Placebo Talks Back

Placebos, long maligned as imaginary or deceptive by scientists and the public alike, are recognizable today as robust objects of inquiry. Placebo Studies is an emerging field of research that aims to make sense of placebos and placebo effects within medicine and biomedical research. The goals of this three-year project are to assess the stakes and import of Placebo Studies and identify and respond to under-theorized ethical and epistemological questions arising within placebo research. 

Led by a philosopher and philosopher/psychiatrist, the project focuses on problems in current Placebo Studies that fall beyond the scope of biomedicine: problems related to the body-mind connection, the role of affect and design in treatment, and the ethics of deception. In order to explore this array of problems and establish new methods for studying placebos and placebo effects, the project builds a bridge between philosophy, science and technology studies, and placebo research. Placebo Studies holds considerable significance for public debates about ethics, evidence and trust, and so the project extends this research into the public domain, through interviews, audio storytelling and accessible essays.  

Given this research focus, the project has the following objectives: 

  • To establish placebos as an object of knowledge for philosophy, science and technology studies, and related fields of disability studies, affect studies, and posthuman studies, by publishing two peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as a monograph with an international scholarly press 
  • To identify an emerging fault line within Placebo Studies by producing a meta-narrative review that lays out the problem of mind-body connection that arises across an array of studies, methods and analyses 
  • To establish a network of national and international scholars, at the intersections of philosophy and science and technology studies, by hosting two open conference sessions on placebos 
  • To submit a SSHRC Connection Program grant, together with the Posthuman Research Network in Ontario, in order to host a two-day workshop that extends the reach of this project 
  • To bring philosophy and humanities-based research together with biomedical research by presenting the project in the University of Calgary’s medical humanities lecture series 
  • To develop an archive of stories of placebo research by interviewing leading placebo scientists about the questions that most preoccupy them, both in person at Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies & Therapeutic Encounter and McGill’s Culture, Mind and Brain Program and through recorded conversations conducted virtually 
  • To amplify the work of placebo researchers, as well as dramatize the stakes and significance of Placebo Studies, by producing audio storytelling and interviews through a five-episode podcast series and public scholarly essays, published by high-impact sites like Aeon and Nautilus 

Project Funding: SSHRC