Nobel Prize pseudoscience v Classics orthodoxy

Returning to my long thread on science in the media over at Peaceful Science, at one stage the accusations of irrational climate denialism were expressed, by a classics graduate, no less, thus:

This is the language of the science denialist. Which anti-science cause will you champion next, chiropractic and homeopathy?

Well, there was no point in exploring the political and sociological shenanigans of climate science – though it is interesting that only this week this study, two of whose authors are NOAA staff, belatedly confirms what meteorologist Anthony Watts has been saying about the warming-bias of recent land-based temperature data for a decade. Greta Thunberg hasn’t read it.

And so there was certainly no point in replying about manipulative medicine, which I practised as part of a highly regarded NHS General Practice for a quarter of a century, gaining more long-term expressions of gratitude from patients than I did for any of my more mainstream activity. I could have gone into the methodological flaws, and indeed often hyperskeptical bias, of many of the studies purporting to dismiss its efficacy. I could have tried to discuss the insights I gained into its neuro-physiological basis from leading pain researchers with whom I collaborated… but when I tried that at BioLogos a year or two ago I got more than my share of condescending comments about my “wish to believe,” from folks far more sympathetic than this guy. You know what they say about casting pearls.

The fact is that the emphasis for the last century, within the medical profession, on biomechanics as a (non)-explanation for spinal pain makes it virtually impossible for those not prepared to question the whole framework to accept evidence for alternative approaches.


However, another reason for not replying was that I might have had to defend homeopathy as well, for which I have never had much sympathy, once again (I now see) because of the particular cultural bias of my scientific training. Indeed, back in 1981 I earned myself a fiver for a humourous snippet I got published in World Medicine:

From the News Standard:
The Westminster coroner today recorded a verdict of sucide on a Pimlico woman who died from an overdose of Hysoscyamus, a homeopathic remedy, when she failed to take any of it at all…

I was never impressed with the results of homeopathy as practised by another local GP – though my very first encounter with it was through the General Practitioner father of my best friend at Cambridge, who had rendered himself unconscious for five months after crashing his motorcycle without a helmet. Hope for his recovery was small, but at around the same time that Addenbrookes Neurologists tried some new idea, his desperate father administered a homeopathic remedy recommended by a colleague. My friend “miraculously” regained consciousness – and his father informed me with interest that it was according to the predicted time course of the homeopathic treatment rather than the conventional.

Homeopathy as a system has many potential criticisms, from its origins in the old doctrine of opposites, through to its methods for diagnosing patients (rather than their diseases). But the main point of scientific criticism is the impossibility of any effect whatsoever from solutions so dilute that no molecules of the active agent remain. I have been known to disparage treatment by “altered water” myself.

But then yesterday I stumbled apon this video, which is worth the investment of your time if you are willing to discomfort your scientific presuppositions.

It shows how Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the HIV virus, has become fascinated by the ability of water to retain signals – in this case, from the DNA of HIV virus. The film shows his lab diluting the DNA solution absurdly, reading the residual signal instrumentally, and then transmitting the data to a laboratory 1,000Km away, where the signal, applied to purified water, is then used to reconstruct the DNA with 98% accuracy.

Montagnier became intrigued by the work of a predecessor, Jacques Benveniste, whose considerable reputation – and perhaps his very life – were trashed by the opprobium his similar claims about water memory gained from the scientific establishment.

Montagnier, too, has received the same kind of venom seen from “the guild” in the case of other heretics from Intelligent Design proponents to Global Warming Skeptics – he is a charlatan, he is being duped by his staff, he is senile (remember that charge against Anthony Flew when he came to believe in Intelligent Design?) and so on. But it is a little hard to argue with that Nobel Prize (especially if you’re merely a Classics graduate), other than on the basis of incredulity based on one’s limited scientific metaphysics.

Why would that bias exist? Another YouTube video on a possibly related theme, this time by bioengineer Dr Gerald Pollack, suggests a possibility early on in his TED talk. This is that for many decades, science and science training have been dominated by a molecular (bottom up) approach, which more or less ignores the relationships between molecules (top down). It’s the old Aristotelian question of of formal causation above material causation. This is proving to be both important and controversial in biology, but as we see it even has ramifications in understanding the properties of a “simple” substance like water.

I agree with Pollack’s assessment, having dipped into the Introduction of Lily Kay’s unfortunately expensive book The Molecular Vision of Life. In this she begins to show how Rockefeller Foundation money in the 1930s both financed, and set the course, of much science research and education, with a clear agenda of social control based on the assumption that the key to eugenics lay in understanding protein molecules. Though the sociological aim was partly eclipsed, this approach produced much fruit, including the eventual discovery of DNA. But it restricted the mindset of many fields of biology, from medicine to evolutionary biology, up to the present day.

Now, I’m not the person to evaluate the worth of the work of those like Montagnier (he’s the one with the Nobel Prize, not me or even you), but allowing as a possibility the sophistated memory properties of water, closely related to quantum science, potentially ties up some biological loose ends. For example, one thing we forget, owing partly to pictorial representations of molecular biology, is that most of the cell, most of the time, is in a liquid phase. The “molecular building blocks” whose exact physical conformation determines cell chemistry are, in fact, “building solutions.” Or rather, they appear to drop in and out of solution as required for interactions, somehow remembering the particular form to which they need to return.

Perhaps we can only reach an understanding of that by a richer understanding of the aqueous substrate that constitutes 70% of organisms like us. That seems to me a rich area for research, if only molecularly-minded institutions would fund it. Or it is at least a reason for profound wonder at the remaining mysteries of the universe, that is to say most of what exists.

I find that preferable to scornful dismissals based on the mere intellectual conventions imposed on us by big money for the last 90 years. Montagnier himself, lacking the credibility he deserves here in the West, is apparently getting good support in China. Their gain – our loss.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Nobel Prize pseudoscience v Classics orthodoxy

  1. Ben says:

    Cor blimey, the YouTube algorithm sure is sending you down some weird rabbit holes.

    Flat earth next? 🙂

    It’s not at all clear what an “electromagnetic signal of water” might be.

    Nor what “pure water” is, for a homoeopath.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Ben

      I wouldn’t have clocked it at all if it hadn’t been for the guy at Peaceful Science mentioning it. Then YouTube turns up something on the fourth state of water, which links to a Nobel Laureate taking it seriously when he already knows that the work he’s replicating sunk the reputation of its originator. Has to be relevant to the previous matter.

      My task was really to draw attention to the contrast between the phenomenon of the accredited scientist saying “this is intriguing” and the Classicist saying “It’s pseudoscience, because it doesn’t fit my culturally-absorbed picture of nature.”

      So unless provoked, I have no intention of fishing out the papers that Montagnier’s written, which of course would make no difference anyway on the premise that he’s senile or a charlatan. However, it did remind me of the time when I personally saw a different disputed pathological process occurring under the microscope, in the run-up to a research project that proved too difficult to fund and pursue effectively. The anomaly was undoubtedly there – the confirmation proved beyond me and the guys I was with.

      Flat earth is not on my radar (but, like “hollow earth” is occasionally turned up by YouTube being helpful). However, just the day before yesterday I was a largely passive participant in a passionate exchange over a pint of English ale between Josh Swamidass and a historian of science, on the subject of vaccine-denial. Interesting how (at the intellectual level) the discussion on one side was the quality of the evidence, and on the other numerous cases of more than homeopathically impure science in the past. Agreement eventually came on the importance of taking all aspects seriously, rather than taking world-view as the arbiter of truth.

      But hey – on which other science-faith blogs do you get to discuss water-memory?

  2. Robert Byers says:

    I saw this water memory thing on youtube some time ago and dismussed it as wromng as boring. The nobel thing doesn’t impress me.
    However it doesn’t matter if i dismissed it. anything is possible indeed.
    Your case of the accident guy recovering is great. i suspect his memory was just jogged by some new trigger but so what.
    Yes vaccines and concepts of germs were rejected first before embraced. A american president lost his life because the doctor refused to accept germs could exist.
    No way around it.
    its not based on the evidence but on the credibility of those who propose/oppose any idea in science.
    so myths like evolution or global warming are really founded on DEGREEolgy and not excellenc of quality and quantity of evidence.
    THE BBC on the great show IN OUR TIME just did a science one on kinetic theory and it mirrors much of this thread in its side issues on how this theory fought for acceptance and defeating previous theories.
    Oddly enough they ended up saying the invisable does not have evidence of itself but only circumstantial evidence like in crime cases.

  3. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    I havent visited “peaceful” science for quite some time, but on reading this, I was intrigued, so took a look. I see that my old nemesis from the Biologos Forum, Jonathan Burke is holding forth, as is Patrick (another such nemesis). I wonder when Josh will see the irony in the title of his blog. I know I’m not the only one who does.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Good to hear from you, Sy.

      As I found at BioLogos, the trouble with having a few people around intent on “policing” science (or opinion more generally) is that you soon enter the spiral of silence, where folks are no longer willing to say what they think for fear of “cultural disapproval.” Words like “denialist” are, of course, specifically designed to close down conversation, not encourage it.

      Funnily enough I thought of that and PS today, whilst hearing a conservative journalist talking about how, a few years ago, he had the idea of creating a web forum where those of all political views would discuss things respectfully and openly… unfortunately we don’t seem to be in that kind of society any more.

      It’s sad, though, when science becomes the subject most constrained by orthodox thinking!

      • Robert Byers says:

        Amen BUT. Its always been like this in history. its forgotten.
        All we have to do is insist and assert our rights for truth, thus speech/thought, and deny anybody the authority to stop ideas and conclusions.
        It just requires a warrior spirit. As our ancestors had who started the freedom of thought concept.
        i note even common people, who notice very little, today smell that someone is telling them to obey conclusions and not speak against them.
        I suspect Britain has less of a heritage of freedom as America but better then europe.
        Actually this is what was behind the english civil war aside from cdictaorship of the King.
        By the by this blog DOES do a resistance to conclusions that are disagreed with. You are the solution. As long as you also don’t censor unwelcome ideas. Just censor malice.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “I suspect Britain has less of a heritage of freedom as America but better then europe.”

    Well, we like to think we invented the idea: it was in the struggle for freedom of conscience that some decided they’d need to move to America to find it. But my Baptist church, for example, was formed in the furnace of persecution first by Cromwell (as he became a dictator), and then by the restored monarchy. Later (beginning of 20th century) our pastor and 8 others forfeited their goods rather than pay an unjust tax – and they and others got the law changed.

    Us older folks learned, “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” at school. So I’d say it’s almost equally sad to see both US and UK seeming to forget this core value and replace it with others based on fear.

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