Monday, December 03, 2007

Remembering water.

Dikkii's good at setting me off on rants. Mentioning Certain Names can do that...

[An appeal to impartiality.]

I've looked here and here, and I can't find this particular logical fallacy. Could you tell me whether it's known as something else?

[I’d rather have my data checked by someone who doesn’t have an agenda.]

OK. Now we have an appeal to motive - this may not in itself be a fallacious argument, however, Randi has deliberately (and explicitly) made every step of the Randi Challenge transparent in order to ensure that this allegation can never be made.

I have the impression you think scientists are derived from some Vulcan-like race of purely logical beings. We’re human, with human faults. You won’t believe how petty things can get in academia, how high arrogance can reach, how low deviousness can go. You must have experienced ‘office politics’ – imagine it when every participant is educated to PhD level. The plots I’ve seen hatched… You have to watch your back all the time.

Scientists are human. I’ve never met Randi, and have no wish to, because I'm human and one of the things humans do is take a dislike to people. It's not always purely on logical grounds, although he has done some absolutely disgraceful things in my opinion. One example – do you remember the ‘Memory of Water’ hullabaloo? In the interests of fair play, here’s a page against and a page for the idea.

Jacques Benveniste, a talented scientist, reported in Nature that water was capable of retaining a ‘memory’ of something that had been dissolved in it, even after dilution to the point where none of the compound could be left. My own objection to this was that none of the original water should be left either, but since I have only a basic grounding in chemistry, I can't judge.

You’d think, faced with such a claim, Nature would have checked. They didn’t, they published it because the data looked sound. Then there was one of those meetings of brown stuff and fan. Homeopathy was ecstatic. Science was horrified.

Well, Nature arranged to send a delegation to the good doctor’s laboratory. He agreed to this test because he expected his method to work. It had worked many times before. The idea was simple: they prepared three flasks of water, one of which had been treated as described in the method, the other two were just ordinary water. That’s a ‘blind’ experiment – Benveniste, and indeed most of the 'testers', had no idea which flask contained which sample – and it’s the ideal way to carry out any experiment, wherever possible. If Benveniste’s experiment was right, if he had made no mistakes, if there had been no contamination of his samples, then he should be able to find the treated one.

You’d think that a group of scientists and a representative from Nature would be enough to deal with this, but they took Randi along.

The information on which flask contained which sample was in a sealed envelope. Sealed before Benveniste could have seen it, so he couldn’t possibly cheat. Enough?

No, Randi insisted on taping the envelope to the ceiling. A serious study turned into a circus. Surely it would have been enough to keep the envelope in someone’s pocket? Or did he think scientists are capable of picking his pocket, steaming open the envelope, then resealing it without leaving a trace and putting it back?

Randi had gone in there not with the premise that Benveniste might have made a mistake, but that he was a deliberate fraud and was likely to tamper with that envelope, given half a chance. Further, he didn’t trust the other scientists, or even the Nature guy, with that envelope either. It was an unnecessary, childish, and grossly insulting act.

In the event, Benveniste’s experiment failed. So Randi chalked up another ‘debunking’. Benveniste’s career and reputation took a beating (to be fair, he really should have had someone else look at that data before sending in the first paper, but that’s hindsight for you). Still I wonder what would have happened had it worked? There were many dark mutterings about Randi’s Vaudeville version of the controlled experiment as it was. Really, there was no need for him to be there at all. And certainly no need to insult those present with that act.

That’s one example. I have others.

I don’t like the way he works. It’s more in tune with the stage than the laboratory, and that’s something I really want to stay clear of. This subject gets quite enough of that, thanks, and it doesn’t help.


Dikkii said...

I hope that you don't mind, Romulus, but I posted a post in response.

Romulus Crowe said...

Don't mind at all. Benveniste was the only example I had to hand. I have others, I'll look them up. Including one where Randi pronounced a poltergeist as fraud without investigating at all.

He was lucky - it was a fraud, and proved to be so by the investigators. Randi had made his conclusion without entering the premises. That's not a scientific method. That's playing the odds.

Dikkii said...

I hope you turn that example up when you look. It would be interesting to see why.

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