A Poison Pill in NASA’s Arsenic-Laced Bacteria?

As of this posting, Googling “NASA+arsenic” turns up links to negative press and publicity on 2/3 of the hits on the first results page.  What exactly am I talking about?  Well, in the days following the Liberal Ironist’s punchline skepticism, far better-informed criticisms of last week’s announcement of the discovery of a strain of bacteria using arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus in its genetic material began to emerge…Now NASA stands accused by several scientists (and an unknowable number of bloggers) of hyping possibly-contaminated laboratory results to stimulate interest in its mission, and “the prestigious journal Science” (that is an actual quote from multiple sources) has come under very-public fire for complacency in its peer review process.  Carl Zimmer did a good job of summarizing the ongoing flak down to principal actors and events on Slate.

Martin Robbins, blogging for The Guardian, had a long, excellent commentary on the hyping of this supposed finding of a microbe that had made arsenic into an organic staple.  Definitely worth reading for the details, his blog entry addresses both the hyping of the story itself and the surprisingly disengaged, defensive response of NASA to the public criticism Wolfe-Simon et al.’s paper began to receive.  Robbins noted that the authors of this article didn’t really do anything wrong (ethically-speaking, that is) even if it should turn out their theoretical conclusions were overly-ambitious or that there were methodological problems in their work.

Actually, the Liberal Ironist actually feels bad for Wolfe-Simon et al.  The academic criticism in Zimmer’s article suggests the researchers made a stupid laboratory mistake, but if so they’re now overexposed.  It’s almost like they’ve been set up: There is only so much academics can do with the evidence and means of theoretical articulation at their disposal; at some point an academic has to make a leap and offer an educated guess about the order behind the strange phenomena they see, and it is part of the job of fellow-academics, graduate students and anonymous peer reviewers in major field journals to try their honorable best to tear that work apart in various venues.  One of many reasons for peer-review in academic publishing is precisely the fact that scientific scrutiny tends to occur where there is little knowledge or no consensus; thus the most-earnest academic researchers with the smallest egos cannot be their own advocates, due to their inevitable limitations.  As Robbins points out, the peer reviewers for Science seem to have been passive actors considering how quickly the study came in for academic criticism following publication; still, it is probably due to NASA’s massive and possibly-fallacious hyping of their paper that the academic response was so fast and skewed so strongly towards expert critics who may otherwise not have read the article immediately or might have been less-interested in its empirical.  (I say NASA’s hype was possibly-fallacious because, even if this microorganism can substitute arsenic for phosphorus to link the base pairs in its DNA strands, this doesn’t mean or even necessarily imply that organic compounds could emerge from a different chemistry than the organic elements that life on Earth holds in common).  Finally, NASA’s suspenseful hype last week ensured that the general public “watched” the whole thing, with the conflation of both the hype and the easy conveyance of professional criticism through that catalytic medium of the “blogosphere” with the personages of the academics Wolfe-Simon et al. suggesting that they did the wrong things wrong when they seem to have done the right things wrong.  (I am referring here to the difference between an act of media manipulation by those who are well-outside of their field and an academic making a methodological error that should have come up at some point in at least 1 of several contexts of peer vetting.)

Science today depends on a sophisticated specialization of labor both between and within many disciplines, as well as large research grants (and often-enough, squads of “coding monkeys,” graduate students or undergraduates who collect and compile data points into statistically-usable units).  If it seems to lack the sense of individual breakthrough of building one’s own telescope or discovering x-rays by leaving radioactive material to expose a strip of film…well, that’s because it does.  The rewards can be awesome, but the challenges of contemporary science tend to be too complex for those dramatic…well, baby-steps.

Put differently, today’s academics have to look out for each other.  If no one tears their research papers apart at workshop presentations, they’re all the more vulnerable and unguided as they go to the peer-reviewers ahead of publication.  If the peer-reviewers give it a bye due to theoretical sympathy, a lack of expertise or due to any other idiosyncrasy, then the authors have simply been set up for a fall.  You might think it’s the responsibility of the researchers who submitted the paper for publication to cover all their methodological bases, but that isn’t exactly true.  They aren’t always abreast of the latest work (they were busy doing their own work, you know), and by virtue of having to specialize in some part of their field they can have enduring theoretical or methodological blind spots which they must rely upon others to discern after reading their work; the sooner they get the bad news, the better for them.

Does anyone doubt that now?


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