Panaceas and Placebos
Of the two terms in the title of this entry, panacea is probably the clearer and least equivocal. By panacea is meant a medicine, treatment, or therapy that can cure or alleviate all illnesses. From that definition, it is clear that any alleged panacea must work, according to present-day scientific thinking, at least partly as a placebo. A placebo (Latin for “I will please”) can be defined as a medical treatment that works (satisfies the patient) not through its apparent agency but by the belief in its efficacy. And since no medical scientist of repute would seriously hold that there is any one medical treatment that can relieve every known illness, it follows that if a treatment appears to be working universally, or even widely, it must be doing so at least partly as a placebo, by virtue of the belief in it.
Yet panaceas have been proposed in the past. Here I look at two panaceas, arguably the two most serious and instructive of the past 300 years. The first was proposed by George...
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