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No. 60: Nov-Dec 1988

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Update on the "infinite dilution" experiments

The above summary of J. Benveniste's "infinite dilution" experiments and Nature's subsequent "investigation" was written in mid-August (1988). When we returned from a long vacation at the end of September, we found eleven new references on this novel development in the progress (?) of science. Basically, there are only two big questions: (1) Is there, despite all the furor and the machinations of Nature's "hit squad," anything of scientific value in the experiments of Benveniste's group? and (2) Should scientific journals police scientific research? The latter question should be answered by Science itself: we shall focus here on the possibility that real scientific anomalies are being concealed by all the media smoke.

What did Nature's hit squad really find? J. Maddox (Nature's editor) et al concluded that Benveniste and his colleagues did not take enough care in their work, that their data did not have errors of the right magnitude (a statistical quibble), that no serious attempt was made to eliminate systematic errors and observer bias, that the climate of the lab was "inimical to an objective evaluation of the exceptional data," and that the phenomenon was not always reproducible. (7) No evidence of fraud was found. The data originally published in Nature were not explained or shown to be invalid. (11) In fact, the Nature investigation actually confirmed some of the original findings. (5) All of the French work and that of the cooperating laboratories were attributed to "autosuggestion"! (4)

Qualifications of the Nature investigators. J. Benveniste pointed out that none of the three members of the Nature team had any experience in immunology. (4, 11) The team consisted of J. Maddox (a physicist), J. Randi (a professional magician), and W. Stewart (an organic chemist).

Curious aspects of Nature's publication and following investigation. Why did Nature accept and publish a paper when fraud and poor science were suspected? (4, 11) Why didn't Nature hold publication of the original Benveniste paper for four weeks until the investigation was completed? (4, 11) Why didn't Nature insist upon prior experiment replication by an independent laboratory? (6) Actually, replications of the experiment were completed before publication, but at labs selected by Benveniste.

Conventional explanations of Benven iste's results. Several letters to Nature have proposed reasonable explanations for the supposedly impossible results of the "infinite dilution" experiments. (8, 9) It is therefore possible that Benveniste's data are valid and not due to "autosuggestion."

Has the "infinite dilution" anomaly been exorcised? Not in our opinion. Too many unexplained data survive. We doubt, however, that many scientists will rush to their labs to explore this subject. It would be too risky in the present scientific environment. Nature has, in effect, relegated "infinite dilution" research to pseudoscience, whether deserved or not.

References.

  1. Anonymous; "Now You See It..., Scientific American, 259:19, September 1988.
  2. Vines, Gail; "The Ghostbusters Report from Paris," New Scientist, p. 30, August 4, 1988.
  3. Anonymous; "Inhuman Nature," New Scientist, p. 19, August 18, 1988.
  4. Pool, Robert; "More Squabbling over Unbelievable Result," Science, 241: 658, 1988.
  5. Benveniste, Jacques; "Benveniste on Nature Investigation," Science, 241: 1028, 1988.
  6. Plasterk, Ronald H.A., et al; "Explanation of Benveniste," Nature, 334:285, 1988.
  7. Maddox, John; "'High-Dilution' Experiments a Delusion," Nature, 334: 287, 1988. Written in conjunction with J. Randi and W.W. Stewart, with a reply by J. Benveniste.
  8. Metzger, Henry, et al; "Only the Smile is Left," Nature, 334:375, 1988.
  9. Seagrave, JeanClare, et al; "Evidence of Non-Reproducibility," Nature, 334:559, 1988.
  10. Stanworth, D.R., and Johnson, Mark; "Outlandish Claims," Nature, 335: 392, 1988.
  11. Anonymous, "Quand l'Eau Fait Fremirles Scientifiques," La Recherche, no. 202, p. 1005, September 1988.

From Science Frontiers #60, NOV-DEC 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:

Quotes

  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987