How Was Your Stuff-Your-Face-With-Chocolate Week?

Those of you who live in a Christian-majority country will be fully aware that last week was Easter. Despite the fact that it is a religious holiday I still enjoy celebrating it, mostly because I interpret it as a holiday that is all about cooking and eating awesome food, especially anything with chocolate in it.

So, these are the highlights of the past week, with an actual point of discussion at the end. For the tl;dr, go ahead and skip to the last part below the fold.

This year, Catholic and Orthodox Easter fell on the same day, and half of the people who came over for Easter were raised Orthodox, so I decided to incorporate some Orthodox food  and traditions into the meal. I found an excellent recipe for Cozonac, a traditional Romanian Easter sweetbread, on a food blog, and I was very proud of myself when I managed to make it with no tunnels or failures in rising. We also played what I call “the egg game”, which involves everyone picking a colored hard boiled egg. They then are supposed to say “Christ has risen” (though we left out that part) in whichever language they happen to speak, then bonk the two eggs together. One will crack and the other will not, so eventually one egg emerges victorious. We also made leg of lamb, sweet potatoes, baby potatoes, asparagus and brownies. We stuffed our faces and got drunk on red wine.

I came over all giddy as, at the tender age of 29, I bought my first ever motorized vehicle: a 50cc Honda scooter to get my butt to work. I am embarrassingly proud of myself.

For Stuff Your Face With Chocolate Week, my mother also came to visit. Regular readers of this blog will know that her visits can be… well… contentious, at times. However we were doing very well. She was only here one week, and we managed to make it all the way to the end of it without a single fight.

We almost, almost made it.

At 11pm on the night before her departure, my mother insisted that I watch a 51 minute-long “scientific” documentary which she found immensely interesting, involving a Nobel Prize winner, Luc Montagnier. I had never heard of him, but knowing her love for anything woo I tried every which way to avoid it. She fixated, insisted, and so I finally caved and brought it up on my phone.

If woo makes you upset, read no further.


The second I googled “Luc Montagnier Documentary” I knew I was heading for trouble. The title of the video had “Water Memory” in it, and I begged my mother to not make me watch this. I looked up his publications, and explained to her that he was now working in China and publishing in a self-created and self-edited journal. But she fixated, and insisted, and so I grudgingly played the video. I wont link it here, because I never want to watch it again, you can find it very easily on youtube should you wish.

The documentary follows Luc Montagnier’s “research” on how water is capable of “remembering” DNA even if the DNA is no longer present. Despite my careful explanations that watching an “experiment” being performed on a screen does not make it possible for me to determine its legitimacy, she insisted I watch the whole thing, so I did.

In a nutshell: They diluted DNA from the HIV virus, whose discovery is what Luc Montagnier won his Nobel Prize for in the first place. To their credit they then had someone blind them, and randomly mix up 10 vials of pure water, and 10 vials of the serially diluted DNA (so diluted it is also now just water). They found a funny “electromagnetic profile” in the tubes that turned out to be dilutions 6 and 7. They sent that profile via internet to a group in Italy. That group bombarded a vial of plain water with that electromagnetic profile for an hour, then ran a PCR on it. They got a band (meaning a DNA product), and suggested that the water’s “memorized” the electromagnetic profile of the DNA,  allowing for them to make a piece of DNA out of whole cloth. They sequenced the band, and said it was identical to the DNA that was in France, though they never mentioned what the sequence was exactly, or if it corresponded to HIV.

I need hardly tell you that I have never seen such a load of bollocks in all my life. Breaking down what is wrong with this set of experiments would take me several days. My mother, on the other hand, thought it was brilliant, conclusive evidence, and kept pestering me to tell her what I think. Every time I tried to explain why a specific step of the experiment was flawed she interrupted me, said it didn’t matter, and what did I think? What did I think? Isn’t everything possible in this world? Isn’t accepting that everything is possible what makes a good scientist, and anyone who thinks that this is impossible should just quit science and go home?

I was patient, and tried to explain that, on this, we would never agree. When my boyfriend dared to ask her to just let it go and not force me to do something I didn’t want to do so that we could all get some sleep she got amazingly passive aggressive, repeated a mantra of “you’re absolutely right, I shall no longer speak. You’re absolutely right, I shall no longer think” for about 5 minutes, and went to bed.

We were so, so close.

Poking fun at woo aside, why am I telling you this?

The point of this story is that my mother behaved exactly as I expected her to, and I have spent a lot of time finding ways to avoid precisely such a scene from going down. I know perfectly well that there was something that I could have said that would have avoided the entire fight.

I could have said “Mom, you’re right. This is very interesting. I am intrigued by this set of experiments. I will take this under advisement, look into it further, and let you know. If this can be repeated, it would be revolutionary. Wow, I’m impressed”. That would have made her glow with happiness, we would have had a very pleasant chat, and all nastiness would have been averted.

Here’s the problem: I just. Can’t. Do it.

I can lie. I can turn conversations to my favor, manipulate, or fabricate complex situations with no remorse if it means everyone gets along as a result. But I can’t pretend to buy into this homeopathic nonsense. It is a line I cannot bring myself to cross, and if I try uttering those words aloud they stick in my throat. I can’t say them, no matter how big the following fight becomes. The most I can say is “we’re not going to agree, so let’s talk about something else”. That’s as far as I can go.

I think the reason is that, deep down, I find homeopathy and woo to be fundamentally dangerous. What happens when my Mom gets sick, and she decides to opt for the homeopathic remedy and when I try to stop her, she says “even you agreed that it is promising, and that there is something to it!”. It violates my deepest ethics as a scientist to pretend, even for an evening, that this crap has merit.

So my question for you is, where do you draw the line? Would you have been able to fake an interest in this water memory garbage? What are your thoughts on lying to spare feelings, and to avoid arguments?


  1. says

    It sounds like your mom hasn’t yet accepted that you are an autonomous adult and are entitled to your own opinions. I’ve met a few people who can’t resist an argument based on daft ideas, once I’ve clashed with them I find it better to avoid them. Fortunately my mother wasn’t into woo and up to her dying breath she was a devout atheist. But she didn’t like her opinions questioned. Spending an hour or two with her every fortnight or so was quite enough in her later years, thank you very much.
    So on the subject of faking interest in your mother’s woo for the sake of a harmonious holiday? I have no idea what’s more important, sanity or family, but after leaving home for good I warned my mother that the more she disagreed with me the less she would see of me. Once I drew that line in the sand she generally respected it. In the last ten years of her life I also cancelled family gatherings with the inlaws, for much the same reasons. I don’t miss them much, I have better things to do than hover on the verge of yet another irrational argument.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Isn’t accepting that everything is possible what makes a good scientist…

    IANAScientist, but my knee-jerk reaction to this comes out something like: “Yeah, that’s the first step, the easy-fun part. Then the work that makes it functional science requires testing all those ideas, and ruthlessly eliminating each one that fails – even if that means dumping them all and having to go look for more hypotheses. Homeopathy and sympathetic magic have so far failed every test…”

  3. se habla espol says

    My response to videos offered in lieu of evidence is along the lines of “OK, I’ll study the paper describing the research he’s talking about, since a published, peer-reviewed research report has all the background and references to support the thesis. Will you help find it? Without it, there’s really nothing further to say on the subject.”

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