Double Blind Placebo What?

Photo by Timothy Krause
Photo by Timothy Krause

Most people have, at one time or another, encountered a friend or relative selling miracle cures. It may be something conventional like a tablet, juice, ointment or aromatic oil. It may also be something unheard of like a bracelet, a skin patch, magnets, or stickers. The seller will usually have a handful of written testimonials (with photos) or video footages “proving” the effectiveness of the product against cancer, goiter, asthma and a whole host of other diseases.

The question now is, how do you decide whether to believe them or not?

I have a confession to make. I used to be one of those selling such products when I was still based in Manila. I worked with a company which sold health products (pills and drinks). To be fair to the company however, they never marketed their products as cures but as nutritional supplements. Some distributors, however, got it into their heads that they could sell the products better if they targeted them as cures for certain diseases. One such disease was a skin problem called psoriasis. The strategy worked for a time so we neophytes decided to mimic their style.

So, armed with testimonials and product brochures, I charged into the clinic of a dermatologist who claimed to be specialist of psoriasis. He listened to me for a few minutes, then said, “You know I’ve come across a lot of claims for curing psoriasis, but I will only trust your product if it has been proven in a double-blind, placebo-controlled test and published in a medical journal.”

In my mind I said, “What the hell is that?” But aloud, I only said, “Well sir, I’m sure our company has those. I’ll ask for them and bring them back to you.”

I asked the more senior people at our office if we had such documents and they said, “Yes, of course we do,” but when I pressed and asked for the actual documents, nobody could produce them. So in the end I could only conclude that we didn’t have them and I never went back to that doctor again.

But what is so important about a double-blind, placebo-controlled test? Well, I know a lot more about it than I did then so let’s start with what a placebo is — a placebo is a treatment which has no actual medicinal value, but can seemingly cause a cure. For example, a man goes to the doctor and complains of a headache. After a thorough examination, the doctor finds nothing wrong, but the patient insists that his head hurts. So the doctor gives the patient a pill, tells him to take it and to call him if the situation improves. A few hours later, the patient calls and says that the pill worked perfectly and he is feeling quite energetic. He wants to know what that pill was. The doctor then reveals that it was just a sugar pill. The headache perhaps had some psychological cause and the belief that he was taking actual medicine “cured” the patient of it, or the belief caused the mind to release certain chemicals in the body which took care of the disease.

This is called the “placebo effect” and it is a common phenomenon in medicine. Quack doctors and faith healers use this to fool people into thinking they are cured. To protect against this, new drugs or treatments have to pass a double-blind, placebo-controlled test to verify that the drug can actually treat the disease instead of merely relying on the placebo effect.

I’ll try to explain how it works in very simple terms. Let’s say, there’s a new drug for asthma called Asmalex. In order to test Asmalex, we find volunteers who have asthma who are willing to undergo the test. These volunteers are split into two groups A (experimental) and B (control). Group A will be given Asmalex and Group B will be given the placebo (sugar pills or cornstarch pills or any other useless pill).

The patients do not know whether they are given real medication or the placebo. That is the first “blind.” The second “blind” is that the ones administering the medicine do not know also whether they are giving the real thing or not — hence the term “double-blind.”

This method ensures that there are no subconscious signals to make the patient believe whether he is taking the real thing or not, as that belief may affect the results.

After the test period is over, the data is collated and interpreted by a statistician — and if the researchers want to make the results even more unbiased, they also do not reveal to the statistician which is the control group or the experimental group, thus introducing a third “blind,” and lending more credibility to the conclusion.

If statistics show that the experimental group’s result is significantly better than the placebo group, then the treatment is granted to have a therapeutic effect. The methodology and results are then published in a journal for other researchers to review for errors, or for replication and verification.

So I hope that adds to your knowledge and vocabulary for today, and if someone tries to sell you the latest cure-all, be sure to ask for the double-blind, placebo-controlled test. Oh, and if they do happen to produce one, make sure to read it thoroughly. Just because they can produce some piece of paper does not necessarily make it legitimate.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. He is not blind. Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me.

Hey God!

Photo by Waiting for the Word
Photo by Waiting for the Word

Me: Hey God!

God: Hey, how’s it going?

Me: All right, I guess. Nothing to complain about.

God: So what’s this all about then? I haven’t heard from you in a while ever since you talked to my son last year.

Me: Well, I was just wondering what to write about this week and I couldn’t get anything really sorted out in my head so I thought I’d do what Neale Donald Walsch did and see if you’d come talk to me too.

God: Of course I’d talk to you. I talk to everyone. Most people just don’t listen though.

Me: You’re not exactly that clear-cut, you know. For example, how do I know I’m really talking to you and it’s not just my mind making up these words?

God: You don’t. But how do you know it’s not me putting those words you think you made up in your mind?

Me: I don’t know. Some people seem to think that you don’t talk to people anymore — that all you have to say is right there in your holy book.

God: You mean all that the infinite, all-knowing, all-wise creator of the universe has to say is contained in a book written thousands of years ago? Come on, I thought I made you with better sense than that.

Me: Just saying, that’s what people say. Others say, however, that you do talk, but whatever you say today cannot contradict whatever is in scriptures.

God: Now you’re being ridiculous. Times change, circumstances change, what I say can also change. Do you remember when you were a little boy and you declared to everyone within earshot that you wanted to be a soldier? How’s that going for you?

Me: But you’re God. You’re not supposed to contradict yourself.

God: Really? And which higher being made that rule for me to follow? I can contradict myself as much as I want. Who’s going to stop me?

Me: Uhm, good point. Isn’t that against your nature though?

God: And what good is it being God if I can’t go against my nature? Besides, what are you going to do about it? Slap me with a logical fallacy?

Me: I can’t argue with that.

God: Good that you know.

Me: You know some people are going to read this and get offended that I’m presuming to speak for you.

God: Don’t you get offended when they presume to speak for me?

Me: Not really, but I get really irritated.

God: And why is that?

Me: They’ve never really met you, seen you, heard you, felt you or touched you. Yet they are so sure that they know you — I mean really know you. They presume to know what you want and what you don’t want, who you love, who you’re going to save, who you’re sending to hell.

God: Now wait a minute, who said anything about sending anyone to hell?

Me: It’s there in the scriptures.

God: Which was written by whom?

Me: You.

God: Me? I never wrote anything in my life. Why should I bother writing anything down? It’s you humans who like writing things. You have this intense feeling and you write. You think you hear voices and you write. Like now, it’s you writing this conversation down, not me.

Me: So you’re saying you didn’t write the scriptures?

God: Nope. Any sane, intelligent scholar knows I didn’t take a pen and put words down on papyrus.

Me: How about what they say about you “inspiring” the men who wrote the scriptures?

God: Like the way I’m “inspiring” you now?

Me: But no one would really believe that these words I’m writing were inspired by you. They’ll just say I made the whole thing up. They’ll even say I’m blaspheming you by putting words in your mouth.

God: So? Nobody believes in prophets, but you already know that. You know, you humans take life too seriously sometimes. Lighten up and learn to laugh. I made life for you to enjoy and have fun and not get too caught up in these constipated arguments.

Me: Okay then. I’d love to chat more, but it’s late and I have a word limit and I think I exceeded it already.

God: Oh pooh, just tell your editor you’re having a divine dialogue.

Me: She’d never believe me.

God: I’ll put a mini-rainbow on her desk to make her know it’s legit.

Me: I’d like to see that happen. Later, nice chatting with you.

God: Au revoir!

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. He likes talking with God. Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me.  View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

I Got Mail: Feeling Guilty

Photo by slgckgc
Photo by slgckgc

I’d like to share an email I got recently and my response to it. I have made some edits indicated by bracketed [ ] words to correct grammar or to protect the writer’s identity:

Hi,

I have just read an article posted by Filipino Freethinkers regarding questions you have answered on belief of God as a creator and not as how it is presented in the Bible.

I want to say thank you for writing that. I have been struggling for the past months about my faith. I had a conversation with a Protestant friend who is a firm believer of God in the Bible. Trying to “save” myself from losing my faith, I admitted to her that I am having a love-hate relationship with Christianity, that I find myself comforted with reading different thoughts on deism. She responded to me this way: “Since you read a lot, why don’t you try reading the Bible? But then again, if you will really use logic, then, Bible will be a useless source for me.” How was that for an answer? It’s like saying, to believe, read the Bible BUT to understand or to read the Bible you have to believe first. I was not convinced.

I am still struggling now that it has become a day-to-day problem for me. It affects me a lot (that I feel like I’m becoming mad). I am torn between two belief systems…with Christianity and Deism at each end, my mind is leaning towards deism? I am currently in the situation of feeling guilty (like you, what if I’m wrong with my disbelief with Christianity?)

I want to ask you, during those tough times, how did you deal with it? I am in [another country] now and I have not found someone who can understand how I feel. I don’t have the courage to admit it. I still go to church, trying to talk to God to help me find my way to him. Or maybe this is the “way to” him. My partner is a Catholic, I have tried telling him these but (good that) he just [listens], he rarely responds (maybe he thought I just need to sleep it off).

Sorry for my tangled thoughts. I hope you got what I am asking.

I am somehow comforted to know that I am not alone. Thank you.

My response

Thanks for your email. I think I more or less understand what you’re asking. There is a part of you that seriously questions your traditional beliefs about God but there is also another part that fears that too much questioning might lead to your soul’s eternal damnation. Is that a fair assessment?

When I was at that stage, I just held on to this thought — that if God were truly just and fair, he would not blame me for asking all these questions. He knows my heart. He knows I ask these questions not as an attempt to rebel or to destroy him but to really know the truth. And so in a strange sort of way, I gathered enough faith to trust in God not to condemn me to hell even if I turn away from him after all these questions. After all, he was the one who made me this way, so he, above all, should understand.

In our tradition, God has often been compared to being a father. I happen to be a father and I can think of no circumstance where I would condemn any of my children to eternal punishment and torment simply for doubting me or for asking too many questions.

This is where I am now: I no longer believe in the God of the Bible. I do believe, however, that if a “god” does exist, then he/she/it will understand perfectly what I’m going through and not condemn me for it. If the God of the Bible does exist and if he would indeed condemn me simply for doubting or asking questions, then he never deserved my love and trust in the first place and I would not want to stay with him.

One “evil” of religion is that it has made us believe that we are not good enough, and that we are victims who cannot save ourselves but must rely on a savior in all aspects of my life. Once I removed that mindset, I learned to see that my life is my own. I am truly, totally responsible for what happens in my life and for how I live my life. I learned to love myself — to see myself as deserving love and because of this, I learned how to truly love others in return.

Your life is your own. Live it. Relish it. Enjoy it. It’s probably all you’ve got, so make it count.

Originally published in SunStar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me.

Doing Science Wrong

Science Project
Photo by Robert S. Donovan

In many different places in our country today, high school students turn in their laboratory exercise sheets after having just performed an experiment to determine the acceleration due to gravity. The teacher begins checking and grading the papers and penalizes answers that deviate too much from the accepted standard of 9.8 meters per second squared.

Elementary students submit their observations when asked to list down the colors of light passing through a prism. They are penalized if they do not write the colors of the rainbow in the correct ROYGBIV order.

Children are made to taste different substances in different parts of their tongue, and to determine which part of the tongue determines a particular taste (e.g. front tip for sweetness, back and center for bitterness, and so on). Their answers are marked wrong if they do not follow the “correct” locations as diagrammed in the textbook.

Many of you have probably experienced similar situations when you were a student in a science laboratory. I’m also pretty sure your kids or nephews or nieces are going through this very same thing today. And if you are the teacher currently practicing this, please do not get mad when I respectfully opine that you are doing science wrong.

When you grade laboratory exercises based on textbook answers, what do you think the students will do? Do you expect them to write down their honest observations? Of course not. They will quickly learn to be inventors instead of scientists. They will invent data or skew the experiment in some way so that the results come close to what the book says.

This should not come as a surprise though, even for the teachers. You probably did the same thing yourselves when you were students.

What bothers me is that this practice has been so ingrained in science education that hardly anyone talks about it anymore. I am probably one of the few parents raising a fuss about this, but I am doing so because I am seriously concerned.

When teachers begin teaching our kids that science is about getting the right answer in the book, then they have failed science miserably and have done a great disservice to the scientific development and future of our children. Remember that kids carry a lot of habits developed during childhood well into adulthood.

Look at the ratio of adults today who appreciate real science and do serious inquiry and research compared to those who readily believe and share anything posted on Facebook without a second thought. The amount of people spreading rumors and hearsay on the internet should be enough to convince you that there are not that many people really interested in finding out the truth for themselves.

The question now is, how then should science teachers grade laboratory exercises?

My suggestion is for them to observe the process. How did the students perform the experiment? Did they follow the procedures as described? Did they properly set up the equipment? Did they measure accurately? The teacher should also make the students aware of the many different factors that can contribute to deviations in test results.

One possible way of concluding an activity is to collect and compare everyone’s result in a graph, then look into answers that deviate too much and see if that particular group did anything out of the ordinary that could have caused the difference. True, it is a more work than simply looking up the right answer, but it is the right way. It is, in fact, the scientific way, and it produces a more enriching experience for both teacher and student.

The science teacher’s job is not just to make students memorize and spit out facts and figures but to make them think like real scientists — and one of the most important lessons they should learn in that regard is to provide honest data — only then can there be honest analysis and evaluation. Students should not be punished for reporting “bad” results but should be taught how to analyze and interpret these results and how they can improve from that experience.

Science has improved our lives in ways we could not have imagined just a mere one hundred years before and it will continue to do so for the next hundreds or thousands of years.

Let’s do science right. The future, our future, depends on it.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Send me your email at andy@freethinking.me. Visit Freethinking Me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/freethinkingme)

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