Introduction, brief history of placebos (in clinical practice) and a note on method

Dates: Weeks 1-8, Hilary Term 2020 (starting 21 January)
Location: Lecture Room, 2nd floor, Radcliffe Humanities Building, Woodstock Road, OX2
Time: Tuesdays 16:30—18:00
How to resister (places limited): Email
Who it is for: Graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in any area of philosophy or medicine. Jargon will be avoided, so no prerequisites other than a desire to learn and discuss issues related to placebos are required.

About the seminar series

Whether the treatments we take are believed to be ‘effective’ often depends on whether they are better than ‘placebos’ in clinical trials. Understanding what placebos are is therefore important for human health. In spite of this, a great deal of confusion surrounds what placebos are. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, placebos are neither inert nor inactive, and they can have specific effects, especially for treating pain. Following on from the confusions about what they are, debates rage about how to measure their effects, and whether doctors can ethically use them in clinical practice, and whether placebo-controlled trials are ethical if we have an established treatment. In this seminar series, led by Dr. Jeremy Howick, graduate students will read and discuss the meaning of placebos, how to measure their effects, and whether they are ethical.

Outline of seminars

Seminar 1. Introduction, brief history of placebos (in clinical practice) and a note on
Seminar 2. What is a placebo (in a clinical trial)?
Seminar 3. Measurement errors in measuring placebo and nocebo effects.
Seminar 4. Special problems with measuring placebos
Seminar 5. Double blinding: the importance of being in the dark.
Seminar 6: How placebos and nocebos work: a case study of pain.
Seminar 7. The ethics of placebos and nocebos in clinical trials and clinical practice
Seminar 8. Where placebo research needs to go


Based on Dr Howick’s forthcoming book; will be emailed to those who register.

About Dr. Howick
Oxford philosopher and medical Researcher Dr. Jeremy Howick has done 15 years of research on evidence-based medicine, placebo effects, and empathy. He has published 3 books, almost 100 peer-reviewed articles, and is the director of the Oxford University Empathy Programme, whose mission is ‘to introduce a dose of empathy into all healthcare consultations’. He communicates regularly with the public and has written a book for non-academic audiences called Doctor You. He has appeared on the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4, and his research has been featured in The Guardian, The Times, Men’s Health, the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post, and The Conversation.

Q: What if I can only attend some of the seminars?
A: That is okay. While it is better to attend all the seminars, each seminar will be independent to a great extent.

About the Oxford Philosophy and Medicine Seminars

In the Oxford Philosophy and Medicine seminars, we explore topics that are both philosophically interesting, and also relevant to medical research or practice, and the core readings draw on the philosophical as well as the medical literature. The first seminar series was held at All Souls in and covered the Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine. In this seminar series, we will explore the what placebos are (ontology), how to measure their effects (epistemology), and whether they are ethical.