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Jacques Benveniste. The price of one discovery
Jacques Benveniste. The price of one discovery

Jacques BenvenisteJacques Benveniste - a physician and immunologist who proposed the theory of the "memory of water." Source: Lancet Journal

Thirty years have passed since the beginning of one of the most notorious scientific investigations.  An article was published in the June 1988 issue of Nature by an international group of authors led by Jacques Benveniste (Davenas, 1988). The results of the scientists' work described in the material seemed incredible to many. The researchers showed ultra-high dilutions of antiserum to immunoglobulin E (so high that not a single molecule of the substance could have remained in the solution) triggering the degranulation of human basophils. In other words, they had a similar effect to that of the original substance. Even the authors of the article called their data surprising and reported on the need for interdisciplinary research in order to provide a reasonable theoretical justification for this phenomenon.

A devastating note from the editor of Nature appeared in the following issue. The author writes in a sharp, almost rude tone that Benveniste's results are not replicable and it is impossible to draw any conclusions from them. A specially convened commission attempted to replicate the experiment. The line-up turned out to be rather original: a professional magician, a journalist formerly associated with physics, and an expert involved in identifying irregularities in scientific research procedures. Benveniste's detailed reply to the editorial note was released in October. According to Benveniste, Nature’s employees did not release the publication for two years, and he himself had asked them to audit the experiment and only then publish the resulting article. Naturally, he was surprised by the choice of commission members. He was outraged by the editors' lack of professionalism and the hype that accompanied the investigation. In addition, Benveniste pointed out in his response that the experiments conducted by his team were carried out to high technical standards and had been repeatedly replicated in several independent laboratories.

  Any scientist welcomes constructive criticism and scientific discussion. Jacques Benveniste said that he could indeed have been mistaken, but at the same time, he categorically rejected the accusations of fraud, manipulating the results and incorrect experimental design.

NewspaperThe June and July 1988 articles in Nature marked the beginning of one of the liveliest scientific discussions. 

The mutual accusations of dishonesty on the pages of one of the world's leading scientific publications lasted almost a year. From the pages of the equally well-respected journal Science, Benveniste declared that modern science had been sentenced to death.
A year later, the journal Essays of the Information Scientist issued an independent review of the situation, in which the editor tries if not to resolve the dispute, then at least to objectively describe the circumstances from a neutral standpoint. The author reasonably noted that such stories greatly increase the journal's citation rate, and 'exposing' Benveniste was not a first for Nature. The journal Science has also criticised this editorial policy.

In 1990, Benveniste once again spoke out about this topic from the pages of The Lancet. According to the scientist, Nature had the article for two years before publishing it, while at the same time intensively attracting negative attention of the press and the scientific community to it.

This had put an end to Benveniste's academic career and reputation, and he conducted his further research in a private laboratory. Attempts to replicate his experiment were undertaken by many authors; some results were the same, others were not. Overall, such works cannot be considered high quality, because the authors of such 'replications' are usually interested in either proving or disproving the data obtained by Benveniste. It seems as if it was more important for many scientists to understand exactly where the 'trick' lies than to comprehend and perhaps develop the proposed theory.

A rare exception is an article entitled Histamine dilutions modulate basophil activation (P. Belon et. al., 2004), whose authors reported a positive result in replicating Benveniste's experiment. It is worth mentioning that this work was done with the participation of sceptics in order to put an end to questions concerning such studies. Consequently, the authors reported that they could not explain the findings by means of existing knowledge in the relevant scientific fields.

Regardless, by the mid-2000s, disputes over the validity of the experimental methodology and the approach to statistical analysis of the findings were becoming more constructive, and, consequently, public attention waned.

Jacques Benveniste. The price of one discovery

Main publications on the topic

Jacques Benveniste. The price of one discovery

Citation frequency of Benveniste's sensational article by year

In 2002, a former colleague of Benveniste spoke at an energy medicine development conference. He also tried to repeat the controversial experiment, and it transpired that sometimes the method worked and sometimes it did not. What was more interesting, however, was something rather different. The speaker talked about how research into the effects of high-dilutions was conducted in general, including the search for their mechanisms of action. Scientists genuinely sought to obtain reliable data, use up-to-date methods, and follow modern principles of scientific research. Although many laboratory studies confirm that high-dilution drugs have biological activity, the Benveniste affair practically halted the development of this trend.

Jacques Benveniste died in 2004.

The Benveniste affair is still a case study of the role that social conflict plays in the development of biological and medical research. Modern science has found itself in the situation where a taboo has been imposed on a practically unexplored area, which requires an especially careful approach to research and the close cooperation of scientists from different fields. There is no widespread practice of conducting high quality, placebo-controlled studies of high-dilution drugs. As a result, work postulating the lack of effects of high-dilution drugs is, in most cases, carried out just as poorly as those that claim their efficacy. Accordingly, one can trust neither one nor the other entirely.

The question arises as to whether all incorrectly conducted research and all research, which is inexplicable according to modern science, should be labelled pseudoscientific. Is it possible to conduct scientific debates with mutual respect and without losing face?

A scientist is an open-minded person a priori, free from prejudice, ready to change his point of view when strong arguments appear, and ready to look for explanations for the incomprehensible. The story of Jacques Benveniste may have ended, but it can still show us the value of mutual respect, objectivity and scientific integrity.