A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

The Memory of Water: Replies and Answers

Posted by apgaylard on January 17, 2008

While all answers are replies, not all replies are answers.”

Ta’Lon, Babylon 5: Point of No Return, script by J. Michael Straczynski.

The Memory of Water issue of the journal Homeopathy has provoked a number of critical responses, which the journal has now published.  Those authors whose work has been criticised have, quite rightly, responded.  So far, this is healthy: this is how science works.

However, most of the responses could be described by the observation: “not all replies are answers.”  Let’s take the replies to my two letters, for example.

The first is from Lionel Milgrom, the second is by Vybíral and Voráček.

The dangerous swan song of the straw man

I criticised a paper by Lionel R. Milgrom on the following four counts:

  1. His paper claimed that science has a ‘‘…primarily inductive logical structure”; I say that this is old hat.
  2. The charge of inductivism was illustrated with an example of classical, or naïve, inductivism; a simplistic and long debunked philosophical creed.
  3. The straw man of naïve inductivism was attacked, rather than a more realistic opponent.  To that end, I provided several examples of other more relevant philosophical positions.
  4. I challenged him to provide references to support the claim that: “…positive results [for homeopathy] from even the highest standard scientific trials are rejected…”

How did he respond?  Cutting through the jibes, Monty Python quotes and bluster his justification can be summarised as follows:

A scientist, Edzard Ernst, made a statement about “proof” that could be construed as inductivist (though not necessarily of the naïve variety).

Now, he does try to broaden his evidence base by equating naïve inductivism with narrow-mindedness, which is according to Professor Steve Jones endemic.  This is incredibly weak.  I wonder how convinced Milgrom is of this point; uncharacteristically he describes the connection between narrow-mindedness and naïve inductivism as debatable; untenable would be better.

Notice the implicit appeal to the fallacy of the “open mind“.  The obvious flaw in this conjecture is that it is quite possible for people with wildly different philosophical stances to be ‘narrow-minded’: a falisificationalist and a homeopath, for example.

So Milgrom’s original statement that science has a ‘‘primarily inductive logical structure” rests on a single example; and that’s not even relevant!

His original statement and my challenge was about the structure of science not the stated philosophical stance of some scientists.  There is a world of difference.  For good reason scientists would, in the main, rather leave philosophy to the philosophers and get on with the practise of science.  This is perhaps one reason why philosophers with outlooks as different as Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend were able to demonstrate time and time again the difference between how scientists may describe the process of science, and what actually happens.

The upshot is: the philosophy of science (its structure) is often quite different to the philosophical observations of individual scientists.

His argument against engaging with a more realistic philosophical model is two-fold: first, that the straw man is alive and well.  As the forgoing demonstrates this is not adequately justified. 

Second, that there are lots of philosophers to choose from; and he goes on to name some.  There are obvious problems with this counter-argument.  To start with, all the philosophers he names are philosophical critics of science; not people with a realistic model for how science works.  So this is just irrelevant Post-Modernist sniping. 

More importantly, just because there is a choice of models for the “logical structure” of science does not justify choosing the most simplistic, flawed and out-dated one.

The most bizarre aspect of the response is what it reveals about Milgrom’s view of science.

“…For there is a world of difference between what Gaylard believes somewhat idealistically scientists SHOULD do (and indeed the good ones probably do-in being open-minded enough to pursue ‘black swans’)-and what actually happens here, down on the ground, in real life…”

Apparently I’m idealistic for believing scientists should follow best practice: being open to observations that undermine their hypotheses.  It’s an absurd criticism; in science (and engineering) if you’re not critical of your own ideas you can be sure that others will be.  Enlightened self-interest is one of many good motivations for self-criticism.

Do homeopaths and their fellow-travellers show any signs of critically testing their own hypotheses: generally, they do not. 

Once-upon-a-time Milgrom used see the sense in this sort of critical appraisal. He wrote in a book review published in Homeopathy:  “…A few years ago, I tried to understand and verify, but ultimately had to refute, Roland Conte’s experimental and theoretical work on homeopathically potentised substances…”  And: “…Non-verification meant that Conte’s convoluted theories could be dismissed. This is the very essence of the scientific method…”

This shows that Milgrom knows better.  Now it appears that he is just trying to drag science down to the level of CAM.  It also refutes his philosophical stance: here he asserts that something other than naïve induction is the “very essence of the scientific method“.

Finally, does Milgrom provide any references to support his assertion that “…positive results [for homeopathy] from even the highest standard scientific trials are rejected…”.  No he does not; instead he carps that:

“…the experience (admittedly anecdotal) of those of us who argue the case for homeopathy and other forms of CAM, especially in the face of equivocal data from double-blind randomised controlled trials, is that many scientists and science writers appear to be, and most certainly can behave as, unreconstructed bloodyminded [sic] ‘naïve inductivists’..”

Perhaps if they had some unequivocal results things might go better for them?  I wonder where Milgrom’s positive results from the highest standard scientific trials have gone.  In fact Shang et. al. and others have demonstrated that, for homeopathy, the higher the standard of the trial the more likely a negative result is.

So, how telling is Milgorm’s reply?  Not very.  To be fair, I think he landed one feeble blow: I had said that “…No serious contemporary scientist would accept naïve inductivism as a realistic model for scientific endeavour…”; perhaps Ernst might.  Perhaps there are some naïve inductivists out there.  It certainly doesn’t justify taking a position on the “primarily … logical structure” of science.

When it comes to my main criticisms: they all stand.

Going beyond the evidence

I criticised Vybíral and Voráček for:

  1. Talking about water “clusters” when all they had measured was the variation of viscosity with time and the shear history of their “water” samples.
  2. Not having done any investigation into the key factors implicated in their data: ionic species and concentration.
  3. The paper having no relevance to homeopathy or water memory.

What is their response to these criticisms?  The reply starts with an assertion that their ‘hypothesis’ fulfils Popperian criteria for science.  I never said otherwise.  They claim that they are within their rights to offer a possible explanatory conjecture.  If that is the case, I’m quite entitled to point out that they offer no evidence for part of it.

The main thrust of this rejoinder is that I have misunderstood their paper.  I disagree; here is a rather incoherent passage from their original paper:

Currently two diametrically sets different of results supported by serious observations exist concerning the duration of structures in liquid water. According to one [Cowan et. al.], molecular clusters in water have a duration of less than one hundred femtoseconds. According to ours, clusters grow to webs on a time scale of days. Since these webs do not arise in deionized water, we believe the purity of the water to be a decisive factor. The distilled water we used was not perfectly pure and could have been significantly contaminated by salt ions, even if only to a very minute degree. From a comparison of experiments with distilled water and deionized distilled water, it is possible to deduce that cores of macroscopic clusters of water molecules are salt ions contained in water.

Moral: If two different observations seem to be mutually incompatible within the frame of an established theory, the most probable explanation is not that one of the observations is wrong, but that the theory is wrong or at least incomplete, and that the observations merely discovered that it was not self-consisrent [sic].”

My point, which they do not seem to have grasped, is that they do not have “serious observations…concerning the duration of structures in liquid water“.  Their observations are of a bulk rheological property.  Comments about structure are speculation on their part: not observation.

Then they talk about what they intended to say (but actually did not) in their paper.  A written work must stand on its own merits: a reader cannot be expected to know the author’s intentions unless they are explained.

They do attempt to respond to my observation that their paper has no relevance to either homeopathy or the memory of water:

“…In our paper we never claimed anything about any relevance of our results either homeopathy nor to the idea of memory of water. Nonetheless, on being challenged by Dr [sic] Gaylard, we can state that our observations are not proof, but that they are compatible, not just consistent, with the mentioned doctrines…”

This is bizarre.  It was published in a special issue of the journal Homeopathy dealing with the memory of water.  Shouldn’t a subscriber expect that any papers included in this issue were relevant to both topics?  If not, what are they paying for?

Certainly Peter Fisher interpreted the paper that way.  In his opening editorial The Memory of Water: a scientific heresy?” he states:

“…But perhaps most significant is the growing body of experimental evidence, based widely on different physico-chemical methods represented by the papers in this issue by … Vybíral and Voráček.  None of this work is final, conclusive or above criticism and in some cases the relevance to clinical homeopathy is not immediately obvious. But here are some remarkable convergences, for instance, Elia and Vybíral and Voráček, on the basis of entirely different methods, have detected properties that are unexpected, reflect large-scale organisation in liquid water, and, perhaps, mostly remarkably, increase with time…”

Do they take issue with him as well?  Anyway, now they have been challenged they do think that their paper is “compatible” with both homeopathy and the memory of water.  Why?  They don’t say.  I still contend that this is most definitely not the case as:

The effect measured depends on an actual concentration of ions and disappears when they do. The autothixotropy appears over time with no external input. Therefore, if it is possible to regard the time- (and shear history) dependent change in viscosity they observed as ‘‘information” (quite a stretch!), the ‘‘information” content of the ‘‘water” is increasing with time in the absence of any input. This is not a memory mechanism, but rather one of invention.”

The remainder of the reply is an ill-conceived attempt at self-justifaction.  They remark “It is surprising that the source of unnecessary schisms and bitter attacks could be so trivial.”  It’s hard to see what they are getting at here.  I think my letter was robust, not bitter.  In fact I started my letter by saying that they presented “…some interesting, though incomplete…” data.

I find it hard to agree that asking for conclusions supported by evidence and some basic investigation into the proposed mechanism is “trivial“.  I’d say that these omissions are elementary.

They also complain that they’ve not been able to publish this work elsewhere.  Well, that’s hardly relevant to my observations.  It’s not possible to know why this is the case, but going on the standard of the original paper and the quality of the subsequent discourse: perhaps it’s just not good enough?

After attributing a doctorate to me (Very flattering, but I don’t have a PhD) they make their final excuses as to why they haven’t got very far with this: “…As we do not have time, the economic means, nor the required skills, we performed this research to a limited extent…”

Surely they could find a friendly chemist at their university who could determine the species of ions and the concentration they are dealing with?  This is really very thin; and thin-skinned.

My conclusion: Two replies, no answers.


7 Responses to “The Memory of Water: Replies and Answers”

  1. nekomatic said

    Yay, well dismantled 🙂 ‘Bluster’ was exactly the word that came to mind when I read Milgrom’s letter.

    Re Vybíral and Voráček, I would be interested to know what a decent rheologist (and forgive me if you ARE a decent rheologist) would make of their original paper – there are proper rheological instruments and techniques for looking at this sort of stuff and the obvious question would seem to be if this effect is real, why it hasn’t been spotted before. There is a rheologist down the corridor from me but I think he’d just roll his eyes…

    If there’s one point I think the original contributors should be allowed to make it is that they didn’t necessarily claim their paper was going to give direct support to homoeopathy or a homoeopathy-relevant water memory effect – by all means slap down Peter Fisher if he claimed this. Both contributions have plenty of other weaknesses to go at…

  2. apgaylard said

    Thanks for your comment and that excellent review at badscience.net. I’m not a rheologist, but I did some rheology in my degree and at the first place I worked (rheology of used crankcase lubricants, where I did come across thixotropic behaviour). As my experience is limited I decided to take their work at face value. I’d be interested in a comment from someone with more experience.

    I think if it’s not supportive of (either clinically or in terms of its plausibility) homeopathy, then why is it being published in Homeoapthy, but perhaps I’m being a little black-and-white here.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. apgaylard said

    For those interested in the response to well-argued sceptical comment from the authors of the ‘memory of water’ issue of Homeopathy and the critic’s ripostes, see the following for comments on:

    Chaplin’s response to Paul Wilson
    Rao’s response to Kerr, Magrath, Wilson, and Hebbern

    As you’ll note evasion is the order of the day.

  4. pleick said

    While I feel left out as my letter has not received a reply (I’m not even asking for an answer…), the exchange of opinions in the current Homeopathy issue is really interesting. Unlike Peter Fisher, I can’t see the supporters of Homeopathy holding their own, though… not sure they are even trying, evading the questions as they are.

    I’d say that Milgrom does have a point by distinguishing between ideal and real science:
    Real scientists do not look for black swans unless their pet theory predicts the existence of such birds. And if black swans were actually to be found, the “all swans are white”-theory would not be immediately falsified, but their adherents would try to reconcile the theory with the new facts with some elaborate justifications. The core hypothesis is only dropped if these contorsions become too many or too improbable (for example, this happened to the theory of the aether, the medium in which electromagnetic waves were supposed to travel).
    I guess this resembles Lakatos’ description of the scientific process… an really proves your point that Milgrom should have picked a stronger target than naive inductivism or naive falsificationism.

    True to his usual style, Milgrom misspells Lakatos as Latakos, by the way. Twice.

    It may also be unfair to pick on Prof. Ernst. He is cited by Milgrom as saying “I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove” in The Times and thus labeled as a naive inductivist. This not the same as saying it in a philosophical journal. My interpretation: talking about Complementary Medicince, he is simply stating that it should be judged by scientific standards.

  5. apgaylard said


    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the Ernst example is very weak; for the reasons you state. His riposte really suffers because of this, as this is it’s cornerstone.

    If Milgrom had been painting a fair picture of science and having a go at that I doubt whether I’d have bothered to write (or even just had a pop at Popper!). It’s the trivial nature of his straw man that’s so provocative.

    I must admit to being on a bit of a philosophical journey myself; if I was writing that Letter now I’d still make the same criticisms but perhaps express them slightly differently. Milgrom’s work has at least made me read some philosophy again: I’ve just finished Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and I’m reading some Lakatos and Feyerabend at the moment.

    My conclusions so far are that when it comes to the big ‘theory choice’ decisions in science, I’d currently say that Lakatos’ sophisticated falisifcationalism and his theory of ‘research programmes’ seems to get it about right for me; pretty much as you outlined in your comment.

    For my approach to day-to-day hypothesis testing I’d call myself a falsificationalist with a little “f”; not a Popperian I think that it’s important to keep an eye out for those ‘black swans’ if only to explain them in terms of your hypothesis. It’s this small scale self-criticism that’s almost totally missing in the world of CAM, and is not seen often enough in mainsteam science as well!

    I really enjoyed your letter; perhaps it was easier for Milgrom to bluster his way to a defence of my more peripheral criticisms, than to get to grips with your fundamental objections.

    Perhaps he’ll reply next time? He may just be researching some extra Monty Python quotes!

    As allways, thanks for your very thought-provoking comments.

  6. pleick said

    Very intersting points are raised in the letters of Francis Beauvais and Bernard Poitevin, both of which were coworkers of Jacques Benveniste.

    Poitevin makes it quite clear that Benvenistes group worked with the manufacturers of homeopathic remedies from the start and was “was born of the will to study the biological effect of homeopathic medicines.” The story of Benvénistes work and the (in)famous nature investigation has been told many times, but – if I recall correctly – sometimes with the dramatic twist that he started out as a skeptic of homeopathy. Do the facts finally spoil a good story?

    Like Poitevin, Beauvais is an author of the original 1988 Nature paper that started it all. He admits that “Taking these experiments as a whole, it appears that the results
    reflected more the expectations of the experimenters (and of the lab team) than supposed properties of the samples.” He has written two books about the Benveniste affair… while I haven’t yet found the time to read all 630+ french pages of it (available online at http://www.mille-mondes.fr), it seems that he has discarded the whole “memory of water” concept in favor of…

    … an interpretation of Benvenistes results based on non-local correlations!!! The second book is not yet finished so it’s too early to say what this means, but I have some vague suspicions…

  7. pleick said

    – Irony intended in my previous post # 6.

    – A defense of homeopathy or quantum nonsense based on Monty Python… I really can’t imagine anything more … whatever… Delicious, thought-provoking, ironic or simply revealing. I’d really enjoy looking forward to it, but my hopes are not too high…

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