Homeopathy, Magic, & the Placebo Effect

Homeopathy is essentially the practice of prescribing water. Every homeopath doctor will tell you that there is not a single particle of “active ingredient” in the solutions they sell you. This is probably a good thing because they put things like poison ivy or rattlesnake venom in there before diluting it to nonexistence. Studies have authoritatively shown that it has no real medical value beyond a simple placebo. However, here’s the issue; even if we know that, should we still practice it?

This article espouses a viewpoint I have held for a long time regarding alternative medicine, but in a fresh way. I’m going to expand still further on it. Despite the fact that homeopathic remedies have no medicinal value, their patients still consistently report being cured or at least relieved of symptoms. So we know the patients actually fare better than if they had received no treatment whatsoever, although the nature of the treatment is irrelevant provided it doesn’t actively harm them. So essentially the homeopaths are making an absolute killing by selling gullible people a completely non-effective product. If only it were so simple.

The truth of the matter is that the placebo effect is a product of presentation, and presentation alone. So when you buy homeopathic remedies, you are paying the price of the product, competed down to whatever level, plus a little on the side for the vendor. However, the primary cost of selling placebo remedies is facade. A homeopathic hospital or doctor would need the authority, accreditation, imposing building and lobby, realistic-looking bottles and labels, etc. etc. Inventing a rationalization, and even going so far as to list plausible-sounding side effects. You are paying for a magic show. And the strangest thing about it is that it does in fact work, like magic. Perhaps this explains the immortalized human tendency to want to believe in magic. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit.

The absolute truth, undiluted? The human mind is capable of magic in every sense that counts. We can understand and manipulate the world around us. Consider a device such as your iPod. It’s magic, seriously! Let’s assume that magic actually existed- essentially you’re talking about a different set of physical laws of the universe which humans can take advantage of. We already do that! It’s not easy, but if you expect magic to be free then you’re just a child. That’s the appeal of Harry Potter- free power. And I can tell you that Rowling’s representation of a wizard world is ignorantly constructed to the extreme. I should make another post about this because I can blast Rowling for hours. Nothing personal, but her poor scribblings hedge out great minds like George R. R. Martin, and Rowling was making millions while Martin quietly ascended on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Modern culture as a whole can be either quality or commercially viable, but not both. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, though.

Anyway, back to real magic. Clarke’s Third Law is even more general than Clarke ever knew. Technology itself is indistinguishable from magic, because technology is the exploitation of natural phenomena. Magic would be the same, only you might do something like psychically move energy from the air into a specific object, thus setting it on fire with the power of your mind. This is impossible, so instead we concentrate energy in, say, a match, using the power of the mind. Magic as a concept is so appealing because it is unfamiliar. There isn’t anything remarkable about a match because you’re used to them. But someone who could stare at some tinder and foosh! That would be something, huh? More importantly, the common conception of magic is the ideal of free power that somehow easily just breaks the natural structure of things. Somehow, we won’t explain why, you can wave a wand and say a word, and whatever you wanted will just happen. It also gains further appeal from the idea that it is somehow just barely not accessible. We fantasize about receiving massive fortunes, too, but a barrier of pragmatism tells us that there is simply no way anyone would be stupid enough to mail us a check for a billion dollars. But maybe, just maybe, there lies within ourselves the secret to mentally starting that fire. In reality? You’re right- learn how to make a fire and guess what? You can make a fire. But you can’t do it effortlessly, you have to learn how and then implement that knowledge, and often neither task is easy.

Consider, say, mathematics. It seems very unmagical. However, you’re working with the theory behind our brand of real-life magic. Presumably in Harry Potter there should be some rhyme or reason as to why things work the way they do, and why saying X and moving your wand in pattern Y produces result Z. But because it’s a flight of fancy catering to part of you that wants without price, you don’t have to understand any of that, you can just do it and it will somehow work. Trust the teacher, as it were. As an interesting aside, how in hell did they discover any of that stuff? “Let’s wave our wands randomly with random words that sound Latinesque and see what happens!” The horror! The HORROR! Imagine that a warehouse stuffed to bursting with millions of different prototype skunkworks weapons fell through a timewarp, giving a band of A.D. 400 Christians enough firepower to pummel a modern state to green and glowing waste slushee. The problem, of course, is that they can only figure out how to use it by trial and error. It would be worse than that.

Anyway, my point in the magic tangent is that our minds are capable of magic in every substantial sense. And there is a second sense, beyond that of technology. The wackjobs are on the edge of their seats, hungry for a new sympathizer- no, not the first time and not this time either, crazies. Humans have the power to control their own minds. For the second time, the well-adjusted readers are probably going “What? Duh!” Being self-aware is more magical than we know, because we have the power to consciously adjust our own thoughts and behaviors. A squirrel does not. And yes, the squirrel is my typical example of a lesser life form. A squirrel has no control over its own behavior, being essentially hardwired from birth. With intelligence, however, it becomes advantageous to the organism for the genes to begin to cede control. Humans are still highly genetically influenced, but much less so than less intelligent creatures. This is because unintelligent creatures, if they weren’t provided with a model by their genes would act, well, unintelligently. However, intelligent creatures can actually learn and encode information in their brains that their genes can’t interpret. Thus, the genes start to provide psychologies instead of instincts to provide a framework for the brain to operate within rather than explicitly mandate its instructions. This is rather like programming a computer- just recently we have seen the shift from data that can be predicted to the point where programmers are being forced to consider data which they could not predict, and instead provide frameworks for the handling of data, allowing the computer to decide so the programmer doesn’t have to. The program when it’s running is like the human brain when it’s active and running- i.e. in each living human being, and the code the programmer writes before compiling is like the genetic code before it’s used to make a person.

Yes, I am going to get back to the placebo effect, the title was not lying to you, dammit. That was related, albeit perhaps only in my own mind… Anyway, the placebo effect is a predictable outcome of a hunter-gatherer group lacking useful medicine, but possessing much older fear, pain, illness, etc. responses that still serve them well. Consider the pain response- it is very useful for indicating damage or distress to the body, but once it has served that function it is no longer useful, it’s just painful. But the organism cannot be permitted to have a “pain switch” because otherwise it would just leave it off all the time. So the genes instead force the organism to experience pain, but have a different individual have the ability to make it go away. So we start seeing medicine men practicing voodoo or prayer healing or whatever. Once the individual has recognized that something is wrong, and presumably already attempted on their own to solve the problem to a limited degree, and it may turn out that nothing can be done for them. In which case, the pain then serves as a survival disadvantage because it’s distracting, disabling, whatever. In such a situation it is highly advantageous to have the individual notify others in the group of their problem, thus assuring that the pain signal was received, and then give the sufferer a “free” mechanism to make the pain go away, as long as they are convinced by someone else. Interestingly, this leads to a whole host of societal changes, such as tribes rallying around a medicine man’s ideas, and using different brands of arcana as methods of establishing unity, mind control, subservience, and even extracting payment of utility from third parties.

So we return to homeopathy. One particular brand of arcana no longer useful for establishing unity or subservience, but quite effective at extracting payment. Interestingly, even though the vendor is parting with nothing, the buyers are in fact receiving a service. So I think that in an environment where it is possible to empirically prove that the remedy does not work, yet where it continues to work, the process should be promoted. I also think that different alternative remedies have different target audiences, or they wouldn’t coexist. Acupuncture seems to be more effective because the people willing to undergo it know they are going to have hundreds of needles inserted into their bodies by a complete stranger. They’re damn ready to get over whatever it is they want to recover from, and they have some hardcore faith in the process. Homeopathy, on the other hand, is for the less committed sufferers. The stranger is essentially giving them water to drink and convincingly claiming it will cure them. Now, I don’t even believe in the process but nevertheless I’d be prepared to try it if a doctor told me there was no formal medication for whatever I was suffering from- if it wasn’t too expensive, anyway. However, the fact that less belief is required means that the placebo effect is less potent.

Now, I’ve covered a huge amount of ground with a hop skip and a jump and would like to point out just a few of the connections that I didn’t get to make before due to the damnable nature of linear text. Firstly, you should have noticed a clear correlation between medicine men and religion. Here’s a connection; religions concerned with healing all tend to require especially firm and unyielding faith- the acts of Christian faith healers are an excellent example. The link between strong faith and healing is more or less direct. A different connection, although genes control the framework of our thoughts, couple that with sentience and we can modify those frameworks however we want. However, the process is very obscure to most people. A simple example; let’s say you want chocolate. How do you become happy? The most common answer would be, eat chocolate. I’m saying virtually everyone on earth would answer that way, and absolutely everyone in the United States, minus me and, what, three others? The better answer is to just stop wanting chocolate. How very Stoic of me. No, seriously, why not? Though I obviously can’t prove this, I’m thinking that those monks with the freaky powers up in Tibet that we hear so many myths about are just like us, but with the critical difference that at least one, at some point, unlocked the power of the placebo effect and could apply it in diverse ways. Not feeling cold, evading sickness, sharpened perception, precise motor control, etc. etc. The list could be pretty much endless. The process would essentially allow you to hardwire your own choice to whatever the maximum human potential for any given act or activity would be. Anything you could psych yourself up to do, you could just choose to instantly receive all the benefit of psyched-up-ness without needing to go through all that effort and usually brutal psychological side effects like irrational disloyalty, blind faith, obedience, submission to manipulation, etc., etc. It’s speculation, completely unfounded, but maybe, just maybe, there’s something within us capable of free power.

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