Total Drek

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Thursday, December 09, 2010

Arsenic again

Just in case you weren't tired of the arsenic-based life story from a while back,* we now have some arsenic-based controversy. Specifically, a number of scientists who seem to think that the discovery was... well... bogus:

On Thursday, Dec. 2, Rosie Redfield sat down to read a new paper called "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus." Despite its innocuous title, the paper had great ambitions. Every living thing that scientists have ever studied uses phosphorus to build the backbone of its DNA. In the new paper, NASA-funded scientists described a microbe that could use arsenic instead. If the authors of the paper were right, we would have to expand our notions of what forms life can take.


As soon as Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. "I was outraged at how bad the science was," she told me.

Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

None of the scientists I spoke to ruled out the possibility that such weird bacteria might exist. Indeed, some of them were co-authors of a 2007 report for the National Academies of Sciences on alien life that called for research into, among other things, arsenic-based biology. But almost to a person, they felt that the NASA team had failed to take some basic precautions to avoid misleading results.

The rest of the article is worth reading, although I wouldn't read too much into this yet. Scientists love to disagree- I mean, seriously, we can argue about damned near anything. So, as a result, the presence of controversy surrounding such a new and radical finding is only to be expected. By the same token, however, new and radical results are often not everything we think or hope they will be. So, there's both a good chance that the critics are right, and a good chance that the critics are wrong. Only time, and further study, will reveal the truth. But, then, that's the beauty of the scientific approach: all arguments are, eventually, settled by the data.**

Needless to say, the science reporters over at the "Trustworthy" encyclopedia are all over a story of this magnitude, and with their usual flair for the dramatic to boot:

Or, in plain text:

"This Paper Should Not Have Been Published": NASA claims new discovery of arsenic-based life proves the possibility of life on other planets. Others are so critical that they say that the paper should not have been published. The authors are distributing press releases and doing friendly interviews, but refusing to address any of the criticisms because they say that would be inappropriate. There is a lot of gullibility for anything promoting extraterrestrial life.

If you're wondering why Conservapedia of all groups is so down on NASA over this, you should check out their page on extraterrestrial life, which has on a number of occasions dismissed arguments for such critters as unChristian. Oh, and UFO sightings are actually evidence for demonic visitation:

This is not to say that I believe we're being visited by aliens, but dismissing UFOs by saying, "That's implausible; we're really being tormented by demons," is a response so ludicrous it boggles the mind.

So, hey, at least the maybe-arsenic-based microbes are keeping everyone busy, right?

* I know I'm not. That was some cool shit right there.

** Although careers may be destroyed and lives ruined in the interim but, hey, there you go.

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Anonymous John said...

Reading the Conservapedia blurb I was reminded of the recent Slate story with the same headline, so it was surprising (or, I suppose, not) that the source for the Conservapedia blurb was not the Slate story but a summary of the Slate story on a page run by Roger Schlafly.

Thursday, December 09, 2010 10:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the Carl Zimmer article, as well as Rosie Redfield's blog entry on the topic:

In addition, a professional scientist friend of mine pointed out a number of unrelated problems with the paper, related to the data analysis methods outlined in their supplemental materials (mis-averaging of ratios, figures with inconsistent colorbars, etc. etc.)

I'm not enough of an expert to judge the validity of the critiques of the paper (I'm not a microbiologist, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night), but the critiques seem reasonable to me. I am familiar enough with data analysis to know that my friend's critique is reasonable.

But on the face of it, this sounds like a clear case of pathological science:

in which researchers really, really, really want their hypothesis to be true, and delude themselves into using methods that prove that as distinguished from actual science, in which...

[useful oversimplification]

researchers value their hypothesis enough to try to prove it *false*, and when they are unable to do so increasing the odds that their hypothesis actually might be true. For now.

[/useful oversimplification]

Three lessons to be drawn from this:

1) As Drek says, in science all arguments are, eventually, settled by the data.

2) NASA appears to really, really want a positive result from its astrobiology program. This played out very much like the LIFE! ON! MARS! meteorite controversy of 1996, but at a faster pace.

3) Be careful of believing E-mails your friends send you, no matter how awesome they are!

~Drek's awesome friend

Thursday, December 09, 2010 9:11:00 PM  

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