3. Experiments past and future
The publication of Davenas et al. was followed by a flurry of letters to Nature (Metzger 334, 375 and Snell,Seagrave both in 334, 559 ) briefly reporting on allegedly failed replications. However, as pointed out by Benveniste (Nature, 335, 759) all the reported trials deviate substantially from the experimental design of Davenas et al. , most notably in the fact that basophil counts are replaced by assumedly equivalent measurements of mediator release (see Beauvais et al., J. Allergy Clin. Immunol (1991), 87(5)1020-8).
As far as the replicability of Benveniste's results is concerned, I can only recommend to examine the article by Hirst et al. "Human basophil degranulation is not triggered by very dilute antiserum against human IgE" in Nature, 366 (1993), 525-527.
|Data from Hirst et al. (Table 2)||Fischer p-value||Null-hypothesis rejected %|
|Succussed high dilution||0.0027||99.73|
|Unsuccussed high dilution||0.086||91.4|
It is possibly the most peculiar scientific paper that I have ever read. I have never read any other paper attributing all the results which are incompatible with its overall conclusions to unidentified systematic flaws in its own experiments. I have never read any other paper dismissing its own statistical data above the significance threshold as "chance results". The authors appear to recognize that their data are incompatible with their null hypothesis, i.e. with the assumption that there is no difference betweeen potentized solutions and placebo (p. 527, right column): "According to conventional scientific theory, there should be no differences within a session between the control treatment and the eight high-dilution treatments. ... This is not the case ... ." , but they attribute the effect to unknown causes. Indeed, despite its overall conclusions, if taken seriously the paper's content provides independent confirmation to the main claims made in Benveniste's original article (as noticed by Emanuel Marin and J. Pharabod in 1994), except that no recursive waves are directly observable. The value p=0.0027 in Table 2 of the article represents the probabilty to obtain such experimental data by chance, under the assumption that there be no difference between succussed high dilutions and control treatments. This may be reformulated as saying that the experimental data confirm within a 99.73% level of confidence that there is a difference between succussed high dilutions and control treatments. The paper is generally accessible, so anybody can make up his/her mind.
It is worth noting that in Table 1 Hirst et al. the null-hypothesis being tested is not that "the treatment applied to the cells produces a response which is not different from the response in the absence of treatment", but that " the treatment applied to the cells produces a MEAN response which is not different from the MEAN response in the absence of treatment". In Table 2 of Hirst et al. on the other hand the hypothesis being tested is essentially that " the treatment applied to the cells produces a response VARIATION which is not different from the response VARIATION in the absence of treatment" , which the data clearly show to be untenable. It is hard to tell the difference between the "unknown variation source" in Hirst et al. and the perplexing intermittency that appears in Benveniste's original paper and that was construed there in terms of "dilution waves".
What appears to be happening is largely consistent with the findings of Davenas et al. : succussed anti-IgE strongly enhances the variation in basophil counts, while affecting the mean counts only moderately. The variations cancel out when the average is taken, so that the data in Table 1 capture only the lesser effect, which however remains significant for higly diluted anti-IgE, although Hirst et al. dismiss the result as a "chance result" of their ultra-conservative Bonferroni procedure.
It may be noted that in the original report on which the published version of Hirst et al. is based (Jim Burridge "A Repeat of the 'Benveniste' Experiment: Statistical Analysis", Research Report No. 100, Department of Statistical Science, University College London, England, March 1992) the author, after clearly stating that "the main aim of the experiment is to show that the results do in fact behave as expected!", acknowledges that "one interpretation [of the results] is that there are, after all, differences between the treatments" (i.e. that Benveniste's main claim is correct) and that "further work needs to be done". Such remarks however did not make it to the published version of Hirst et al. .
The p-values above and the Bonferroni-adjusted t-value provide strong quantitative evidence that the null-hypothesis should be rejected, i.e. that there may be a difference between high dilution treatments and controls. At a more speculative level it is interesting to visualise some of the data through following diagram, which is based on the data available (see the comments therein too). The data correspond to the y-coordinate (in tenths of millimeter) of the points in Fig 3a and Fig 3c in Hirst et al., where, as stated therein, each point is the mean of the triplicate determinations in a single experiment. The measurement results are then averaged on the 5 and 3 sessions for succussed anti-IgE and succussed buffer respectively. The accuracy of the measurements (or lack thereof) can be verified by anyone with some goodwill and a rule. This measurement endeavour was triggered by the adamant refusal of Hirst et al. to make their raw data available for public scrutiny and to interested parties such as Jacques Benveniste and coworkers. It goes without saying that single session data would provide a far better picture of what is going on, but Hirst et al. are unwilling (or unable) to provide them .
One might claim that dilution waves are visible in the plot, even though the results have been averaged over different sessions. Visually the most unexpected feature of the plot is the apparent periodicity in basophils degranulation in the succussed buffer. Such an effect may well be an optical fluke or whatever. If the effect is real however, then periodicity may be an intrinsic property of basophil degranulation, while highly diluted treatments increase variation and average degranulation. The time structure of measurements (i.e. basophil counts) , which has never been considered in the experimental setting, may be crucial: basophils may always subsist as an oscillating superposition between degranulating and non-degranulating state, along the lines proposed in the high-dilutions quantum model. Highly diluted treatments may just boost the amplitude of the degranulating state as revealed by increased variation and mean. This speculative guess might be checked if the basophil counts for every session were made available by Hirst et al. .
The value p=0.086 again in Table 2 of Hirst et al. relative to unsuccussed high dilutions might point to some increased degranulation, although at a weaker level than that of succussed dilutions, so that in this case succussion would only strengthen the effect observed in Davenas et al., not cause it. This may be taken into account when analyzing the results in Ovelgönne et al. ("Mechanical agitation of very dilute antiserum against IgE has no effect on basophil staining properties", Experientia 48.5 (1992)504-508, quoted in F. Wiegant's letter to Nature, 370 (1994) 322), since their partial replication of Benveniste's experiments does not include comparison with control treatments. More relevant is the fact that the experimental design of Övelgonne et al. deviates significantly from that of Davenas et al. , since the basophils counts at different dilutions are combined, so that effect at specific dilutions cannot be measured. The unexpected positive results of Hirst et al. would not be detected by the experimental design used in Övelgonne et al..
Interestingly Wiegant is among the authors of Belon et al. ("Inhibition oh human basophil degranulation by successive histamine dilutions: Results of a European multi-center tral", Inflammation Research 48, Supplement 1 (1999) 17-18 ) , where the inhibitory effect of highly dilutued histamine is documented. The experiments in Belon et al. are not a replication of those of Davenas et al. , since the techniques used are different, including automated basophil counting . However Belon et al. is a significant instance of an independent cluster of researchers confirming a measurable effect of high dilutions on basophil degranulation. Unfortunately the data presented by Belon et al. are not exhaustive , a problem affecting virtually all the papers relevant to this discussion.
It may be noted that results which appear consistent with Benveniste's claims were obtained also in the experiments conducted at Clamart under the supervision of John Maddox and his team. Such results are briefly described by Maddox (see Nature,335,760 and the striking Fig. 1 therein) but their probatory value is dismissed stating that Benveniste "denies (contrary to the recollection of all three of us [Maddox, Randi and Stewart] that he remarked ' we've never seen one like that before ' " . The interested reader may well examine Maddox's report and weigh the scientific worth of its arguments.
More recent events are reported at http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4152521,00.html.htm. The "failed" British attempt to replicate Benveniste's findings mentioned in the article is just that by Hirst et al. .
At the mediatic level, a failed attempt to replicate the results of Belon et al. under James Randi's supervision is "documented" (with the rigorous omission of any data, experimental protocol, references ...) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/homeopathy.shtml. The idea of letting a former illusionist with a substantial financial stake in a negative result supervise a "double-blind" experiment is perhaps questionable.
Double-blind experiments are supposed to eliminate bias. They do so at the price of transparency, quite an important value in the scientific paradigm. It is unclear why experiments should be carried out double-blind when the measurement process is automated.
Other results confirming Benveniste's finding have been announced by a Slovenian research team led by Prof. Igor Jerman (see 1 , 2 ).
Assuming that the effect described in Benveniste's paper is real, the model described here may be experimentally tested against the hypothesis of residual molecular order of the water molecules, which has been proposed to explain the persistence of the antibody's action (see Michel Schiff, "Un Cas de Censure dans la Science", Albin Michel 1994). The experiment would schematically go as follows. A single antibody molecule would be introduced in a bottle of water. After appropriately shaking the bottle, the water would be poured into two samples A and B. According to Benveniste's result both samples A and B would induce basophils' degranulation, i.e. reveal the antibody's presence. Sample A would then be physically or chemically tested for the presence of the molecule so as to induce a quantum measurement of the antibody molecule's position. A microscope could conceivably be used for this purpose. The measurement would therefore induce the reduction of the molecule's wave-packet. If the antibody molecule is localized in A, then according to the model described above no antibody amplitude would be left in B and therefore the basophils there would not degranulate. If Benveniste's effect were due to molecular order, however, B would be unaffected and the basophils there would degranulate. It may be added, as a long-shot remark, that if this author's conjecture holds, then spontaneous basophil degranulation provides the noise necessary to prevent superluminal signalling.
Finally , according to the article in Nature (333, 816; 1988), basophils will degranulate in a solution that has been filtered so as too sieve any antibody molecule out. It appears likely that such a filtering would eliminate the antibody amplitude from the sample, unless one speculatively assumes that tunnelling takes place across the filter. Tunnelling might provide a speculative "explanation" for the perplexing experimental results reported by Endler et al. ("The Effect of Highly Diluted Agitated Thyroxine on the Climbing Activity of Frogs", Veterinary and Human Toxicology, 36 (1994), 56-59) and criticized by Robert Park the article already mentioned. The "elusive biophoton" would then be just the result of tunnelling across the container's walls.
I thank Syd Baumel for drawing my attention to the Belon and Beauvais papers. Sincere thanks also to Jim Burridge for sending me a copy of his report and for his permission to post our exchange.