Tuesday, December 07, 2010

NASA arsenic story - let's lay off the personal attacks on all sides

I have many thoughts about the recent NASA - arsenic - microbe story.

Quick summary
  1. NASA announced a major press conference
  2. at the conference they discussed a new Science paper claiming to show the discovery of a microbe that could replace much/some of its phosphate with arsenic
  3. initial press coverage of the paper was very positive and discussed the work as having profound implications for understanding of life in the universe - though some scientists in some of the stories expressed skepticism of the findings
  4. subsequently many science bloggers further critiqued the paper and/or the press coverage
  5. NASA and the scientists have now refused to discuss the criticisms of their work and press interactions
  6. News stories have now come out summarizing the blogger criticisms and also discussing the unwillingness of NASA / the authors to discuss their work
As I said above I have some strong opinions about the published paper and about the actions of many of the people involved.  For example I think NASA handled this whole thing very poorly.  And I think the unwillingness of the authors and NASA to discuss the work by saying such discussion should be done only in the "peer reviewed literature" is really unwise.  

But that is not what I am here to write about today.  I am here to beg for people to calm down on the personal criticisms and attacks of any of the players involved.  I have seen so much out there about the failings of the paper reviewers, about the intelligence of the authors and the bloggers critiquing the authors, and a whole lot of uneducated guesswork about why some of the things associated with this story happened the way they did.  I think it is perfectly fair to express opinions about the original paper, about the press releases and conferences and about the actions of any of the players here.  But I do not think it is reasonable to go beyond that and to attack the people themselves.  Let's try and make this an open discussion of science and science reporting and not a venue to spout derogatory comments about the people involved 


  1. good luck on THAT request Jonathan... this is cyberspace, where major disagreements naturally devolve to vitriol & snark -- it's why so many scientists still view the blogosphere negatively... but NASA needs a thicker skin.

  2. Couldn't agree more Jonathan but Homo sapiens are often cruel - especially when they perceive their hard work is being overlooked for some shoddy science, self-promotion and out-of-balance hype followed up by silence. It will pass.

  3. I do understand how it feels to champion a hypothesis that almost everyone else thinks is wrong. (No, I'm not being sarcastic: see my papers titled 'Do bacteria have sex?' and 'Is quorum sensing a side effect of diffusion sensing'.)

  4. I'm amused (well, in a disappointed way) how the media just cannot get the whole moderation concept right – I've now come across articles claiming "Scientists/critics disprove new finding!" etc. So it's either new life on mars, or total fraud by ebil scientists. No other option is possible.

    It saddens me to see science discourse degrade to the level of political discourse (roughly at the same level as a grade 1 classroom when the teachers steps out. Or our parliament. Same thing.), but it happens with almost every single issue. Someone proposes a non-adaptive explanation for something? 'OMG DARWIN WAS WROOONG!' 'Wait, how DARE you insult Darwin!? No, YOU'RE completely wrong and intellectually lazy.' Questioning someone's methodology? Shit just got personal! Junk DNA? Not even gonna go there...

    As a result you end up only talking to the people within your immediate field, those who you're more likely to agree with. And the gaps in worldviews grow and grow and grow... until you put this cell biologist in a room of evolutionary ecologists and get a borderline shouting match somehow. Yeah.

    tl;dr scientists are just as socially inept as every other group of humans on the planet. Who knew. /rant

  5. @Rosie – Your views RE quorum sensing and sex sound like good null hypotheses to me. Ie, hypotheses that must be somewhat confidently contradicted prior to moving on to flashier explanations. Always bothers me when people get carried away and skip simpler explanations, and then viciously attack them because they deviate from the by-then-established dogma. It hinders scientific progress, and I wouldn't be surprised if there's a whole truckload of stuff we're seriously deluded about just because people were careless with negotiating simpler explanations prior to flashier ones catching acceptance.

    And don't get me started on common textbook-level dogmas vigorously believed in by professionals despite solid evidence to the contrary just because they ignore vast swaths of phylogeny, and research. I've encountered undergrads and faculty alike who had the nerve to tell me that "well, the phylogenies are probably wrong" RE multiple origins of euk multicellularity, which is beyond dispute at this point.

    We're not as rational as we profess to be...

  6. It's all a strange balance - being opinionated is a good thing in science - someone needs to test hypotheses and not just drop them at the slightest sign of complexity. But the problem here is that by mixing personal criticisms with scientific ones, we do as PSI says - get into the realm of political discourse. And yes, @Reggie - I realize the blogosphere is a problem here -- but I can always dream.

  7. First, I think scientist SHOULD blog.
    However, the peer review system is designed specifically to filter out the low-grade information which the inherently democratic blogosphere is filled with. In science, one opinion just isn't as good as any other! The standards for scientific publications and blog posts are simply not the same. I suggest anyone with well-founded criticism on the scientific content of this paper submits a letter to the editor.

  8. Guus - I am fine with people submitting critiques to the journal. But the problem here is one of timing. The authors and funders of the study called a press conference to promote their version of the work. Stories were written and spreading. I think it is perfectly fine, in fact, really important, for scientists to have a way of interacting with such stories. And one way is by blogging. And clearly some of the criticisms on blogs helped changed the tenor of the stories in the press. As for one opinion not being as good as another - sure - there are crackpots out there. But anonymous peer review by a few reviewers is simply insufficient and I would take open review by dozens of qualified science bloggers any day as a key supplement and even sometimes replacement to current peer review practices.

  9. I'm having trouble understanding your position.

    This much seems obvious. The Science paper was bad science and the lead author's representation of her work at the press conference was very misleading. (And that's putting the best possible spin on it.)

    It seems obvious that such a combination leads naturally to the conclusion that she is a bad scientist. Or, at the very least, she is not behaving in a manner consistent with what we'd like to call good science.

    Why do you insist we not go there? Is there a way for you to justify such behavior without calling into question the integrity of the authors? What do YOU think is going on? Is this just a case of legitimate scientific disagreement over whether the data shows all the phosphorus atoms in DNA were replaced by arsenic?

  10. Larry - I am fine with critiquing their work and behavior here. I am not fine with concluding that they are "bad scientists" per se or that they are incompetent etc. It is one paper. And one bad press interaction. Let's stick to criticizing this and not go any further. If you reviewed their body of work and found the same issues over and over again - then that would allow more/broader criticisms.

  11. Thanks Jonathan for the calls to not do the eye for eye approach. I have chosen to write to one of the authors of this paper the day it came out and learned that at no point was there 100% agreement among the team. Most of us know that this is the norm but emphasizing it will hopefully contribute to that the group bashing would stop.

    Time will tell whether arsenic was actually really incorporated instead of phosphorus - at this moment there is no proof for pro and con claims....

    The good part for all of us microbiologists is that there is a lot of mystery right next door to be unraveled.... and there is only one way to find out and I encourage the outspoken doubters to add Lake Mono on their habitat list to study ... maybe NSF will give you even a SUGR grant? :) But no matter what, once we have the next wave of "truths", lets publish it in open access journals that disclose the reviewers, handling editor and - maybe - even the dialogue before it gets published ....

  12. Professor Eisen, thanks for your admonition toward good behavior. I agree with you.
    I am curious, however, about the reality of morality. Since we are the products of just chemicals and time, then honestly, why should we behave any particular way? And how do we even know that there is such a thing as good?

  13. Sorry Brian - I am not a philosopher so I just don't know. All I know is that I think that people were behaving in a way that I would call "bad" and that I wish they would behave in a way that I would call "better". Whether there is anything good or bad, well, I will leave that for others to decide ...

  14. I was out of country during this whole fiasco, but I was following the story somewhat via blogs and the internet. I had not idea it was in mainstream news, until I stepped of the plane and the first thing I see is Redfield and Wolfe-Simon in live interviews on CNN! I must be honest that a small part of me was happy to see bacteria getting lots of media attention.

    The other interesting thing, that I thought Jonathan would comment on is that Science has made the article free access for 2 weeks.

  15. I think criticism of ideas and debate on appropriateness of interpretation and action are all parts of good science. Ad hominem attacks add little to discussion that should center around how to think about data, not on qualitative evaluations of people's competency. This is less about moral behavior and more about the best way to further scientific thought ... debate is productive, name-calling is not.

  16. Jonathan,
    I agree with your general request to keep the discourse civil. However, there is a third side in all this, Science editors and NASA media types, and I am not sure they should be protected from personal attacks for promoting this work. A careful reading of this paper left me shocked that something like that could be published by ANY journal. Even those who do not agree with Rosie Redfield's calculations (I do) need only look at the legend to their Fig.2A. I, for one, do not feel that this is an acceptable description of the gel. Do you understand the legend to Fig.3A? I certainly do not. In contast, the legend to Fig.3B is quite clear but says that the images for As and P have a 25-fold difference in scale, hardly an appropriate representation of putative differences in the distribution of the two elements. I cannot understand how a well-known and respected scientist like Ron Oremland could get involved in something like this. Even if the key claim of arsenate incorporation into DNA and protein - and not simply into the vacuoles - eventually proves to be correct, this was definitely not the way to present the data. I think that there should be a significant post-mortem on how this paper was processed by the journal. The reviewers and editors should be given a chance to comment (and repent).

  17. An interesting reading:
    However, the reviewers' names are still not disclosed and I want to reiterate my point that really knowledgeable folks (e.g. Simon Silver and Barry Rosen) were never invited to evaluate this paper.


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