When is it acceptable for medical professionals to be dishonest? This week’s guest, psychotherapist Gary Greenberg, argues that all medicine “works somehow or other by deception.” The ‘placebo effect’ may be a case in point. In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts sits down with Greenberg to discuss its influence on drug testing, healing, and medical practice generally. Are placebos the equivalent of the horseshoe Niels Bohr supposedly hung over his door? If so, why does its effect continue to appear stronger as time goes on? What’s really the ‘active ingredient’ in medicine?

We hope you use our ‘Extra” prompts in the classroom, over dinner, and online.


1- Why does Greenberg suspect that modern medicine does a poor job of treating certain illnesses today, such as chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome?


2- The conversation turns to pediatrics in particular. How do you go about choosing a pediatrician or other primary care provider? How much difference does a doctor’s ‘bedside manner’ make in your choice? Their academic or scientific credentials?


3- Roberts and Greenberg discuss recent genetic findings. How convinced are you that there is a ‘neural aspect’ to healing? Explain. To what extent would such neural effects buttress the case for the placebo effect? Mitigate it?


4- Why does Greenberg say there’s no money in researching the placebo effect? Is it simply a story of perverse incentives, or “like looking for feathers with a magnet”?


5- Roberts recalls being reminded of the phrase,”Every day in every way I’m getting better and better,” and it sparks a pointed question. To what extent can we get the placebo effect to work on ourselves?


P.S. We’re anxiously awaiting confirmation on that “milkshake diet,” aren’t you???