Your Doctor is an Inadvertent Faith Healer

The relegation of the placebo effect to mere snake oil.

Taylor Foreman


Generated in Midjourney

A British doctor, John Haygarth, was the first person to ever formally notice the placebo effect. A popular tool at the time was called the “Perkins Tractor” — little wands you waved around a painful joint. They worked!

Or, well, it depends on what you mean by “worked.”

Haygarth noticed that you could replace the expensive alloy metal with cheap wood, and they worked just the same. The ritual was what was important, not the material. He said about the effect. “Such is the wonderful force of imagination!”

Since then, the marvelous force of imagination has worn out its welcome. Now, it’s nothing but a confounding variable on our way to finding “true” medicine. The term “placebo” has become synonymous with “snake oil.”

Despite that, the placebo effect has grown in recent years as people’s “faith” in modern medicine has grown. The material effect of drugs was 27.3% greater than the placebo in 1996, compared to only 8.7% in 2013 (thanks to Seeds of Science for gathering this data).

Is there a way to intentionally deepen and expand this effect? To answer that, let’s rewind to a time when pretty much the only form of medicine was the placebo effect.

My great uncles were what is called in French “traiteurs.” Cajun faith healers. Louisiana swamp mystics.


Their ancestors were the first French people to cross the Atlantic and land in what is now Canada. They settled in the “land of snow” and began a new life.

But just as they began to put down tenuous roots, the British army conquered, slaughtered, and systematically rooted them out. The Acadians (Exiled French Canadians who later became the “Cajuns” of Louisiana) were forced to leave their dead and dying loved ones behind and drag whatever they could southward.

You can hear more details about this painful exodus in the popular song Acadian Driftwood (banger, tbh).



Taylor Foreman

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