If you buy TheraFlu or some other product and swear it helps, you may be right. The placebo effect is real and while OTC "remedies" and supplements can be sold with no proof needed, to be called actual medicine it can't simply work as poorly as a sugar pill.

Yet about 30 percent of the time, people who take a placebo do feel better, the same way people who eat food labeled Non-GMO feel better taking a nocebo. Neither is improving health but a lot of things can sound like science or health if you look at statistics and create correlation.

That's epidemiology, an entry point to science, and epidemiology findings led to continued interest in various off-label treatments for COVID-19, such as ivermectin.(1)

Ivermectin, a 'wonder drug' from Japan(2) in the same beneficial arena as aspirin and penicillin, was originally a 'blockbuster' veterinary drug because it kills internal and external parasites. It was then found  to work for two human diseases that impact billions, Onchocerciasis and Lymphatic filariasis. Merck provided it free of charge. In 2005, UNESCO listed it as "one of the most triumphant public health campaigns ever waged in the developing world.”

Given all of that, it isn't crazy that someone would posit that it might work for other things like COVID-19, yet a whole bunch of researchers who haven't objected to completely implausible claims about homeopathy and "endocrine-disrupting" chemicals for 25 years suddenly started saying that epidemiology was not science and no discussion of it was worth having. 

The paper was not good, nor are nearly all epidemiology papers, but the blowback was unwarranted, which means it was political. The same people who routinely undermine science using statistical correlation and dead rats were suddenly saying correlation was not science - but only because former President Donald Trump mentioned a study saying it might be beneficial for humans and COVID-19.

Like thousands of other exploratory claims, it would have gone nowhere except it became red meat for political operatives in an election year - and Republicans leaned into it. When Republicans defended it, the World Health Organisation, which endorsed acupuncture and powdered rhino horns for COVID-19, was opposed.(3) Thousands of scholars who never once looked askance at a Chuck Benbrook paper claiming organic strawberries were healthier because of surveys claiming they had better "mouth feel" suddenly cared about poor people being bilked when it came to an off-label drug.(4)

What was needed to settle the issue was a randomized clinical trial and that has been done. 1,206 US adults (median age 48, 59 percent women) in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial who had COVID-19 during February 2022 to July 2022 were found to recover in 11 days with ivermectin and 11 days with placebo. Which means ivermectin, as great as it is in other ways, is a placebo when it comes to this disease. The vaccine level of the participants was 84 percent population and the probability that ivermectin reduced symptom duration by more than 1 day was less than 0.1%.

No drama, no political posturing, no conspiracies - unfortunately it also won't change many minds, any more than 25 years of data showing the safety of GMOs ever changed minds of Whole Foods shoppers. Science is culture these days, which means it is also political.

What remains true now was always the case; epidemiology is only exploratory, no medicine or product can ever be approved based on simple statistical correlation, and in the future, if we become more evidence-based, nothing will ever be banned without a factual basis either.

That is a much better world for science than only looking critically at journal paper claims if a Republican makes them.


(1) Some criticize the methodology but the methodology of most epidemiology is a plasma pile of errors - it is why if there is enough interest, or a compelling enough pool of statistical correlation, scientists will tackle it. People who found a way to suddenly engage in post-publication peer-review when a Republican cited a paper have a ready defense for why they never criticized political allies at IARC or NIEHS or Harvard School of Public Health demonizing trace chemicals - criticizing them is simply 'whataboutism.'

(2) People who distrust "western" medicine oddly love anything that originates in Asia, even medicine.

(3) This is the same WHO that said Trump was racist for wanting to cut travel from China because there was no pandemic, then said any talk of a lab leak in China was racist and xenophobic, then listened dutifully when China claimed COVID-19 was probably caused by American frozen food, all while telling member countries that humans were a weapon of mass extinction anyway and we need to install more solar panels during a worldwide collapse. They're still defending China despite concern it may have been caused by a lab leak from every literate country.

(4) What should and could have been a science education point - epidemiology is only exploratory, science needs to prove it works - was instead a political football, which did more harm than good. We suddenly had Republicans stealing 'science is a corporate conspiracy' rhetoric from Democrats. Bill Gates was The Devil for Republicans, which Democrats said until 2021, and Big Pharma was controlling FDA, which Democrats said until 2021, and alternatives were being suppressed which, you guessed it, Democrats said until 2021.