11 February 2011

7 reasons why bogus therapies often seem to work

Dr Barry Beyerstein writes that subtle forces may lead intelligent people to think that a treatment has worked and gives seven reasons why this is.


Dr Barry Beyerstein, noted scientific skeptic and professor of psychology, wrote in Skeptical Inquirer that subtle forces may lead intelligent people to think that a treatment has worked. He listed seven reasons why people inflate the value of bogus treatments.

1. The disease may have run its natural course.
Many diseases are self-limiting. For instance, the common cold usually runs a course of approximately five to seven days before it is cured by the body’s own defence mechanisms. Sometimes we take medications on day five when the illness is already improving and then attribute improvement to the medication. In this way antibiotics have “cured” many a common cold.

2. Many diseases are cyclical.
Chronic conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, allergies and depression have natural “ups and downs”. If treatment is instituted during the beginning of an improvement phase, we then may believe that the treatment has actually effected the cure.

3. The power of the placebo effect.
The belief that we are taking treatment which can cure an illness, causes powerful forces to effect an improvement through mind-body connections. This is called the “placebo effect”.

4. Credit for improvement can be applied incorrectly in dual treatment situations.
Diseases are sometimes treated with a combination of science-based treatment and “alternative” treatment. If improvement then occurs, credit is often inappropriately given to the “alternative” treatment.

5. The original diagnosis or prognosis may have been incorrect.
The diagnosis or prognosis may be incorrect. If improvement occurs after taking a bogus therapy, it can then be given inappropriate credit.

6. Temporary mood improvement can be confused with cure.
Some individuals that practice medicine have forceful and charismatic personalities. They may influence patients to the extent that they experience a psychological upliftment. This feeling of euphoria can be confused with a cure.

7. Psychological needs can distort perceptions.
Persons who invest time and money in bogus therapies, experience psychological distress when they admit to themselves that the treatment has not worked. In order to save face they may experience thought distortions and believe that the treatment has in fact worked. Rather than admit to themselves that the treatment has been a waste, they may convince themselves and others of redeeming value in the treatment.

Dr Beyerstein was a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

The article originally appeared in Skeptical Inquirer (September/October 1997).

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