Luc Montagnier is an interesting and strange character. Last year he was a shared winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. A remarkable achievement. However, his latest research can only really be described as quite bizarre and some of his statements, are desperately and deadly worrying. So much so, that I think Montagnier ought to be the first recipient of both a Nobel and IgNobel prize. Let me explain.
In the past few weeks we have seen the announcements for the winners of the 2009 Nobel Prizes for Science. They are the highest accolade achievable by a scientist and are given to honour outstanding contributions to their field. Last year, French scientist Luc Montagnier shared the award for medicine for his part in the discovery of the HIV virus – something that has undoubtedly resulted in many lives being saved.
A few days before, we also saw announcements for the winners of the 2009 IgNobel Prizes. Lesser known, these prizes honour research that ‘cannot or should not be replicated’. The idea of the prizes is to ‘make people laugh and then make people think’. Previous winners have included decidedly odd but sensible papers on the side effects of sword swallowing and the the word "the" — and of the many ways it causes problems for anyone who tries to put things into alphabetical order, to the completely batty papers, such as for the ‘discovery’ that “not only does water have memory, but that the information can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet”, from homeopathic researcher Jacques Benveniste.
In January of this year, Montagnier published quite a remarkable paper entitled, “Electromagnetic Signals Are Produced by Aqueous Nanostructures Derived from Bacterial DNA Sequences” in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Sciences: Computational Life Sciences. The headline makes a bold claim: that diluted DNA from pathogenic bacterial and viral species is able to emit specific radio waves. Furthermore, there are claims that these radio waves might be associated with ‘nanostructures’ in the solution that might be able to recreate the pathogen. These radio waves do not appear to be emitted by ‘probiotic “good” bacteria’. After diluting solutions to the point to where no DNA could remain, it is claimed these ‘nanostructures’ somehow emit radio waves and recreate the pathogens. Luc Montagnier makes startling claims that,
In patients infected with HIV, EMS can be detected mostly in patients treated by antiretroviral therapy and having a very low viral load in their plasma. Such nanostructures persisting in the plasma may contribute to the viral reservoir which escapes the antiviral treatment, assuming that they carry genetic information of the virus.
The claims in the paper are simply unbelievable: that by serially diluting and agitating solutions of infectious agents, ‘nano’ structures can be set up in water that can emit specific radio frequencies and that even after filtration that should remove all traces of biological molecules, the pathogens can be cultured and detected, somehow by recreation.
At least, I think that is what is being claimed. The paper, it is fair to comment, lacks any rigour. It is a sequence of ad hoc assertions, hypotheses and post hoc rationalisations. Important experimental steps are described dismissively in a sentence and little attempt is made to describe the detail of the work.
There are many problems with the paper, not least that it is pretty much self-published in a journal without rigorous peer-review (it took two days from ‘receipt’ of the paper to publishing) and the journal was set up and edited by Montagnier himself.
I am not sure where to begin. But let me start with one massive problem that should have resulted in the paper ending up in the compost bin of science. It appears to fly in the face of one the greatest traditions of post-enlightenment thinking in that it seeks to reintroduce an anthropocentric view of the universe. The great early strides in scientific thought removed human beings from their special place in the universe. Primitive views placed us at the centre of creation with all things placed around us for our care. We were special. Gradually, we learned that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and neither even was the Sun. We learned that we were not separate from creation, but part of a continuum of biological existence that joined all living things together. Our minds did not make us different from the rocks as we could see that biological processes differed merely in complexity and scale from the more mundane chemical and physical processes around us.
So, Montagnier is proposing that these electromagnetic signals are only given off by pathogenic organisms. This assertion cries out the question – pathogenic to whom? Are we to believe that these DNA signals are only given off by infectious agents to humans? That would be a most staggering claim. What about infectious agents for other species? Do they not get handy radio signals too? And what if a particular human has specific immunity to a virus? Does the DNA sequence somehow know that it much switch off its broadcasts?
This is to leave aside how DNA could actually transmit radio waves. The generation of such a signal would require an oscillating current at the right frequency. How this could be achieved by a sequence of DNA is unanswered – probably because it is physically absurd.
The experimental apparatus itself looks decidedly amateurish with a the central detection mechanism appearing to be a coil of wire plugged into the soundcard of a PC via a device claimed to be invented by another infamous Frenchman, J Benveniste (previous IgNobel winner). Few details are given about this device.
It would appear, at first glance, to be a device designed to pick up background radio emissions. Indeed, the signals appears to be strong around the frequencies emitted by mains equipment and the paper does indeed mention that these signals disappear when attempts are removed to reduce background noise (such as by switching off other equipment). However, rather than conclude that the device is merely picking up noise, the paper asserts that the background noise is required to induce ‘resonance phenomena’. Your chin should be beginning to itch here. It does indeed look as if the experimental result are the result of digging around in the noise and finding signals at the limit of detection – a classical hallmark of pathological science where an unblinded researcher keeps probing noise until they convince themselves they are seeing signals. (see N-rays for a parallel, ‘discovered’ by yet another Frenchman, the physicist René-Prosper Blondlot.)
The paper takes even stranger twists when we look at the background to the paper. The Telegraph reported that Montagnier was in a legal battle with inventor Bruno Robert over the rights to the device that can detect the fantastical radio waves. Both Montagnier and Robert submitted patent applications for the same device:
The Telegraph makes no mention that the device is clearly crackpot. It is worth reading the patent examiner’s scathing assessment of the application, who concludes,
The invention is based on phenomena which contradict the fundamental principle of physics and of chemistry, i.e. the existence of biological or effect without an active molecule and no explanation or theoretical basis makes it impossible at the current time to explain the results obtained.
The story takes another breathtaking turn when it is realised that the device pictured above is identical to the one used by Jacques Benveniste to ‘digitise’ homeopathic signals and send them by email. IgNobel prize winning stuff. This research was replicated using the same device at the request of the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and no signal was detected.
It would appear that neither Montagnier or Robert were the inventor, but instead, the late, great, discredited Benveniste – homeopathic apologist and experimenter into nonsense. So, the French appear to fighting over the legacy of their greatest pseudo-scientist. Montagnier is clearly dabbling in the black arts of homeopathy and the homeopaths are crowing about it. My old friend Dana Ullman, whose academic thoroughness I took apart when he declared homeopathy had saved Charles Darwin, is jumping for joy over Montagnier’s research. He is not the most self critical thinker around. Harriet Hall demolishes his claims.
So, no doubt Montagnier deserves an IgNobel prize. His research makes us laugh. His apparatus has already earned the prize when the prize is clearly for research that ‘should not be repeated’. The IgNobel committee need to ram the message home.
But the award should be also for research that then makes is think. And what I see makes me think that Montagnier could lead to seriously bad consequences.
Not content with merely trying to perpetuate the discarded nonsense of previous homeopathic quacks, he appears to picks up the ideology of the homeopathic mindset. Montagnier appears in the AIDS denialist film House of Numbers saying that HIV can be ‘cleared naturally’ by nutritional means. All it requires is to have a ‘good immune system’. I see no evidence to support such claims. Now, many scientists were misrepresented in this disingenuous film, but it looks hard to see how Montagnier was. These views are not without terrible potential consequences. Such views lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who are dependent on governments to provide a decent level of care for people with HIV.
Montagnier’s status as a Nobel Prize winner lends a level of credence to these views that they do not deserve. His authority will be used by those who wish to exploit the vulnerable with quack cures. This is life and death stuff. Nobel prizes are the greatest scientific honour, but they also create false authorities and science, unique in human endeavours, does not need authorities. It runs on evidence, reason and critical thinking. And that is dangerously missing from Montagnier’s work.
Nobel Prize winners often feel a sense that they are freed to dream thoughts that others cannot. That is, on balance, a good thing. Science can make huge strides when people are able to think the unthinkable. But all Nobel unthinkable thoughts need not be true. In fact, very few will be. We need to be on our guard against those that exploit the false authority of the Nobel Laureate and examine all scientific claims with equal dispassion.