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Placebo Problems: Boundary Work in the Psychedelic Science Renaissance

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Abstract

The revitalization of clinical trials with psychedelics has produced an array of studies investigating different combinations of therapeutic substances and diagnoses. In addition to the bureaucratic negotiations to gain approval for this research, this new wave of studies is also negotiating a new methodological landscape of clinical research. Mid-twentieth century research with drugs like LSD and psilocybin involved both case studies and double-blind studies. However, today, placebo-controlled randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the institutional standard for research with psychopharmaceuticals. Because psychedelic therapy seeks to induce a radical change in consciousness—to make a subject feel different from her everyday self—blinding these studies using placebo controls has emerged as a methodological sticking point. However, this chapter argues, it is also a rich site for interrogating boundary work around science and psychedelics. While anthropologists have examined placebos as examples of the power of symbolic healing within Western medicine, or as ethically fraught territory of nontreatment, this chapter examines placebos as a research technique around which the scientific status of a study is negotiated. While psychedelic therapy challenges the model of pharmaceutical intervention used in psychiatry today, it must do so while also working within psychopharmacology’s evidentiary norms.

Hendy, K. (2018). Placebo Problems: Boundary Work in the Psychedelic Science Renaissance. Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science: Cultural Perspectives, 151-166. 10.1007/978-3-319-76720-8_9
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