Penn & Teller illustrate the Placebo Effect.

You can sell people just about anything by dressing someone up in a lab coat. The folks who put out all the “alternative medicine” and herbal supplement nonsense take full advantage of the fact that most people aren’t great at critical thinking. Make up a bunch of claims, get someone in a lab coat to shill for it, and chances are you’ll find more than enough people to not only buy it, but to sit around and sing its praises in testimonials.

The following video clip is from an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit from last year in which they did just that. Setting up a guy in a lab coat in a shopping mall they had him try out magnet therapy (using demagnetized and fake magnets), a chiropractic coat, and a snail facial mask on various passersby. It didn’t take long to find people who said they felt these alternative therapies were providing them with some benefit, no matter how ridiculous they were:

As P&T point out, these aren’t stupid people. They’re just overly trusting and, I would add, a tad bit overly credulous. The fact that the guy doing the tests was in a lab coat should have set off alarm bells to begin with as it’s one of the most common cliches used in such advertising pitches, but then it’s used so much because it does tend to work. In this case I’m willing to bet the people shown are open to the idea of alternative medicines to begin with and so they fall prey to confirmation bias, which is something we all can fall victim to no matter how intelligent we happen to be. This is why it’s helpful to keep abreast in at least a general way of what the snake-oil salesmen are peddling and what the broader scientific community has to say about it. Or, at the very least, be skeptical of unusual claims until you can dig up the research supporting it.

Video clip found via Debunking Christianity.

4 thoughts on “Penn & Teller illustrate the Placebo Effect.

  1. I knew a lady that swore by magnets and actually paid a lot of money for them.  I never noticed any effect myself…

    What’s funny is that these things LOOK like props…

  2. Good video; it is actually from their first season, which was in 2003, not from last year. You do wonder how much of what we do in day to day life is authentic and how much of it is just wishful thinking.

  3. If this therapy works when promoted by Penn and Teller, just imagine how much better it would work with real magnets, and away from the interference caused by fields of skepticism?  Where can I get some?

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