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On Placebo's
Oh dear, Mimi Smarty Pants is at it again. Dipping her toes into the waters of science, this time mumbling about the fact that animals can't demonstrate a placebo effect. (I really like Mimi's site by the way, I highly recommend a visit.)

Well duh! We're talking about animals here. Animals can't tell you how they feel, we can only make presumptions about their perceived state of well-being by observing their behaviour.

Let me restate the previous statement: "we can only make presumptions about their perceived state of well-being by observing their behaviour" (emphasis added for clarity). And herein lies the rub. Biological entities are extremely complex. The effects of a drug are often subtle and the description of their effects require utmost care in wording, something at which even human beings are often struggling at.

Animals cannot demonstrate a placebo effect anymore than a table can. We can tell that a strike with the hammer has damaged a table but can the table tell us that it is damaged? If we miss the table and the table looks undamaged does the table feel relief? Do we believe the table feels relief?

Yes, I realise this might sound really Zen right now, but it's my site. Start your own blog if you want to ramble on like me (join in, it's fun).

Determining and quantifying the real effectiveness of a household drug like aspirin took thousands of years. Even now new properties are discovered, like it's ability to prevent certain types of cancer.

The fact that it is so hard to prove a drug is really effective means it takes years of clinical trials before a new drug is introduced (and is one of the reasons they cost a lot when first introduced).
This is why statistical analysis is one of the most important subjects a biologist takes when becoming one.
This is why double blind test were invented.
And, remember, we're talking about human beings here, with the ability to tell us how they feel (which is subjective) and how their body is behaving (which is also more subjective than you might think).
Then there's the clinical tests a pointy headed scientist does, poking and hammering and ticking away on various body parts.

A placebo effect, by it's very nature, suggests a willingness of the patient to feel better. Equally important, methinks, is the observers' willingness to see improvement, especially in the case of animal medication. When an animal is ill and given medication it is also often given extra attention. Almost all animals crave attention, just like humans do. How to separate this from the perceived reaction to a drug (placebo or real)?

We cannot separate the observer from the fact. (Which is kind of quantum but just as appropriate in ethology.)

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