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The Nature of Science

August 07, 1988

The recent controversy over the publication by the British science magazine Nature of seemingly impossible results says much about science, scientists and the scientific method.

The brouhaha erupted a few weeks ago when Nature, one of the world's most respected science journals, published a research paper by Dr. Jacques Benveniste and colleagues at the University of Paris-Sud reporting that solutions of human proteins that had been diluted to infinitesimal strengths nonetheless reacted as if there had been much more protein in them. The solutions somehow "remembered" their earlier larger concentrations. This finding, which would support the claims of homeopathic medicine, would violate the known laws of chemistry and physics.

Nature was so startled by these results that it waited two years before publishing them, and finally agreed to do so on condition that it be allowed to investigate Benveniste's laboratory. Even then the issue of the magazine that contained the research paper contained a separate editorial calling the results impossible.

To investigate the French laboratory, the magazine sent its editor, John Maddox, along with Walter Stewart of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and James (The Amazing) Randi, the well-known debunker of science frauds. They spent a week in Paris with Benveniste and his colleagues and concluded that the experiments were flawed and that the experimenters had found what they wanted to find. "The hypothesis that water can be imprinted with a memory of past solutes is as unnecessary as it is fanciful," they reported. The laboratory's work was sloppy and there were statistical errors, they said. The investigators did not charge the experimenters with fraud, merely self-delusion.

Benveniste, for his part, likened the investigation to "Salem witch hunts" and said, "It may be that all of us are wrong in good faith. There is no crime, but science as usual, and only the future knows."

Nature has been criticized for publishing the paper at all, which is a very tricky question. Science editors should not dismiss results out of hand simply because they conflict with orthodox views. Throughout history, much progress in science has come from just such challenges. Every new idea starts out being unorthodox. At the same time, it is also true that most unorthodox ideas are wrong. The problem is to distinguish the right ones from the wrong ones beforehand.

The editors of Nature probably acted correctly in publishing the paper despite their misgivings. It is better to err on the side of publishing too much than of suppressing a potentially worthwhile idea. Publication allows the results to be scrutinized and tested by others. Still, the magazine might have conducted its investigation before it published the paper rather than afterward.

As to the merits of Benveniste's work, the guiding rule remains that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The results from the French laboratory fall far short of that standard. Homeopathy is based on the idea that very dilute solutions of otherwise harmful drugs have therapeutic benefit. It remains a quack cure.

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