about faith and religion. If Richard Dawkins is correct, and religion causes more harm than good, we can end religious intolerance by educating the masses about what Edzard Ernst called the staggering and remarkable results of placebo.

“In Placebo We Trust”–it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

For More Information

| The Placebo Effect | Running on Faith | Quackwatch |


Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write. St. Paul, MN: Gray Wolf Press, 1987.

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