Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Placebo Cerebrals: Wasting One's Life On Fake Facts

How they put the sham in shaman and how to take it out.

There are many ways to live ones life in vain, enough to fill a thousand and one nightmares.  One in particular has been on my mind lately, a life in vain but with some consolations.

Imagine the bottom falling out at the end of your lifelong career, discovering that the detailed knowledge you spent decades mastering was actually a sham.  What you thought was a subtle science of cause and effect with all sorts of cerebral details was in fact, on the whole a placebo effect. You wasted your life learning TMI about absolutely nothing of substance.

“It can’t happen here” you might think, confident that whatever profession you’ve chosen has more real-world traction than that.  But surely you can think of professions trip-wired for just that sort of end-of-career pratfall. 

Think of the priests in some religion you find ridiculous, memorizing those sacred texts and learning all of those detailed prayers and incantations to a God that doesn’t exist.

Or think of the practitioners of some form of medicine you find laughably impotent, fussing over the difference between this remedy and that, none of which really work. 

Consider the therapists barking up some absurd theoretical tree, with their studied technical jargon and serious conferences, all just a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.  

Think of the diet specialists dedicatedly concocting complex regimes that prove completely ineffectual, the stock market analysts burning brain calories devising intricate investment models that win clients but never profits, the business consultants who make a name for themselves but in last analysis add no value, the academics who create theoretical pedestals to mount, only to watch them tripped out from under them and trampled by research that proves them completely out to lunch. 

Think of the effort, the finely tuned mental exertion wasted on cerebral edifices so grossly out of touch with reality, and yet with some consolation perhaps, and that of three kinds.

First, there is joy in using your mind however fruitlessly. Think Sudoku.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste on fruitless activities, but it’s an even more terrible wasted altogether. Better to spend your time thinking through anything than just vegetating.  The priest who studied his esoteric religion may at least have forestalled Alzheimer’s.

Second, culture advances by trial and error, which means a lot of errors.  Think of cultural discovery as like a search party spread through a forest looking for the lost child.  One party member may find the child but the other party members were still essential.  It takes a village with a whole lot of village idiots to produce a genius solution.  We are all trials in a trial and error process. We root for our personal trial and for the overall trial and error process. So what if you lived your life in vain on what proves to be a cultural error?  Cultural errors are necessary to produce cultural successes.  Rooting for culture at large and taking some credit for your culture’s successes, you can proudly say,  “I haven’t lived my life in vain for nothing!”

Third and most importantly there’s the placebo effect or more specifically what could be called the placebo cerebral effect.

Recently researchers have begun disentangling placebo treatments from placebo rituals.  For example, Harvard researcher Ted Kapchuk found that patients reported far less benefit from fake acupuncture without much practitioner interaction than from fake acupuncture with at least 20 minutes of what Kaptchuk describes as “very schmaltzy care,” which included lots of compassionate attention but also “at least 20 seconds lost in thoughtful silence,’ the kind of contemplation a cerebrally sham shaman provides. 

Placebos work better when they’re credible. Credibility is contagious from practitioner to patient. “I believe this will work!” is lip service and only mildly credible. As with all credibility tests, we seek poser-proof practices or what sociologists call “costly signals,” signals you can’t fake because they cost too much to produce.

The most credibly way to prove you believe in your practice is to pour your life into studying its details.  You would never do that unless you were either OCD or really believed the details made a difference.  Even a life spent vainly studying some sham shamanism will have potent and healing placebo cerebral effects unachievable without all of that wasted work.

I’d take that consolation if that were all that was on offer after a life wasted on vacuous details in a practice proven to be nothing but placebo. But I’d much prefer to spend my brain calories on target than off. 

In some fields that’s easy.  When success is measured solely by popularity (business sales for example) or where it’s measured by practical physical outcomes (auto-repair) you’re not going to be at risk of wasting your life on placebo details.

But I don’t gravitate toward such rubber-hits-road work. I’m into grand theories, which means lot of my work could prove to be a placebo cerebral sham.

How do I work to minimize the risk that I’ll turn out to be a sham shaman? By pouring over the details of methodology, the general study of how to shop among interpretations in search for better bets on how to fix things.  Methodology is no FDIC-backed insurance policy against my sham shamanism, but it should help. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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