What are the odds of pills working?

Overused statistics often create a smokescreen for lack of rigour and honesty in science.

This is clearly the case in the medical domain.

But let’s see how average rough statistics could be interpreted fairly to address the old question of allopathy versus homeopathy.

Say you are a skeptic. You don’t believe in homeopathy. But you respect logic.

It is well known and accepted by official medicine that, generally speaking, a number of patients recover without any treatment, while others recover when receiving only  placebo.

Percentages found by studies for these two groups are surprisingly high.

Let’s say that, on average, roughly a third of patients recover without any treatment and another third get better on pure placebo.

Logically, this means that when you are unwell, there is only about one chance out of three that taking either an allopathic drug or an homeopathic treatment will possibly help you beyond the pure placebo effect.

But there is more to it.

Official medicine recognises that drugs don’t always work. Percentages of cases where the drug does positively work vary considerably with the types of ailments and the molecule.

Let’s say that, on average, a drug will work positively in three quarters of cases.

There is still another consideration to bear in mind. Most drugs are known to have side effects of widely varying severities.

Let’s say that in one case out of three the side effects will be at least as serious as the condition being treated.

So, looking at the one chance out of three that a treatment may help you beyond pure placebo effect, if you choose allopathy you have to consider that half of that one chance out of three will be wasted by the drug either not working or producing side effects at least as bad as your condition.

In other words, there is on average about one chance out of six that an allopathic drug will positively help you. And of course if you do take an allopathic drug, there is on average, say, one chance out of three that it will harm you at least as much as it helps.

As a skeptic you are convinced that there is zero chance for an homeopathic treatment to help you, but being intellectually honest you have to concede that the chance of being seriously harmed is close to zero.

What can you conclude from the comparison; take no treatment at all, since the odds for successful effects versus drawbacks are so low? No, for in that case you forego the key placebo effect.

Serious studies have shown that when people strongly believe in their treatment, be it conventional or alternative, the placebo effect is significantly more pronounced.

So if your doctor knew that you believed strongly in the treatment he was going to prescribe, he might reason that the chance of the placebo effect might jump from one third to say 40%, meaning that the percentage of chances of effects beyond recovery without treatment or placebo would fall to around 27% (100-33-40) instead of 33%.

Applying the halving for no action or side effects at least as serious as the condition, the percentage of positive action falls to 13.5%, a bit more than one chance out of eight.

For your doctor, the ideal would thus clearly be to give you a placebo.

But of course, for the placebo to work, you would have to believe it was a conventional drug. That would entail cheating you, with the complicity of the chemist.

Understandably your doctor doesn’t wish to embark on this course.

While not too sure how to proceed in the best interest of his patients, he gets frequent visits by sales people from pharmaceutical companies. Finally, he’s only human. Why make his life complicated when easy pickings beckon?

We can’t judge him. Neither can we judge the sales person from Big Pharma. Neither can we judge R&D and marketing folks from Big Pharma. All of them are trapped in a system.

A system of thought. Powerful, insistent, just sufficiently mildly threatening to keep (almost) everybody in line.

Mind you, if you aren’t a skeptic regarding homeopathy, things are much easier: you take the homeopathic treatment. For one it doesn’t harm you. Then you benefit surely from the placebo effect. And if it works beyond placebo, that is extra benefit.

For my part, I’m sure it does work, even at very low dilutions where no molecule of the substance is present. For it is not a question of a molecule being present, but of an energy signal being present.

Embracing the holistic paradigm is liberating.

Fear not, enjoy maths combined to intuition.



Copyright © Leo Foresta 2012


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