Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Water memory" - a myth that wouldn't die

Holy pseudoscience, Batman!

Homeopathy websites (too many to list; I found the material for this post here) are all gleefully abuzz today** with the following factoid - New Research From Aerospace Institute of the University of Stuttgart Scientifically Proves Water Memory and Homeopathy.
A simple experiment by researchers and professors at the prestigious Aerospace Institute of the University of Stuttgart in Germany is confirming Dr. Jacques Benveniste's 1988 assertion that water has an imprint of energies to which it has been exposed. In spite of Jacques Benveniste's experiment to show that homeopathy works being replicated many many times at various research labs and universities around the world, skeptics have continued to attempt to debunk it albeit unsuccessfully... This new experiment and support from professors here offer another intriguing view and explanation of how homeopathy works since it proves water has a "memory".
Naturally interested, I rushed to find a source for this awesome news about a phenomenon that could potentially change all our basic understanding of the physico-chemical nature of water and give a big fillip to Benveniste's "water memory" theory that has been discredited several times over. I looked and looked, I really did. Did I find a journal article, a research paper, a scientific citation?

NO. All I found was a YouTube video.



So what did the video talk about? What simple experiment led the homeopathy world to such a momentous conclusion?

The experiment is simple enough. The voice-over says that the researchers at "Aerospace Institute at the University of Stuttgart" have found a simple way to make the structure of water visible.

(We shall not get into a quibble over the fact that University of Stuttgart (Universit├Ąt Stuttgart) has no single "Aerospace Institute"; the faculty of Aerospace Engineering and Geodesy has three separate institutes with 'Aerospace' in their names. But as long as we are talking about fact-free assertions, it's fine.)

The video shows right at the beginning (around 0:14) water being drawn into a syringe and droplets being placed on a glass slide. The voice-over goes on to say that each drop has a face of its own, unmistakable and unique. According to their observation, the water must remember the student who performed the experiment, because four droplets put by the same student looked identical, and there are visible differences between droplets put by different students.

My critical antennae were screaming.
  • We were not told how these images were taken: camera? Light microscope? EM? Could the different observations be image artefacts? Of note in this regard, scienceblogger Orac had a very interesting post on how heavy metal contaminants were mistaken for non-existent structures called nanocrystalloids by a group of pro-homeopathy scientists intents on proving the existence of "water memory".
  • We don't know if the images were taken simultaneously or differently. For example, was the same slide used for 16 droplets shown on screen? If the slides were different, how were the variables on slide surface (grease/grime/effect of cleaning solution et cetera) controlled for?
  • Since the water was pushed out through the needle, how was the volume of the droplet controlled for? It is not unexpected that different students would push the plunger with slightly different force and end up with different volumes on the slide.
  • Did each student put the droplets simultaneously or was there a time gap between each set? How was the effect of this time gap controlled for, particularly since the main thesis of the experiment is based on the different appearance of water drops made by different students? The easiest control would have been to get a student to put water drops at two different times, after taking water from the same source.
The person shown in the video demonstrating the observations did not of course get into any such vexatious question. The voice-over moved on to a different experiment, in which different flowers put in the water gave rise to different pictures of the droplet, thereby concluding that the water remembered the flowers.

Again, there was no mention of
  • whether the surfaces of the flower parts were clean or similarly cleaned or not,
  • whether the substances known to be in flowers (such as aromatic oils, alkaloids et cetera) had any effect, or even whether these parameters matched between the two different flowers put in,
  • whether these experiments were adequately controlled for.
Of course not. Silly me. But the next assertion was even more stupendous - that the Rhine carries all the information from the stuff dropping into it, and the Dutch, located at the mouth of the Rhine, drink all that information. Hoozzah! The Dutch have their very own information superhighway in their gut.

Not having been fortunate enough to visit Germany or the Netherlands, I don't know about the Rhine. But I know about many major rivers in India, even some of the great lakes in the US. I guess no one ever takes a dip in the Rhine? Across Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium, there is not a single place where industrial effluents or human/animal excreta find their way into the Rhine or any of its tributaries? Does the Rhine remember all that information and pass it to the European gut? Gasp! - Is this why there is this preponderance of quackery in certain parts of Europe? The memories of all those nasty stuff in Rhine water must be doing something?

Critical thinking and rational experimentation is not, and has not been, a strong suit of the Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practitioners. They continue to believe in their particular brand of magical remedies; however, they also crave the legitimacy that science is considered to provide - hence, their relentless struggle to appropriate science-y concepts to demonstrate the efficacy of CAM modalities, failing which there is always Special Pleading, Argument from Authority, Argument from Popularity and various other assorted logical fallacies at their disposal, as well as anecdata, a.k.a. testimonials.

The Editor of the EBM-First website, who goes by Blue_Wode on Twitter, kindly pointed me towards an illuminating article by Prof. Edzard Ernst about how "negative scientific evidence on homeopathy was covered up in Germany in the 1940s" (See page 2). This amply illustrates why rationalists and skeptics within the scientific community must keep up the good work of bringing reason and sanity to counter the lies and misinformation spread by the peddlers of pseudoscience.

** Update in postscript: I was wrong about this being in the news today. I found some blogpost dating back to April 2011 where this was mentioned, along with the vid.

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