If water has memory, then homeopathic medicine is not as crazy an idea as its detractors believe. That, though, is the least of it. If water has memory, then something is wrong with consensus ideas of how the material world works. The great mystery then would be: what is wrong, and what new directions must science take to make it right?
In June 1988, the science journal NATURE published a report by a team of scientists at the French National Institute of Health, concluding that a sample of water contains some trace effect of molecules of another substance (such as human antibodies) which was once within that sample, but which has long since been removed.
Jacques Benveniste, a distinguished immunologist, headed the French team, so the results could not be set aside as those of a random quack or self-publicist. Yet had the results been widely accepted, they would have given an imprimatur of scientific respectability to the tradition of homeopathy and health.
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Homeopathy is the treatment of a disease by tiny quantities of a drug that, in healthy persons, produces symptoms akin to those being treated. In the late 18th century a German physician, Samuel Christian Hahnemann, found that when he ingested cinchona bark, a treatment for malaria, he developed malarial symptoms. He theorized that reported cures of malaria by cinchona bark could have come about because it stimulates the body's ability to heal itself.
Homeopathic practice requires that the stimulant be given, as noted above, in a much diluted fashion. Indeed, the dilution is so stringent that (as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has put the point), "most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain." To detractors, this fact alone renders homeopathy nonsensical. How can water have a memory? That brings one back to the Benveniste controversy.
Benveniste himself explained the mysterious character of his findings this way: "It's like agitating a car key in the river, going miles downstream, extracting a few drops of water, and then starting one's car with them." The body's immune system is the car in question. An Apologetic Editor
The editor of NATURE, John Maddox, was himself evidently disturbed by the findings, and almost apologetic about running them. He sent an investigative team to Paris to see if they could shed some light on the alleged memory of water. This investigation seemed to many something very different from the usual collegial attempt to replicate. Maddox said, of himself and the investigators he hired, "Our minds were not so much closed as unready to change our own view of how science is constructed." They were eager to find that the experiments had been faulty, and to their own satisfaction that is what they found.
Yet the mystery remains. Benveniste's own credentials are impeccable, and he has never retracted his findings. Furthermore, other scientists have made analogous discoveries. Madeleine Ennis, a pharmacologist in Northern Ireland, published results in Inflammation Research in 2001 that indicate that water has memory.
Professor Ennis did not enter her researches with an axe to grind. But she came away from them saying: "Despite my reservations against the science of homeopathy, the results compel me to suspend my disbelief and to start searching for a rational explanation for our findings."
The time may come when that becomes the consensus view: that something akin to water memory does exist, even though under existing chemical and physical understandings of the composition of water the idea seems absurd. Such a consensus as that will lay the groundwork for the real work solving the mystery not of whether but of why water remembers.