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On the Role of Stage Magicians in Biological Research

A Commentary by Jacques Benveniste and Peter Jurgens
 Reprinted from The Anomalist 6


Events have shadows--sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  In any given case, it's usually easy enough to decide one way or another. Or so it seems. Unfortunately, shadows change with the passing of the day and we can be led  to revise previously unquestioned opinions.

In  1987, after five years of research, my (JB) team published results in the tone-setting scientific journal, Nature, showing that highly diluted antibodies, which fend off disease, could cause the degranulation of basophils. (Basophils are  white blood cells containing granules readily stained by basic dyes.) These were  exceptional results, and we received exceptional treatment. The condition for acceptance  was that Nature send a team to investigate our laboratory. The three-man fraud  squad, which arrived in 1988, did us honor. One member was the managing editor of  the most reputable scientific journal on Earth. Another was a young scientist who  had escaped, it must be admitted, a rather unspectacular research career by turning  fraud buster and associating his name with that of an illustrious victim, the Nobel  laureate David Baltimore.

And  the third member of the fraud squad? A stage magician! However, our stage magician  wasn't your run-of-the-mill prestidigitator: he had, in the tradition established  by Houdini, long since decided to become a defender of "rationality" against  the irrational fringe and creepy-crawlies in general. Us.

I  will not dwell on the unfavorable conclusions of the scientific members of the committee.  It's not that I wish to avoid the subject, but rather that I wish to stay on the  subject: the role of stage magicians in biological research. In short, they concluded  the absence of an effect because, after four successful experiments, a fifth didn't  "work." In rebuttal, I simply refer the reader to the article confirming  our initial findings, which appeared in the Comptes Rendus de l'Académie  des Sciences de Paris in 1991, wherein we report the results of subsequent blind  experiments entirely designed and run by Professor Alfred Spira, and his research  unit of independent statistical experts.
Now  back to the magician. He really did us proud. He had, indeed, in his cap, several  feathers worth boasting about in the course of his (presumably lucrative) lectures.  One was Uri Geller. The object of a campaign of ridicule disguised as rationality,  Geller's ability was denied. The conjurer could also bend metal using the tricks  of his trade. Another feather was the University of Washington affair in which stooges  planted by our conjurer in the guise of experimental subjects faked results and led  a whole research department on a wild goose chase for over a year before he--to the  delight of those willing to sacrifice intellectual honesty for delight--triumphantly  proclaimed his trickery.

Passing  over other coups, let us return to our laboratory, where the magician surveyed work  with professional attention, noting no-one knew what, for at the time he accused  not a soul nor claimed the discovery of any dark secret. It was with surprise, therefore,  that we read in the Nature report on the visit, of his observation (no doubt  with an exceedingly professional eye, for no-one else had noticed) that the piece  of paper containing the codes taped to the ceiling (the experiments were performed  blind) had been tampered with. Furthermore, his skills permitted him to have observed  that a small, ultra-light stepladder leaning against a nearby wall had changed position  overnight. One is left somewhat perplexed as to the motivation for this supposed  skullduggery, for it preceded the single unsuccessful experiment. What matters is  that this "exposé" transformed a prestigious laboratory of more than  50 research workers into a feather in a magician's cap.

Back  in 1982, when a researcher in our lab first presented results suggesting that substances,  diluted until no molecule could possibly be present, retained their activity, I (JB)  had been as skeptical as any magician and sent him back to check his work. But it  was confirmed. In fact, in the years that followed, ten researchers examined a variety  of biological systems, frequently using blind experiments, and confirmed the reality  of the high dilution effect. But the magician and his associates might as well have  reduced those years of research to a puff of smoke. From exhilarating scientific  exploration, our work was transformed into desperate repetition, starting with the  Comptes Rendus study mentioned above, in an attempt to convince the scientific  community. Michel Schiff, a physicist-turned-sociologist who investigated our group,  remarked that, while the 200 experiments preceding the fraud squad's "visit"  included 24 of an exploratory nature, the corresponding post-visit figure was just  six. Ninety-five percent of our experiments had become simple repetitions of earlier experiments.

Moreover,  our attempts to convince were directed at a scientific community dominated by leaders  jealous, as always, of the status quo which gave them their status. With the tone  set by the trend-setter and its court magician, the community needed no further invitation.  The researcher who dared consecrated any of his resources to investigation in this  field jeopardized these resources. Against this backdrop, is it really odd that Professor  Roberfroid of Louvain in Belgium should sit on the results of some 3600 high dilution  experiments performed in four independent laboratories? Instead of creating an atmosphere in which the work of the 17 high level teams who, to date, have had the courage to  successfully submit (how many unsuccessfully?) articles on high dilutions to reputable,  refereed journals, our magician and his colleagues have made their work a facet of  science that must be shunned.

Would-be free spirits need look no further than our own lab: we lost our premises  and our posts because we refused to betray our results. But, between the repetitions,  we found the time to do our duty: research aimed at understanding the physical nature  of the biological signal. In particular, we asked ourselves questions concerning  the nature of the activity in high dilutions and, suspecting some sort of ordering  involving electromagnetism,we proposed to local physicists that they try to erase  the message using an alternating magnetic field. In the course of some 100 blind  experiments, we correctly identified the tube in which they had thus "erased"  the high dilution information. Initially skeptics, these physicists are now staunch  supporters.

Once  we realized that the information consisted of some kind of electromagnetic ordering,  we then tested the hypothesis that the information could be transmitted using an  electronic apparatus. Unfortunately, the reader wishing to check on the details of  this experiment in a scientific journal will be disappointed. For the moment, although  the critical experiments were performed blind and in two different laboratories,  and although the statistics provided are rendered superfluous by the magnitude and  reliability of the transmission effect, no journal editor dares touch the article  reporting this research. An anecdote illustrates the situation.

Three  years after the Nature affair, I (PJ) happily announced, to an eminent parapsychologist  I knew, that I had obtained a job in Jacques Benveniste's lab. In response, I received  a congratulatory letter which, however, contained what the French would call, "a  B minor," in the form of a question: Had we responded to the magician's objections?

Preoccupying  as this situation may be, both for ourselves and the research community, we have  managed to continue our work. Though isolated and working with limited resources,  we can now demonstrate that this apparent "molecular message" can be digitized  and stored on any computer disk, ready for transmission at any time to a biological  system in the same room or, via the internet, to the other side of the planet. And  yet, because a prestidigitator belatedly claimed that he had realized that he had  seen that someone must have fiddled with a scrap of paper not to mention a stepladder...

Perhaps  the reader will understand just how enormously absurd the situation is if we  describe life in the average government or academic research lab like our own, in  France, in the closing decades of the 20th century. An essential feature of medical  research is its openness: laboratories are not hermetic or vowed to secrecy like  witches covens or societies of conjurers. Like medieval wandering scholars, researchers  come and go and, within the laboratory structure, change teams, hobnob over coffee,  and drop by for chats with colleagues. Researchers examine each others' results.  This sharing of results may be formalized, as it often is in the United States. In  France, our laboratory was rare in that one entire morning per week was devoted to  the presentation and criticism of results. Our results were never mysteriously produced,  as has been claimed, nor did they go un-attacked or un-defended. On the contrary,  our results were produced in an open and transparent environment, under the scrutiny  of a changing population of more or less involved professionals.

Nor  were our results produced under pressure from the laboratory head, as has also been  claimed. In French government institutions, like our old laboratory, the director  has little power over staff members, from the most senior researcher to the humblest  technician, due to the fact that their employer is the Ministry of Research rather  than any particular research laboratory. Titular researchers, in particular, have  their own teams and enjoy almost complete autonomy. It is worth remarking that it  was just such a team that performed the definitive study on the transmission of molecular  activity referred to above.

All  this stands in stark contrast to a magician's belated discovery that he had seen.  There is credibility in the weight of all this research, conducted--very often  blind--over years, in an open laboratory, for, before and by a host of researchers. It also invokes questions of motivation. We  had everything to lose; and lose it we almost did. Our conjurer...well, he had, as  already remarked, the magnificent Houdini as model. Houdini, in fact, did a lot for  his image by his aggressive campaign to discredit serious attempts to study mediumistic  phenomena. It is, perhaps, no surprise, then, that our conjurer applied (stooped to?) the same dubious logic as Houdini: if I can throw a wrench into the wheels of  someone else's serious research, then that research signifies nothing; if I can do  (claim to do) the same thing as he does by fraudulent means, then he, too, must have  done it that way. Rather than spend too much time on this, we would like to note  the unlikely coexistence, in the same individual, of the elevated morality that supposedly  motivates this debunking and the somewhat more dubious morality (cavalier unscrupulousness?)  implicit in such witch-hunting practices. Imagine, for a moment, the condition of  a research community where the planting of stooges in institutions propounding different  theories was standard practice! The image of dedicated reflection traditionally associated  with research blurs, only to be replaced by that of machiavelic power politics and--why  not?--gang war.

Curiously,  at one time in his career, our magician was a scientist. Yes! A scientist; a  real live laboratory technician. Some journalists still stand in admiration of this  achievement. Even such media institutions as The Guardian have published articles  leaving one with the feeling that this elevated ex-status actually qualified  a conjurer for this blind and blundering interference with research funded by the  tax-payer. The magician would surely say so. He calls his irresponsible interference  with the University of Washington work, "sociological research." Perhaps,  then, we should exploit this hitherfore unimagined aptitude and invite the conjurer  to discuss the finer statistical points with Professor Spira, who ran the blind experiments  that, subsequent to the Nature debacle, confirmed the high dilution effect.  Or with Dr. Michel Schiff or Dr. Isaac Behar--all highly-trained, skeptical, and  disinterested researchers who took the time to do the science.

But  it is with some sadness that we, of the Digital Biology Laboratory, must observe  that the future's history will conclude that the application of one of that future's  most promising technologies for addressing human suffering was delayed by at least  ten years and almost eliminated because an ex-technician's brief visit and belated  realization that he had seen counted more than years of work in the single  major high dilution research laboratory he took the time to visit. But, then, who  cares? For, implicit in the conclusions of The Amazing Randi and his colleagues,  engulfed by merciful anonymity, was the simple insinuation, "It's getting the  desired result that counts."

They almost did.


Copyright 1998 by The Anomalist