It almost makes me disbelieve that HIV causes AIDS!

Nah, not really — that work has been independently confirmed many times over. Recently, though, Deepak Chopra has been praising Luc Montagnier, the Nobel prize winning co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus, for tumbling down the walls of science — which ought to be enough to condemn the poor guy right there. But I had to take a look at exactly what Montagnier is claiming, and I'm afraid the only thing tumbling is his credibility.

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. It's madness piled upon madness.

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". More madness!

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 crap 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.

First, let's look at the gadget he uses to record these signals.


Awesome, isn't it? He uses a laptop PC with a Soundblaster audio card for analog to digital signal conversion, plugged into a hifi amplifer, which is in turn hooked up to a coil of copper wire. A vial contain the solution to be tested is dropped into the coil. Un-freaking-believable.

It's not at all impossible to measure electrical signals with an apparatus like this. I've done it myself; when I was a graduate student, I built a fun little gadget which consisted of an electronic circuit board that I etched to create a fine meshwork of thin interdigitating copper lines, on which I would place a larval zebrafish, and with it I could record the action potentials from the Mauthner neuron, a large cell that mediates an escape reflex in the fish. It actually worked reasonably well, but was a bit finicky — the fish had to be oriented just right, there couldn't be too much water on the plate or it would float away from the contact, and the signals were highly variable in strength. But yes, when an extraordinarily large cell fired off a massive signal (many tens of millivolts!) within a millimeter of the plate, we could pick it up with our apparatus. Of course, it was also wildly sensitive to all kinds of external signals — we'd do our experiments with the apparatus in a Faraday cage, and you could have great fun wiggling your fingers near the plate and picking up all kinds of spurious signals.

So now I look at Montagnier's apparatus, which looks even more rinky-tink than my old gadget, and what I see is a sensitive noise detector. It's little more than a fancy small-scale version of a Scientology e-meter, a gadget that picks up on noise in the environment and makes a needle on a dial wiggle.

Now look at the 'data' that comes out of it.

Detection of EMS from a suspension of Mycoplasma pirum: Left: background noise (from an unfiltered suspension or a negative low dilution). Right: positive signal (from a high dilution D-7 (10-7)). (a) actual recording (2 seconds from a 6 second recording) after WaveLab (Steinberg) treatment; (b) detailed analysis of the signal (scale in millisecondes); (c) Matlab 3D Fourier transform analyzis (abcissa: 0-20 kHz, ordinate: relative intensity, 3D dimension: recording at different times); Frequencies are visualized in different colors; (d) Sigview Fourier transform: note the new harmonics in the range of 1 000-3 000 Hz.

Apparently, all a Nobel prize winner can do is raw screen dumps from his PC, and he can get away with publishing that. But look at the raw data on the top — background noise from a cell-free vial on the left, and a massive homeopathic dilution of a Mycoplasma suspension on the right. Woo hoo! How many of you would like to be able to get crap data like that and publish it?

By the way, it's not just my tiny reduction of the figure that makes the scale invisible. They don't say anywhere what the magnitude of the EMS is. I suspect they don't know; they just crank up the amp to the max to get a lot of jangly jitter, and don't bother to calibrate anything.

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.

Another sign is that the paper flits from topic to topic, doing quick superficial experiments with dilutions and crosstalk and chemical treatments. The paper itself is a welter of noise, and is one of the more unprofessional write-ups I've ever run across — and remember, I teach undergraduates. 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?

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 work does have some historical precedent, though. This is the same nonsense and the same apparatus that Benveniste was peddling. Is there something in the wine in France? I could almost believe this terrible waste of time was done under the influence of a hogshead or two of the cheap stuff.

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.


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