Are Scientists Divided Over Divining Rods?

When I read a statement which starts with “Scientists are divided over……“, I expect to learn about a scientific controversy involving scientists who offer distinct interpretations or analyses of published scientific data. This is not uncommon in stem cell biology. For example, scientists disagree about the differentiation capacity of adult bone marrow stem cells. Some scientists are convinced that these adult stem cells have a broad differentiation capacity and that a significant proportion can turn into heart cells or brain cells. On the other hand, there are many stem cell researchers who disagree and instead believe that adult bone marrow stem cells are very limited in their differentiation capacity. Both groups of scientists can point to numerous experiments and papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals which back up their respective points of view. At any given stem cell meeting, the percentages of scientists favoring one view over the other can range from 30% to 70%, depending on who is attending and who is organizing that specific stem cell conference. We still have not reached a consensus in this field, so I think it is reasonable to say “scientists are divided over the differentiation capacity of adult bone marrow stem cells“.

In contrast, when it comes to the issue of global warming, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Anderegg and colleagues reviewed published papers and statements made by climate researchers. The authors found that 97% to 98% of climate researchers were convinced by the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, i.e. that humans are primarily responsible for global warming. When there is such a broad consensus among scientists and such overwhelming scientific data that supports anthropogenic climate change, one cannot really say “scientists are divided” merely because two or three scientists out of one hundred are not convinced.

Today, when I saw the headline “Scientists divided over device that ‘remotely detects hepatitis C’ ” in the Guardian, I assumed that a major scientific study had been published describing a new way to diagnose Hepatitis C and that there was considerable disagreement among Hepatitis C experts as to the value of this new device. To my surprise, I found this description in the Guardian:

The device the doctor held in his hand was not a contraption you expect to find in a rural hospital near the banks of the Nile.

 For a start, it was adapted from a bomb detector used by the Egyptian army. Second, it looked like the antenna for a car radio. Third, and most bizarrely, it could – the doctor claimed – remotely detect the presence of liver disease in patients sitting several feet away, within seconds.

 The antenna was a prototype for a device called C-Fast. If its Egyptian developers are to be believed, C-Fast is a revolutionary means of using bomb detection technology to scan for hepatitis C – a strongly contested discovery that, if proven, would contradict received scientific understanding, and potentially change the way many diseases are diagnosed.

This “C-Fast device”, co-developed by the Egyptian liver specialist Gamal Shiha, sounded like magic, and sure enough, even the Guardian referred to it as a “mechanical divining rod“.

Witnessed in various contexts by the Guardian, the prototype operates like a mechanical divining rod – though there are digital versions. It appears to swing towards people who suffer from hepatitis C, remaining motionless in the presence of those who don’t. Shiha claimed the movement of the rod was sparked by the presence of a specific electromagnetic frequency that emanates from a certain strain of hepatitis C.

After I read the remainder of the article, it turned out there are no published scientific studies to confirm that this rod, antenna or wand can detect hepatitis viruses at a distance.  The article says it “has been successfully trialled in 1,600 cases across three countries, without ever returning a false negative result“, but this data has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. As a scientist and a physician, I am of course very skeptical. The physicians using this device claim it has 100% sensitivity without presenting the data in a peer-reviewed forum. But what is even more surprising is the suggestion that electromagnetic signals travel from the virus in the body of a patient to this remote device, without any scientific evidence to back this up.

The Guardian then also quotes a University College London expert:

“If the application can be expanded, it is actually a revolution in medicine,” said Pinzani, head of UCL’s liver institute. “It means that you can detect any problem you want.”

 By way of example, Pinzani said the device could conceivably be used to instantaneously detect certain kinds of cancer symptoms: “You could go into a clinic, and a GP could find out if you had a tumour marker.”

This expert is already fantasizing about cancer diagnostics with this divining rod even though there is no credible published scientific data. The Guardian article also mentions that well-known scientific journals have rejected articles about this new device and that the “scientific basis has been strongly questioned by other scientists“, but the Guardian is compromising its journalistic integrity by presenting this as a legitimate scientific debate and claiming that “scientists are divided” in the title of the article. How can scientists be divided if the data has not been made public and if it has not undergone peer review? For now, this claim of a diagnostic divining rod is pure sensationalism and not an actual scientific controversy. Such sensationalism will attract many readers, but it should not be an excuse for shoddy journalism.


Image Credit: Public domain image of Otto Edler von Graeve in 1913 with a divining rod via Wikimedia Commons

UPDATE: The comment thread of the Guardian article indicates that Pinzani feels misrepresented by the article and cites a letter that Pinzani has purportedly written in response to the article. I am not able to verify whether this letter was indeed written by him and how exactly Pinzani was misrepresented by the Guardian.

UPDATE February 26, 2012: The Guardian has now changed the headline to Scientists sceptical about device that ‘remotely detects hepatitis C’. I think this headline is much better than the previous one which suggested that “scientists were divided”. I still think that newspapers and magazines sometimes unnecessarily portray pseudo-scientific viewpoints as legitimate, equal partners in a scientific debate. This type of even-handedness only makes sense if certain viewpoints are backed up by rigorous scientific studies.


9 thoughts on “Are Scientists Divided Over Divining Rods?

  1. Memories

    If I recall, the con-artist behind the sale of ‘C-Fast’ detection devices was unmasked many years ago, not before convincing a few smaller countries that his boxes actually did something and absconding with a few large payments.


  2. Khalil A. Cassimally

    Jalees, I find it very hard to believe that the Guardian weren’t having a laugh with this article. And Pinzani’s comments, surely sarcastic, aren’t they?

    A slightly better title may have been “Doctors divided over…” which would have been much more accurate as well since there appear to be doctors who actually take this seriously.


    1. Khalil, I first thought that this might be a spoof/satire article, like the ones published in The Onion, bit it appeared in the Guardian Science section. Even if the Guardian reporters or editors were having a laugh, I am not sure they conveyed this to the readers. It is still one of the most-read articles in the Guardian Science section and there may be many readers (including people all over the world who are at risk for Hep C infections) who believe that there is now a magical wand that detects Hep C. They also devoted most of the article to the supporters of this device and quoted them, whereas critics were mentioned in passing.
      The issue of doctors versus scientists is a tricky one, because I lead a double life – most of the time I study cell signaling pathways and mitochondrial metabolism in stem cells, but I am also a physician. I think that a physician who does not publish any papers in peer-reviewed journals is not really considered a scientist, but what about physicians who regularly publish peer-reviewed papers, testing hypotheses or developing new assay methods? My bias is to think of them as scientists, independent of whether they are conducting epidemiological studies or studying basic mechanisms of disease.

      I looked up two of the supporters on Pubmed (M. Pinzani and G Shiha), and found that they had each published a number of papers on liver disease and liver fibrosis. Pinzani has authored or co-authored nearly 200 papers and a number of them are related to basic mechanisms, such as reactive oxygen species and cell signaling. Shiha has authored fewer papers, but they revolve around immunoassays for fibrosis detection. I think the title “scientists” is legitimate, I just don’t think that the Guardian presented a balance overview how the vast majority of scientists would think.


    2. BTW, I just found a response by the Guardian reporter Patrick Kingsley in the comment thread:

      Hi arkadydarrell
      Dr Shiha says it doesn’t just apply to people – he says it can detect Hep C in a test-tube too. There is a video from Prof Pinzani’s visit to the hospital, in which the professor asks half a dozen clinicians to stand in a line. He then gave a test-tube containing a hep C sample to one of the clinicians, and then asked Dr Shiha, who had been waiting outside the room to use C-Fast to detect which clinicians was holding the test-tube. The footage suggested that Dr Shiha was successful.
      As for all the other comments – agree, lots to be sceptical about.
      But does that mean a newspaper shouldn’t report on this kind of project? I’d disagree on that. The piece isn’t claiming that this is a proven science. At every point, it’s reported as a claim. We have one scientist saying the science doesn’t add up, and another saying there is no proof. The developer himself admits more proof is needed, and there’s a list of comparable projects that have been panned in the past.
      Given these provisos, I think it’s fair for a newspaper to report on an intriguing project that isn’t a publicity stunt; which has been the subject of a reasonable (if not conclusive) amount of research; is being taken seriously by some experts in the field; and is an honest attempt by local clinicians to tackle what is a serious problem in Egypt.

      I think this suggests that the reporter did take the claims seriously and thinks a “reasonable” amount of research has been performed to support the device.


  3. Bill Steele

    We should keep in mind is that headlines are generally written by the last person involved in printing or posting a story, and that person is not likely to be an editor, a science writer or even a writer.


    1. Dear Bill,
      That may be true, but I think that the science writer or editors should still ensure that the headline accurately reflects the content of an article. I also think that the article itself was biased in favor of this device without any formal scientific proof of its efficacy.


  4. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Neutrality, Balance and Anonymous Sources in Science Blogging – #scioStandards › The Next Regeneration

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