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[LINK] “The Case (Study) of Arsenic Life: How the Internet Can Make Science Better”

80 Beats and Bad Astronomy are just two of the many blogs and other news sources that reported on the disproof of the claim of a team led by biochemist Felisa Wolfe-Simon that she had discovered an arsenic-using bacterium in California’s Mono Lake. I followed the news at the time, inasmuch as NASA hyped the purported discovery as one indicating that extraterrestrial life could be chemically different from our life, but even at the time the general reaction was one of skepticism, aided by a combination of NASA hype, the scientists’ lack of preparation for said, and bad science.

The reaction to the whole affair that I found most interesting was Rebecca Rosen’s piece in The Atlantic, “The Case (Study) of Arsenic Life: How the Internet Can Make Science Better”. Rosen argued that the quick response of scientists to the paper, mediated by social media like blogs and Twitter, represents an improvement over more traditional, hide-bound methods.

Here’s how it all came to an end: On Sunday, while scientist Rosie Redfield spoke at the Joint Congress of Evolutionary Biology, two papers, one by her and her colleagues and another by a separate group, were published on the website of the journal Science. Together, the papers represent a summary refutation of the claims, first made in December of 2010, that the bacteria (GFAJ-1) could use arsenic to build its DNA, not phosphorous as is the case with all other life on Earth. As it turns out, GFAJ-1 is just like the rest of us — phosphate-dependent — and doesn’t represent some strain of alien or separately evolved life here on Earth, as the existence of arsenic-based life implies. Though the papers were not set to be published until later this month, Science released them early — during Redfield’s talk — in a move that surprised even Redfield herself, and garnered a cheer from the live audience in Ottawa.

This is all as it should be, right? As Redfield told the Washington Post’s Marc Kaufman, “A very flawed paper was published and received an inordinate amount of publicity. … Now refutations of the work by two independent research groups are appearing in the same high-profile journal, and the refutations are being well publicized. This is how science is supposed to work.”

But there’s something lacking in this. All is not well just because it has ended well. Perhaps that’s true for the scientific core of the story, the narrow question of whether GFAJ-1 depends on phosphate. But the bigger story — how the original, shoddy paper was hyped by NASA and Science beyond responsible levels; how the authors of that paper handled the criticism; right up until how Science kept the new papers and their authors under lock and key until last night, even while Redfield’s paper was already available on arXiv.org; and, notably, how the open fora of science blogs and Twitter provided a platform for public analysis and scrutiny — this story demonstrates the large problems with the process of how science is packaged and delivered, and how the tools of the web could be deployed to make that process better, smarter, and more efficient.

[. . .]

At every single step of the way in this long tale, there is a tension between the archaic, rule-bound process preferred by NASA and Science and the free-for-all, rapid-consumption ethos of science online. And at each step, the science and surrounding reporting coming from the latter looks smarter, cooler-headed, and more solid than that emanating from the older organs.

Begin with the press release which ramped up expectations beyond where the science could go, look at Alexis’s tweet, which tried to bring them back down (and which teetered on the edge of acceptable embargo behavior). The whole process makes little sense: As EmbargoWatch’s Ivan Oransky wrote at the time, “If the goal is to communicate the science accurately, and there’s a lot of allegedly inaccurate coverage floating around out there about a study that is already peer-reviewed and proofed, and available in PDF form to reporters, can someone please explain why the best thing to do is to wait until Thursday to release the actual study?”

Then go from the press conference to the initial fall-out. Points go to Redfield and other scientists who debunked the study on their blogs and Twitter streams. Wolfe-Simon and her team, for their part, refused to wade in (that is, any more than they already had by, you know, publishing the paper). “Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,” Wolfe-Simon wrote to Zimmer. “The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.” [Emphasis added]

[. . . T]he reason to have “proper” methods of engagement is because they ostensibly will produce better science and better science journalism. But in this one case study, we can see how the opposite is true: The “proper” paths of engagement produced uninformed hype, poor science, and kept the sources — both human and paper — away from a conversation that was simmering with genuine enthusiasm and curiosity. The best science — and the best science writing — could come when we allow those natural levels of interest to have a field day with the research and researchers that are out there. The curious may never be satisfied, but at least they will have some science to sink their teeth into, rather than the vapors emitting from some press releases, press conferences, and papers whose authors shy away from the conversation.

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Written by Randy McDonald

July 17, 2012 at 1:09 am

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