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Every month I peruse magazines like Fate and Atlantis Rising, and over the last few month there's been a lot of self-congratulatory chatter about the fact that Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier has supposedly done experiments that show some of the underpinnings of homeopathy have some validity. The Huffington Post wrote:

Montagnier, who is also founder and president of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, asserted, "I can't say that homeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions (used in homeopathy) are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules."

Here, Montagnier is making reference to his experimental research that confirms one of the controversial features of homeopathic medicine that uses doses of substances that undergo sequential dilution with vigorous shaking in-between each dilution. Although it is common for modern-day scientists to assume that none of the original molecules remain in solution, Montagnier's research (and other of many of his colleagues) has verified that electromagnetic signals of the original medicine remains in the water and has dramatic biological effects.

Montagnier won his Nobel for work in the field of virology, so this stuff doesn't sound entirely within his wheelhouse... but it's close. I don't think it would be right to dismiss his claims out of hand. Has this research been published? Has any peer review been done, or has anyone attempted to replicate his results?

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    Related skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/2/… – Sklivvz Apr 25 '11 at 17:24
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    @sklivvz I think this is specific enough to deserve its own question. – Mad Scientist Apr 25 '11 at 17:29
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    @Sklivvz Is that an automated response of some sort? Because I'm asking about a very specific claim that been making the rounds in the media. The other question has one answer that mentions Luc Montagnier's claims, but nothing about their validity. – Scott Hamilton Apr 25 '11 at 17:30
  • Well, Montagnier is claiming that water has memory. The answer is in the other post: NO, in big bold capital letters. – Sklivvz Apr 25 '11 at 17:35
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    When I first saw this, the first thing I thought of was Linus Pauling and vitamin C. – Monkey Tuesday Apr 25 '11 at 21:25
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This is a nice example of why peer review is, although being the best process currently available to evaluate the quality of a scientific paper, still far from perfect. Here, a big name was all it needed to publish a paper. A superb take-down was given by professor PZ Myers. Since some people on this site might be fainthearted, I'll edit out his lucid language where appropriate. Visit the site for the full tour-de-force.

Let us begin with his summary of the work:

Montagnier claims in several papers that the DNA of pathogenic bacteria emits an electromagnetic signal, and further, that if you dilute that DNA homeopathically so that no DNA is actually present, the water continues to emit that same signal. Further, if you put two vials of homeopathically diluted EMS emitting water next to each other, the signal can move from one to another. And further, only bacteria and viruses pathogenic to humans produce this signal; ordinary E. coli does not. [...]

There is no sensible explanation given for this phenomenon, only some wild-eyed speculation that "water molecules can form long polymers of dipoles associated by hydrogen bonds" that may be "self-maintained by the electromagnetic radiations they are emitting. [...]"

Note: This has actually been disproved in the lab. Water has no long term memory. This question was also handled on this site

I'm not going to criticize the paper because it postulates a mysterious mechanism with no coherent physical cause, though. I read the paper and call it [bad] by virtue of the sloppiness of the work. I disbelieve it, not because I'm predisposed to find it unlikely (although I do), but because it's an appallingly bad paper.

What follows is a lengthy description of the experiments and data processing done by Montagnier, and PZ doesn't look to kindly at this. His conclusion:

There are a couple of other indicators that this is pathological science. They're looking at a minuscule, variable result that is prone to be picking up all kinds of irrelevant signals, yet nowhere in the entire paper can I find the word "blind". This is the kind of experiment that demands extreme rigor and care, yet the authors don't even bother to describe the protocols used. That's a warning sign.

There is another methodological problem that makes this paper suspicious:

They are claiming the existence of a truly remarkable phenomenon. A good scientist would focus on one fundamental observation, the claim that they can record species-specific bacterial signals with their crude apparatus, and nail that one down good and hard and believably. But no. They show off some very poor raw data and then rush off to dilute the experiment a trillion fold and claim to see the same signal. I found the first observation dubious, why are you showing me something even more unlikely?

Although the paper has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, there are even more problems:

And finally, another suspicious sign are the dates. This paper was submitted on 3 January 2009, revised on 5 January 2009, and accepted on 6 January 2009. That's an unbelievable turnaround, especially for a paper with such incredible results, and the revisions must have been trivial to be able to be whipped around in a day. Yet it's an awful paper that I would have shredded in a sea of red ink if it had come to me. Who reviewed this, the author's mother? Maybe someone even closer. Guess who the chairman of the editorial board is: Luc Montagnier.

The original reference:

Montagnier L, Aissa J, Ferris S, Montagnier J-L, Lavallee C (2009) Electromagnetic Signals Are Produced by Aqueous Nanostructures Derived from Bacterial DNA Sequences. Interdiscip Sci Comput Life Sci 1: 81-90.

Although PZ has not published his criticism in a peer-reviewed journal himself, the reservations he voices all make sense from a skeptical point of view. The methodology is poor, the proceedings of the publication are suspicious. What I recommend from a skeptical point of view is to withhold belief in Montagnier's results until they are repeated by other labs with more attention paid to a sound methodology.

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    As most other experimental evidence, duplication of the results is very important. So important, in fact, that even super-expensive endeavours like the LHC have a counterpart. – Sklivvz Apr 25 '11 at 17:32
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    Luc Montagnier is now about 79. The fate of old men, including nobelists can be tragic :=( – No longer here Apr 25 '11 at 20:05
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    This is also a good example for why in the ideal case, science has no authorities. Each new claim must be should to the same scrutiny whether it comes from a Nobel laureate or an undergrad's honors project. – Lagerbaer Apr 25 '11 at 22:11
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No, he hasn't.

Here are the conclusions of his paper:

Firstly, there's some discussion about DNA and the fact that it resonates with the EM field. Interesting, but not the claim you hear in the news.

We have discovered a novel property of DNA, that is the capacity of some sequences to emit electromagnetic waves in resonance after excitation by the ambient electromagnetic background. [...]

Then the paper starts start talking about physics (but note that the paper is written by biologists):

The physical nature of the nanostructures which support the EMS resonance remains to be determined. It is known from the very early X-ray diffraction studies of DNA, that water molecules are tightly associated with the double helix, and any beginner in molecular biology knows that DNA in water solution forms gels associating a larger number of water molecules.

Please note: there is no proof in the paper that this gel is the origin of the EM field.

Moreover, a number of physical studies have reported that water molecules can form long polymers of dipoles associated by hydrogen bonds (Ruan et al., 2004; Wernet et al., 2004). However these associations appear to be very short- lived (Cowan et al., 2005). Could they live longer, being self-maintained by the electromagnetic radiations they are emitting as previously postulated by Del Guidice, Preparata and Vitielo (1988)?

The paper is bending reality a little here. Previous studies in experimental physics studies have determined that the effect does not last, then he cites as possible an older theoretical result invalidated by them. So, there is only one conclusion based on previous work: there is positive proof that water has no memory. Adding a question mark does not save the previous statement from being misleading.

We have studied the decay with time of the capacity of dilutions for emitting EMS, after they have been removed (in mumetal boxes) from exposure to the excitation by the background. This capacity lasts at least several hours, some time up to 48 hours, indicating the relative stability of the nanostructures. Are the latter sufficiently specific of DNA sequences to be able to carry some genetic information? If so, what could be their role in pathogenicity, particularly in the genesis of chronic diseases?

The only non-speculative statement is that they measured some effect lasting up to 48 hours, but without a solid theoretical framework it's really weak to call it positive proof for memory of water. They should not assume it's due to nanostructures or anything else unless they have a proven experimental framework or experimental proof that it is the case.

Further studies involving close collaboration between physicists and biologists are obviously needed to resolve these problems.

The paper is intriguing, but its conclusion is mostly speculation with respect to the memory of water. The team that performed the experiment knows this and invokes more studies done by experts in the field (biologists for the DNA part and physicists for the water part).

Therefore, to answer your question, no, Montaigner has not proven anything with regards to homeopathy, or the memory of water. He's done some experiments which had some puzzling results. If they are replicated reliably and if no experimental error can be found, then we may have some interesting phenomena here. They would still be unrelated to homeopathy, though because they are still too short lived and require concentrations and a different preparation than homeopathy.

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    I don't have time now for the whole study, but the first column has them using M.prium passing through a filter to be removed, and then it showing up in the filtered sample 2 weeks later. This seems fishy to me, because M. prium is one of the most common laboratory contaminants, and it seems likely to me that this may indicate contamination rather than an actual finding. This does not give me high hopes for their other findings, but we'll see, – Monkey Tuesday Apr 28 '11 at 21:27

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