In late November of this year, NASA released an announcement that in a few days, they were going to hold a conference to discuss “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” A lot of sources, such as this article at Examiner.com, were hoping that the news which was going to be announced at the conference was that they’d actually discovered life on other planets. No such luck, but the actual news was still pretty interesting: according to the paper which was published in the Journal Science, a bacterium has been discovered which is able to use arsenic in place of phosphorous. These bacteria exists in a lake in California which was previously believed to have such high concentrations of arsenic that any life would not be able to survive there. But according to the paper, to these bacteria arsenic is not poison; it’s actually food.
While discovering a bacterium that can use arsenic instead of phosphorous isn’t as big a deal as discovering life on other planets, what it can tell us is what life on other planets could be like. Life on earth is made up primarily of six elements—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus—and until now, it was believed that life could not survive without any one of these six. But if the conclusions of this paper are correct, then the need of any life form to have all six of these elements is not a hard and fast rule. And if life can survive on earth without all of six of these elements, then presumably it could also exist on planets where some of these elements are not available at all. Some people have even speculated that these bacteria could belong to a “shadow biosphere”, a lineage of life which arose independently of all other life on earth, although what’s more likely is that these bacteria are related to all other bacteria and have just acquired this ability as a special adaptation.
You’ll notice I said “if the conclusions of this paper are correct”. The most important question being asked at this point is: are they? After the initial burst of positive press which uncritically reported the study’s conclusions, there was a large backlash of scientists criticizing the original study for lack of rigor. Some of the critical responses are discussed in this article from Wired, and one of the critical responses themselves is here. If there are any molecular biologists in this group, I would be interested to know what they think of this study and its criticisms, and whether the study’s original authors or its critics are more likely to be correct. But for people like me, who just know about paleontology, evolutionary biology and psychometrics, the most that can be determined from this is that the conclusions of this study cannot be considered a certainty until more independent groups of researchers have reproduced the original study’s results.
An equally relevant question, which is easier for non-specialists to discuss, is whether this incident reveals any problems with the way science journalism works. What normally happens when a paper is about to be published is that the information being presented in it is under “embargo”, meaning that it’s kept secret until the paper is published, in order to prevent other scientists from trying to get a jump on this information and publishing it before the original authors do. Obviously, when a paper is under embargo, nobody is going to be publishing criticism of it yet. However, while the information about these bacteria was still under embargo, the authors showed it to a select group of journalists so that news articles about this discovery could be prepared in advance and published alongside the paper.
Before writing their articles, some of these journalists went to other experts to get a “second opinion” about the paper’s conclusions. But since the experts they went to hadn’t read the paper (after all, it was still under embargo), the journalists were not able to get much of a sense of the possible flaws in the paper’s conclusions, hence the lack of any criticism of the study’s conclusions in the first news stories that appeared about it. When you combine this with the way that NASA created hype for this story with their press release from November which made it sound as though the news might involve actual aliens, you have a situation where because of the secrecy of the embargo system, the authors of this paper are able to make sure it receives as much positive publicity as possible, while minimizing the negative publicity.
At least, they managed to minimize it at first. By now, the negative backlash in the blogsphere has become pretty strong, especially from the blogs of other experts in molecular biology. New studies and papers criticizing the original study’s conclusions are likely to be published at some point, although they haven’t yet. And in the meantime, a new issue has come up: the question of whether blogs written by experts should be taken seriously in the scientific community, or whether scientific discourse should be limited to peer-reviewed journals. The authors of the original study have been of the opinion that only peer-reviewed criticism of their study is worth responding to, while the critics believe that it shouldn’t matter where criticism is published, as long as it’s written by known experts in the field. Two different perspectives about this are here (arguing against the importance of criticism in blogs) and here (arguing in favor of it).
There are a lot of different elements of this issue, so there are several different things I’m interested in having people’s opinions about. What’s your opinion about all of this, including both the original study and the controversy over it? Is the embargo system and science journalism being misused? And should discussion that happens in blogs be taken seriously in the scientific community?
One thing that I’ve been feeling more and more strongly over the past few years is that science journalism is very often garbage. It isn’t always, but the examples of science journalists who report research in an accurate and informative manner—especially about complex or controversial topics—are so rare that they always stand out to me as a surprise when they happen. One of the best recent examples of the failure of science journalism is described in this post by David Orr, about the number of news sources which have been claiming that Triceratops never existed. If Triceratops and Torosaurus were actually the same animal, as is suggested by the new study discussed in these articles, then it’s the name Torosaurus which would have to be abandoned, because Triceratops was named first and that name therefore has priority. The original paper makes it quite clear that it’s the status of Torosaurus which is in jeopardy, not Triceratops. So why have so many journalists been claiming that “Triceratops never existed”? Are they too ignorant of paleontology to understand the conclusions of the paper, or are they deliberately sacrificing accuracy for the sake of an attention-grabbing headline? There’s no way to tell for sure, but it’s probably some of both.
Ideally, I think scientists should write the popular accounts of their research as much as possible. This would require some skill, since not all scientists know how to make their research understandable to a general audience, but I think it would be worth it. For one thing, it would avoid the problem with science being misreported like happened with Torosaurus and Triceratops, since I can’t imagine any actual paleontologist making a mistake this stupid. It wouldn’t avoid the problem of new research being described in a completely uncritical manner regardless of what flaws it might contain, because most scientists probably can’t be counted on to provide criticism of their own research, but it would at least cut down on the ability of scientists to maximize the positive press for their research by exploiting both the hype and the embargo system.
If scientists are writing the popular accounts of their own research, some of the time they’ll be doing so in blogs. I could really see it going either way about whether that should be regarded as a valid contributions to the scientific community. On one hand, because of the delay in publication that’s inherent to peer review, blogs can expose shortcomings in research faster than peer-reviewed papers can, as it may be doing in the case of the study about these bacteria. But on the other hand bloggers, even expert bloggers, can also commit a lot of careless errors which would never make it through peer review. This is especially the case when an expert in one field tries to criticize research in another field where he has no training, such as an evolutionary biologist criticizing research about IQ. It could be pretty overwhelming for scientists to be expected to defend their research not only from criticisms that appear in peer-reviewed journals, but also from every criticism that gets posted in a blog.
Either way, though, as more and more scientists begin blogging about their own research and that of others, these blog postings probably will have some effect on the overall opinion of the scientific community. The criticism of the arsenic bacteria study is a perfect example: even though no criticisms of it have yet appeared in peer-reviewed journals, the scientific community’s skepticism about this study is pretty well-established by now, entirely because of criticism that’s appeared in blogs. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it probably can’t be avoided.