Saturday, July 26, 2008

Masaru Emoto Postscript

Back in February I posted a short critique of Masaru Emoto's The Hidden Messages In Water. Since then I had mostly forgotten about it, but today I noticed a BBC news item:

The idea that water "remembers" what it has been in contact with is part of the essential theory behind homeopathy, a health theory popular in the 1800s that has enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s. The "scientist" Dr. Masaru Emoto is a homeopathic doctor and its dogma apparently directs his work.

This BBC article was interesting because it assesses the impact of a 1988 paper by French scientist Jacques Benveniste in which he claimed to have proven this memory effect. The paper appeared in the respected journal Nature, though not without some disclaimers.

Benveniste had started with a substance that caused an allergic reaction, he diluted it over and over again until there was nothing left except water, and then he observed that the pure water still managed to trigger an allergic reaction when it was added to living cells.

Unfortunately for homeopathy supporters, and for Benveniste himself, investigators were not able to reproduce his results. Furthermore, a careful review of the practices in his laboratory found that his lab workers had been "subconsciously selective" in their interpretation of the raw data, reporting that "We believe that experimental data have been uncritically assessed and their imperfections inadequately reported."

This accusation of biased lab work echoes some of the major objections that have been leveled against Emoto's results.

My Thoughts

People will believe what they want to believe. Many are mistrustful of the scientific or medical or religious establishments. Rejecting established authority, we may fall under the thrall of charismatic teachers. Grasping desperately at straws of new hope, we embrace a variety of ideas that, in the harsh light of critical inspection, seem silly.

But then how many times have "silly" ideas been the source of some new advance? From Galileo to Einstein to Page and Brin, our readiness to think "outside the box" is one of man's greatest strengths.

The hard part is being willing to let go of outdated, disproven ideas and move on.

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