The person who has just been appointed to the head of Australia’s once(i) world-admired science organisation, the CSIRO,(ii) believes in magic.

Yes dear Cowpokes, Dr Larry Marshall, a man whose scientific credentials barely cast little more than a dim glow from within the deep shadow of his business escapades, and whose tumbling grammatical trainwreck of a biography uses expressions like ‘leverage’ and ‘serial entrepreneur’, wants to create water dowsing machines.

Larry says he would…

…like to see the development of technology that would make it easier for farmers to dowse or divine for water on their properties.

“I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I’ve no idea how they do it,” he said. “When I see that as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’

You know what, Larry? When you see that – as a scientist – you should actually ask yourself why no real scientists believe, for even a nano-second, that dowsing works.

You have no idea how they do it? My suggestion is that you look up the ideomotor effect and watch this video. Several times, if you don’t get it on the first run through.


  1. I say ‘once’ because, like everything else in this country lately, it seems that the idiotic buffoons who aspire to be some kind of ‘government’ here, are hell bent on making it the laughingstock of the educated world. []
  2. You know WiFi? The CSIRO invented that. Yeah, WIFI! []


Back in November 2006, a writer named Gary Wolf first coined the term New Atheism in an article in Wired. It is truly irritating that he did so,(i) since it has these days become a kind of target at which religious apologists of all flavours seem to very much enjoy taking aim.

Let’s reflect on it for a moment: the conjuring of an idea like a ‘new’ atheism logically demands, of course, that there must be a corresponding concept of an ‘old’ atheism. The vehemence with which many religious writers attack the so co-called New Atheism – as if it’s a ‘thing’ – carries a subtlety that I think a lot of people miss: that it is somehow different to, and less desirable than, the old version. What we have here is a tacit acceptance in modern religious thought that atheism was actually preferable in the old days.

Which is weird, don’t you think?

So, what, exactly, has changed?

It’s all about voices. For millennia the Church(ii) has had the loudest voice in town(iii) but in recent times, the voice of atheism has become louder and stronger, and more people are hearing it. Religions really don’t like that. They preferred it when atheists were meek and quiet and stayed in their university cloisters (because that’s where they mostly were) and weren’t heard by too many. The objection here, then, is not to atheism itself, but instead to an atheism that people know about.

To this end, religious apologists find it advantageous to make a differentiation between ‘old’ and ‘new’ atheism and so they set about characterising the New Atheists in unpleasant terms. In other words, they contrive to make an old adversary, who was comfortably tolerated and conveniently insulated, into a different one: a newbie who is disagreeable, loud-mouthed and crass – and therefore, by inference, someone with little credibility and who you shouldn’t like. This has nothing to do with what atheists are actually saying, of course, but more to do with painting an unflattering picture of them.(iv)

New Atheists are, then, brash, opinionated, militant (whatever that means),(v) narrow-minded and intolerant. Of course the majority of atheists don’t see themselves like this, so the term is viewed among atheists as completely daft. People like myself, who have identified as atheists for decades, don’t consider themselves as ‘new’ anything. We continue to hold the views that we’ve always held, and speak about them in the ways that we always have.

The significant difference, of course, is that now we have the internet we can quite easily circulate those views, make them public(vi) and share them with others. But hey – so can the religiously convinced! So what then is the problem – status quo reclaimed, right?

Not so much.

What’s happening to religion at this point in the 21st century, is exactly the same thing that’s happening to all those institutions that control the conduits for the dissemination of intellectual property. I’ve talked about other contexts for that previously on the Cow, and this is no different. A record company or a movie studio or a newspaper controls the conduit for their intellectual property in order to make money out of those who comprise their audience. Religions control the conduit because this is how they perpetuate propaganda and stop adherents from getting information from elsewhere – information that just might conceivably make more sense than that which they themselves are peddling. That’s a massive risk for religion, because in the same way that this unfettered access to information is thoroughly wrecking the old edifices of intellectual property, it could (and probably would if given sufficient time, I think) completely disintegrate the stranglehold of religion on humanity.

To put it simply, religions are losing ground when it comes to controlling how people think. Since the Devil is kinda out of fashion these days, they desperately need somebody they can blame for this horribly destabilising state of affairs. No wonder they’re so keen to find a way to make us look bad.

  1. But probably inevitable that a term like it would have arisen anyway. []
  2. When I say ‘the Church’ in most contexts on TCA, you should take it to mean ‘all conventional kinds of religion that command large numbers of followers’. []
  3. Well, possibly second to money, but hey. []
  4. You will have spotted this as a very common logical fallacy: make people look bad so that you can make it seem that their point of view is bad – Poisoning the Well. []
  5. From the first time I heard this adjective applied to atheism it really pissed me off. What the actual fuck does that mean – that atheist have guns and an army? It’s a highly coloured term that has one purpose and one purpose alone: to conjure up images of organized aggression, intolerance and domination by force. None of these objectives are ever promoted by the atheist community. []
  6. As I’m doing right now. []


Google Search’s synopsis for the IMDB entry on the forthcoming Jurassic World seems oddly similar to the plot of another imminent movie. And nothing at all like I was expecting…

Image: Bill Brooks Creative Commons; Some Rights Reserved

Or: You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Homeopathy is crap. Serious, unmitigated, archaic, superstitious hogwash-laden crap. There is no defensible argument for why it might have the magical qualities with which it is imbued by some. On that, Faithful Acowlytes, I think you and I are agreed. I’ve noticed in recent times, however, a growing tendency from the dozen or so remaining supporters of homeopathy, to wheel out the justification that its validity might lie in the Placebo Effect.(i) The Placebo Effect is also cited by supporters of various other dubious unscientific medical practices (yes, I’m looking at you Mr Acupuncture) as a possible legitimate modus explainii.(ii)

The problem is that the concept of the Placebo Effect has become eroded over the decades into a magical-thinking term of its own, specifically, a notion that a placebo invokes some kind of Mysterious Ability Unknown to Science for the human body to heal itself, based on a sort of ‘mind-over-matter’ mechanism that remains to this day entirely unexplained. As someone who understands what the Placebo Effect actually is, this really annoys me. And when I’m annoyed, I dust off the soapbox.

Today on TCA, we’re going to look at the exact meaning and intention of running placebo mitigated trials in medicine, and why the explanation for the Placebo Effect is most likely dull and unexciting. Prepare to have your illusions shattered.

To help illustrate things, I’m going to give you a very basic example of how a clinical trial involving placebos might work – it’s not the definitive way of conducting a placebo-based experiment, but for the sake of simplicity it covers all the issues that we need to examine.

Imagine that you have invented a new drug for the relief of nausea. All your theory says that this drug is the bees knees, but to meet the many requirements of getting a modern pharmaceutical legally to market, you must demonstrate this to the satisfaction of the various bodies that regulate this kind of thing (and, as unbelievable as a lot of people seem to find it, this is actually quite tough). What you are obliged to do is to set up a blind – or double-blind – trial (we’ve talked about blind trials before on the Cow, but click on that link it you want a refresher) which takes into consideration numerous factors that might influence your potential outcome. Understand: you do this in order to rule out as much external influence as possible that might offer alternative explanations for results of your experiment. In other words, you’re trying to demonstrate that your drug, and your drug alone, is responsible for any observed lessening of nausea for your patients.

The problem is this: in many areas of medicine, the results of interventions are not totally clear cut. Experience of nausea, for example, is partially subjective, and what you’re trying to do with your experiment is to get an objective overview of how your drug influences a patient’s assessment of nausea. It is very important, therefore, to iron out any irregularities that might be caused by, for example, a subject’s expectation of what a treatment might do.

If you have a hundred patients, and you give fifty of those patients a pill and fifty nothing at all, then half your study knows with certainty that they didn’t get the ‘anti-nausea pill’. This might influence what they report in regard to their nausea. Maybe it won’t, but you have to consider the possibility that it will, and set about ruling it out. The obvious thing to do, then, is to split your group into three parts instead of two, give one third the new drug, one third a capsule identical to the one containing the anti-nausea drug – but with no active ingredient – and one third nothing at all. If the drug has any merit, then what you would expect to see here is positive results from the drug, and then equally neutral results from both the the empty pill (the placebo) and those who got nothing at all.

Are you with me? Does this sound reasonable?

Well that’s exactly what scientists do in blind test trials with placebo controls. Only… pretty much every time this kind of experiment is run, the results inevitably look funny. If the drug is efficacious, the patients who get an active ingredient post a positive assessment of their nausea relief, as you would indeed hope. The patients who got zip (representing what is called the baseline) report a neutral assessment of change in nausea levels. The placebo arm in this kind of experiment, however, almost invariably returns a result of marginal improvement. Better than baseline, but not as good as the active drug. In other words, it seems that the patients who think they might be getting some kind of medicine appear to get an actual physiological benefit from simply popping a pill.

How utterly weird is that? Imagine the puzzlement among experimenters the first few times these kinds of results came back!

Now we get to the real problem of the misunderstanding of the Placebo Effect. Over the years, this result, which is a very real result and is seen almost without fail in a great number of clinical trials, has been taken to mean that the ‘idea’ of taking a pill (or indulging in some other kind of intervention) can have an actual physiological effect on a patient. To put it another way, it appears that if someone thinks they’re being treated, then somehow they seem to physically benefit from being under that illusion.

Only, that’s not exactly what the Placebo Effect is showing us.

In science, a placebo trial has a specific and clearly defined purpose: to account for all other variables from the experiment that can’t be explained by the agonist of the experiment itself. This would indeed include any strange psychological influence on physiology should such a thing exist,(iii) but it need not necessarily be constrained to only this. What most people fail to understand is that the Placebo Effect may also include numerous other factors. Some of these are: patient reporting bias; risk justification; confirmation bias and even just the kind of bias that might be inherent in being involved in a clinical trial in the first place. What do I mean by some of these? Well, let’s say you’re a patient in a study such as the one I suggested above. You are given a pill twice a day for the period of two weeks. You’ve given up some of your time to be on this trial (recording and reporting results and so forth) and you like the doctor who is treating you. This might very well influence what kind of modification to your results you record – only a little bit, perhaps, but ‘only a little bit’ is the scale of the typical observed Placebo Effect.(iv) Note that you might not necessarily be really feeling any difference in your nausea levels, but you are being ‘kinder’ on reporting them to the nice doctor (you would not even be aware of this – you are being given a pill and, in your mind, hey, it might be the anti-nausea drug… maybe you should be feeling a little better…) In addition to this kind of scenario, people involved in clinical trials behave differently to people in their actual usual lives. There is a tendency, for example, for them to be more aware of their day to day health and to take a little more care than usual with it. This of course can produce real physiological results that can easily colour their experience in the trial.

These things are very difficult to iron out of an experiment, and that’s EXACTLY what the Placebo Effect is all about – it is a generic container for the strange and uncatchable inconsistencies that occur when attempting to run an experiment where there are a lot of variables.

To boil all this down, it may well be that the Placebo Effect in any given clinical trial – and perhaps in all clinical trials – is down to nothing more than erroneous reporting; not any kind of physiological outcome at all, but just a noise phenomenon in the experiment that produces illusory effects simply because it is an experiment and not reality. In the actual real world, the thing we think of as the Placebo Effect may not even exist, and it’s impossible to verify such a speculation since trying to do so would necessitate the undertaking of an experiment and thus risk producing a horrible spiral of nausea-inducing recursion.

So the next time you hear someone justifying some kind of pseudoscientific ‘alternative’ remedy or other by invoking the Placebo Effect, I suggest you do the following: look them squarely in the eye and say, with a lisp… “Inconceivable!”


  1. For numerous reasons that I won’t even bother to go into here, that’s seriously clutching at straws, in any case. []
  2. Yes, I know that I just made that term up, and it bears not even the faintest resemblance to correct Latin. []
  3. And it should be noted that in the special case of pain – and a few other stress-related illnesses – it has been shown that a psychological element can come into play depending on the subject’s mental state. It is well to clearly understand, though, that it’s rare for such a psychological element to come even close to matching the level of pharmacological effects []
  4. Placebo Effects are never profound. []


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