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The Wonder Pill

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Frontiers Profile: Ted Kaptchuk 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Norman Rockwell painting of "Family Practice"Ted 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 Internet.

"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 of healing.
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What were you like as a kid?

I 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.

What 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?

Some 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?

I'm 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.

Then 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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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |


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