Site Archive: Commentaries
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