If you offer them free stuff, they will come.

Numbers have been down recently due to other lunchtime commitments so I needed someway to trick them into appearing. Fortunately, I had a box full of Placebo Bands at home courtesy of the wonderful Nick Croucher from the SkepticBros. I advertised in the school bulletin that there would be prizes given out and it seemed to work. I had over forty kids eagerly awaiting my words of wisdom. And free stuff.

I asked the kids first about what they knew of placebos. Most of them knew that they were fake drugs that could have real affects depending on the recipient’s belief. They didn’t know a lot of the more interesting stuff though. I showed them this video to get them thinking:

Here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Two placebos are stronger than one
  • Capsules are stronger than pills
  • Expensive placebos work better than cheap ones
  • People in different countries react different to placebos
  • Actual medicine also has a placebo affect
  • You can get addicted to placebos and suffer withdrawal when being taken off them

Of course the kids were fascinated by this, not having realised just how powerful placebos were. We spoke about how a placebo might help with a headache but not with a broken limb and about how they can work on animals (they affect the owner’s impression of the animal’s health).

After a few minutes of discussion I got hit with a question from a year 7 girl which I completely loved.

“Can you overdose on placebos?”

I loved the question because I didn’t know the answer. I immediately thought of James Randi overdosing on homeopathic sleeping pills, but he knew that they were inert. If people can suffer withdrawal from placebos couldn’t they also overdose? I have no idea! Hopefully some research or smarter people than I will help.

We ran out of time to discuss the ethics of placebos but got some interesting points from the kids. They were really mixed as to whether or not doctors should prescribe placebos. Some felt that it was ok as long as the condition being treated wasn’t too severe. Others felt that it should only ever be a last resort. We’ll delve further into this topic next week.

Before we finished I got a volunteer up to demonstrate the Power Balance Band scam. Instead of using a “real” band, I used one of the placebo bands. Here’s a video of Richard Saunders explaining how it works:

The kids enjoyed the show and enjoyed getting a free band even more. They found it pretty unbelievable that so many people could be suckered in with a magic trick. They all promised to annoy their family and friends with demonstrations in the next week. And annoying family and friends is what we’re all about.



Filed under McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society

3 responses to “If you offer them free stuff, they will come.

  1. jez

    Doctor Karl talks about the time he worked in a hospital, and gave saline in place of (I think) methadone while the nurse went to refill the supply. The placebo worked to calm down the patient. But when the real drug was administered, the patient started to show all the signs of an overdose. He had to give an antidote to save the patient!

  2. Pingback: Placebos and ethics | Sceptic School

  3. Pingback: If you offer them free stuff, they will come. | Sceptic School » The Patch, Disc, and Band Scam

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