In case you've been living under a scientific rock, you might have heard about the Science article (PMID:21127214) reporting the discovery of a prokaryote that can incorporate arsenic into its DNA in place of phosphorus. Obviously this hit the press in a big way and was picked up by a shit ton of bloggers, who spread the word. Given that the science was done in a NASA lab, there was quite a bit discussed about the implications of this finding for life on other planets.
Then people started looking hard at the science. Rut-roh, Elroy.
While I find the subject of the paper interesting and the debate more so, what really caught my attention was the scientific communities reaction to Rosie's critique.
Carl Zimmer contacted two of the authors of the paper about the apparent flaws in their study, and they circled the wagons:
"We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time," declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. "If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so."
"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," wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "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."
Wow. Really? Did I just slip into the 19th century by accident? Pass the watercress sandwich tray, please.
And what about the comments on Rosie's blog? While many were supportive, comment after comment after comment after comment after comment after comment after comment, hopped aboard the old "this isn't how scientific debate is done, this is unprofessional!" train. Choo-choo.
Dude. Fuck. Sigh.
This idea that science is somehow pure and fact-based alone, while being performed by scholars in tweed having "civil" conversations over tea makes me want to poke my eyes out with a rusty nail. Did Rosie's post relay her mistrust of the data and the motivation behind some of its gathering? Absolutely. But do her arguments against the data (and those brought up in the comment section) raise all sorts of red flags that we have seen from other cases the ended with a retraction of a high profile paper? Hell yes.
I don't know whether some of the fairly massive missteps in the data acquisition were a case of people being blinded by their own "discovery" or pushing out the answer they wanted, but there is no question that these data are premature, at best. However, both the paper itself and the way it has been presented at conferences, indicate very little of this preliminary vibe. Guess what? If you rush dodgey data out there and claim you have found a novel life form, you're going to hear it from the masses.
To my mind, this is a "good thing" and evidence that the speed of information transfer is working to make science better, not less professional.