Friday, December 24, 2010

Slinging it further -- the arsenic bacteria saga continues

Well, we're not gone traveling yet -- and the arsenic bacteria saga continues.   Naturally enough, for a paper whose publication was preceded by such hype -- and followed by such immediate, justified skepticism.  Today's Science has an interview with Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the principal author of the paper that made such a splash a few weeks ago, and engendered such immediate skepticism, for many reasons, including that the experiment was inadequately controlled.  In brief, Wolfe-Simon is exhausted, and still hoping to collaborate with others who can confirm, or not, the findings she reported.  But being a true-blooded product of our culture, naturally she defends her results (graduate schools must train people to say a lot of things, but never "I was wrong!").

We won't go into any detail about the arguments here, because that's already being done much better elsewhere than we could do but we did want to include links here to some of that give-and-take, since we did post on the subject when the paper first came out.  Microbiologist Rosie Redfield's posts on  her blog, including the most recent very detailed response here, and reader comments, are of particular interest, as she goes point by point through the original paper, as well as the authors' attempts to answer skepticism, which they do here.

So far, without the additional carefully done experimental results that doubters are hoping to provide and/or analyze, it looks to us as though, at best, the jury is still out on these arsenic bacteria, and at worst, the original experiments were poorly carried out, poorly interpreted, and poorly reviewed.

And, as we said when we originally commented on this work, even if it were solid science, it doesn't say anything about life in space.  So NASA's Baloney campaign on its behalf should remain pilloried -- and it was NASA, not Wolfe-Simon who got the hype engine going on this one.  NASA seems to be good at engineering, but they should stay out of the basic biology business.  NSF should fund that.  'Astrobiology' is, if anything, a political wing of theirs, and Congress should remove its funding.  We know several good scientists who feed at that trough, but they'd still do good work funded in more conventional ways.  A truly disinterested panel could go through the current portfolio, transfer what's worthy to NSF, and put the rest to rest.

Science baloney is not new.  Legitimate as well as bogus scientists have long known that they can get ahead by dissembling, self-promotion, and puffing up their work in order to get attention, support, publication, or sales.  It's always up to the community to purge and self-police.   These days, the media (including many journals and even funding agencies) flood us with such puffery.  That we will not likely restrain over-claims should not stop us from resisting it, in the name of good science.

No comments: