Kaptchuk, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine now researching
the placebo effect at Harvard Medical School, doesn't surf
the web very often. He is surprised at what a complete stranger
can know about him after a simple Google search.
"The web is amazing, isn't it? I don't use it enough," he
says reading a web site detailing his history as a student
activist in the '60s.
But his awe is short-lived. As he reads on, he runs into the
all-too-familiar downside of information gleaned from the
"This is horrible! It's all a lie!" Kaptchuk exclaims. "I
appointed Martin to that post; he didn't defeat me in an election!"
It's very like Kaptchuk to see both sides of technology. His
philosopher's take on the placebo effect lies at the intersection
of science and belief. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS asked
Kaptchuk about his work and his thoughts on the art and science
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were you like as a kid?
was interested in science for a long time. In college, I studied
religion and philosophy. Then I studied Chinese medicine in
China and I came back and was a practitioner of Chinese medicine.
When people became interested in alternative medicines, they
asked me to help out at Harvard Medical School. I realized
that in order to survive there, one had to become a scientist.
So I became a scientist.
Scientific perspective is so rational that it forgets
that the passion and foibles of human beings are part
of the dialogue and discourse of all ages.
are your research interests now?
I study placebo effects. I study
acupuncture. I study alternative medicine. I'm mostly interested
in the philosophy of medicine, history of medicine, history
of science. I research to what extent the placebo effect is
real: Is it an artifact of the way we do clinical trials?
What's its duration? Its magnitude? Is it plastic? Can one
vary it? In what illnesses does it apply?
of my research looks into what its mechanism is. Do we see
what physiological pathways it takes? How does ritual get
translated into physiology? Does acupuncture or herbal medicine
have more efficacy than a placebo?
not a proponent [of alternative medicine]. I actually am the
same way anyone else is at [Harvard Medical School] - probably
even more critical of those phenomena. I consider myself a
scholar and a scientist. But I am unusual in that I am a practitioner
and I have no problem being a practitioner. I don't know if
it's me, my charisma, the placebo effect, or the needles or
the herbs I give, but I don't have any problem with that.
my philosophic questions are: What are the scientific, moral
and ethical implications of the placebo effect? Maybe this
placebo effect is really what we should be doing here! In
the Middle Ages, the pope said you couldn't visit Jewish doctors.
That was an ethical judgement. Is that the same thing we say
now, you can't get a placebo because it's a forbidden form
of treatment? That it's not the outcome that matters, it's
how it got done? That's an ethical judgement, too.
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