Columnist Considers Placebo Effect in Politics

I feel better. Therefore I am better. Well, not quite.

The announcement by Danish researchers that the placebo effect does not exist, or at least is not as widespread as previously thought, should not have surprised as many people as it did. The natural variation in the course of a disease and the tendency for patients to get better by themselves is an adequate explanation for most instances of the apparent effect. Knowing the patient's will and beliefs isn't necessary.

When Belief Replaces Fact

Although it had nothing to do with politics, the placebo report did get me thinking of the inclination of some politicians (and of countless other people as well) to substitute their own will and beliefs for scientific fact. I believe it. Therefore it's true.

Four recent and rather disparate cases, two involving social issues and two involving major international issues, illustrate the uneasy relationship between political agendas and scientific values.

A couple of months ago a study came out maintaining that homosexuals desiring to change their sexual orientation could do so through counseling. The controversial and murky science of the question was further muddied by political undercurrents, with many conservatives intent on demonstrating that change is just a matter of will power.

The problems with the study soon became apparent, the main one being that the sample was self-selected, its participants coming largely from ex-gay ministries and other groups whose members believe homosexuality to be a developmental disorder. The scientific caveats, nuances, and conflicting research studies were initially buried, however, under a deluge of political rhetoric from all sides.

Another issue is the varying certainty of governmental officials that every convicted criminal condemned to die in our nation's prisons really is guilty. Last year Gov. Ryan of Illinois instituted a moratorium on executions in his state to study the matter when troubling evidence of numerous mistakes came to light.

President Bush, when he was governor of Texas, argued that no such mistakes had occurred in his state. Whatever one's position on the death penalty, one wonders at the nature of the profound differences distinguishing Illinois officials from their counterparts in Texas. Are their procedures so much more fail-safe or could the latter simply will their probability of failure to be zero?

Climate Change vs. Missile Defense

An even hotter issue may be global climate change. Despite the insistence of many, it's impossible to be absolutely certain about its extent or, as some argue, even its existence.

Nevertheless, given the number of mathematical models strongly suggesting that climate change is caused by human activity and given the scale and likely irreversibility of the possible damage from it, a moderate effort to control carbon dioxide emissions seems to be a prudent course. That is no doubt why Bush endorsed the so- called Kyoto Protocol during the campaign and why it was just adopted by virtually all the rest of the industrialized world.

Early this year, however, motivated by economic considerations but no new climate research, he willfully changed course, conveniently citing "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge."

But incomplete knowledge, much greater scientific uncertainty, and an exorbitant price tag have not deterred the administration from attempting to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to embark on a strategic missile defense. It has even agreed to share the non-existent technology with our allies (and I'm planning on giving away all the money from the second lottery I win next year).

As many scientific organizations have maintained, there is little evidence that such an anti-missile system can be made to work and good reason to believe that testing it will bring about an arms race in space. Committing the United States to developing a $100 billion missile defense appears to be, and I return to the term once again, an unwarranted reliance on the power of will and not a scientifically reasonable defense policy.

Arguing Insufficient Evidence

There are many other examples, most notably the opposition between evolutionary theory and so-called creation science and the topical issues that … umm … stem from this opposition. Many people believe in creation science so much that they would force its inclusion in high school biology curricula. Oddly enough, these proponents of creationism also cite "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge," which increasingly seems to be a prelude to a willful ignoring of accepted science. Some of the resistance to stem cell research is of this deliberate know-nothing variety.

Despite the enormous complexity of these varied issues, one lesson should be clear. Although science is tentative, scientific facts are stubborn (and nonpartisan), and believing that one can will what these facts should be is the height of hubris.

Placebos work about as well in politics as they do in healthcare.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on appears on the first day of every month.