Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Memory of water: what have we acheived?

After the journal Homeopathy published a special issue on the concept of water memory, a number of sceptically inclined people, including me, concluded that the research presented was mostly of poor quality, and didn't tell us anything useful about the plausibility of homeopathy. A number of letters to the editor were submitted to the journal, and eventually published. A useful summary of the letters, and the responses to them, can be found here.

This is all very well, but have we actually acheived anything by taking this course of action? Reading Peter Fisher's editorial comment on the memory of water debate, you could be forgiven for thinking not. Fisher says that there a number of themes have emerged:

"1. Water, prepared by the homeopathic method of successive dilution and succussion, exhibits anomalous properties which can be detected by a range of chemical and physical methods.
2. Trace amounts of contaminants including silica and dissolved gases are important in determining those properties.
3. These properties exhibit surprising temporal evolution.
4. The findings suggest organisation at a mesoscopic scale. No author disputes that, on the microscopic scale, water structure is extremely short lived.
5. So far there is no satisfactory or uniting theoretical explanation of these observations".

I don't think that any of these points are really true, and in any case they haven't been adequately demonstrated. Certainly the papers by Rao et al. and Vybiral & Voracek fail to show any such thing, as the sceptical responses demonstrate. The other experimental papers, by Louis Rey and Elia et al., are equally poor and essentially show no repeatable and statistically robust results. Overall, the experimental papers show nothing at all, and certainly nothing relevant to homeopathy. But Peter Fisher can still talk as if these papers are merely controversial, rather than flat-out wrong.

Meanwhile, the Quackometer [unavailable at time of writing: google cache version here] has discovered a newsletter of the newly formed Homeopathy Research Institute that references the now severely deaded Rao et al. paper, as well as the infamous Benveniste paper in Nature that started all the memory of water nonsense, has been thoroughly debunked [PDF], and yet refuses to die. It seems that no research is too discredited to be cited in favour of homeopathy.

If you actually bothered to check out the claims made by, for example, the Homeopathy Research Institute, you can easily find material de-bunking them. But how many people will do this? I think that publishing the various letters critical of the Homeopathy memory of water issue was at least an interesting experiment, and it seems worthwhile to try and deny anti-science a scientific platform, but I wonder how much actual difference it will make to the purveyors of nonsense.

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