January 5, 2011


     A palm reader says that by examining the lines on my hand, my fate can be discerned. As a rationalist, its obvious tripe. The person on the receiving end believes and adapts whatever is said to fit their own life.  And yet, when I stop and look at my own hands I see things. I see that the left thumb does not extend as it should. Chalk that up to getting it smashed between two football helmets. The scar on the middle finger of my left hand? Playing with a knife as a kid at the Texas Renaissance Festival where I nearly shortened said finger. The burn on my index finger? Lighting sparklers for my nephew. Then there are the callouses that line my palms from working out in the yard. Perhaps my hands can't tell my future but they can tell a decent story about my past.

     And I'm struck with the notion that perhaps the methods used by supposed charlatans are not too different from that of a physician. We both observe life and then draw conclusions from it.  Before empirical rationalism took hold, those superstitious viewpoints provided a framework in which to understand the world around us. They don't always make sense from a strictly linear point of view but I'm not so quick to discard them anymore. Case in point was this recent piece of research in which physicians took patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and treated them with a placebo. That's right, they compared patients who went to the doctor versus patients who went to the doctor and got a placebo. No drug was involved and there was no attempt to fool the patient into thinking it might be an actual drug. The doctor knew it was a placebo. The patient knew it was a placebo. And yet the patients who popped the known placebo pill demonstrated improvements in the severity of their disease versus those who didn't. It was a small study but it strikes home the notion that the placebo effect really needs to be taken apart with better clarity. Underneath lies tangible therapies that we really need to figure out how to tap into with better precision.

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