Arsenic Bacteria 4: The Quest for Peace

By Ed Yong | December 18, 2010 10:00 am

Will everyone please stop shouting at us now?

The arsenic bacteria story continued to roll on over the last week, but at a slower pace. Many of the big issues have already been covered at length, including the paper itself, the media hype, the implications for journalism, peer review, and so on (see my post-mortem from last week for a timeline; and my original post and first short round-up for background). For this round-up, I’m focusing on some of the fresher perspectives:

First, some humour: Stephen Curry finds that Sigma-Aldrich has gone all Amazon with their site, allowing you to review such products as arsenate salts. “Customers who bought arsenic may also enjoy phosphorus…” Meanwhile, NASA discovers bacteria that can swap phosphorus for horrendously trite pop-psych life lessons – this is undoubtedly the worst thing that will ever be written about the arsenic story.  On a brighter note, John Rennie won the Internet with this tweet: Ed, I’ve learned that when the world hands you arsenic, make PR-senic.

It’s as if the last two weeks never happened. Some new stuff came out seemingly oblivious of the events since the paper’s publication. A BBC documentary – The Search for Life: The Drake Equation – has a clip of Felisa Wolfe-Simon talking up the shadow biosphere idea. In fairness to them, this was filmed well before the recent fracas, but it’s interesting that someone made the decision to run it anyway. Even more astoundingly, Macleans published an fresh news piece on 16 December, with shadow biospheres, arsenic backbones, and no critical voice at all. It’s like someone is actually sitting inside Mono Lake with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears, repeating “Lalalalalalalalalala.”

Alex Witze gave tremendous coverage of a panel session discussing the paper at the American Geophysical Union 2010 conference. I watched some of the discussion on webcast, and I’m going to try and report on it from Alex’s tweets (with links to source tweets; not sure yet if those are messy or helpful). Two of the speakers stood out for me:

Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker analysed all facets of the story, as he is wont to do. He noted that an editor at Science should have put in more qualifiers into the very paper, particularly the abstract and title, but he also thought that peer review worked fine in this case – it put out a hypothesis that’s “being chewed on pretty hard”. He played down the significance of the backlash in comparison to, say, Ida, but noted that the post-publication events provided a great narrative arc.

Petit said that that the speed of events took everyone by surprise, making it unfair to say that people acted ungracefully. However, he also challenged the idea that the post-mortem of published papers happens with “regal grace” in journals. He deemed information as “good and messy” but admitted to being unsure of how to handle criticism that could come from anyone from lunatics to respected colleagues.

Ron Oremland, final author on the paper, was reflective, warm and humble. He said that he would have “hid under the bed” if you’d told him what he was getting into a month ago. He said that a scientist’s highest aspiration was to publish in high-visibility journals and get on with your life. After the conference, he didn’t follow the coverage.The blogosphere was new to him and he didn’t know how to respond (“I don’t know how to proceed here and I don’t think society does either”) Ultimately, he said that “not engaging hurt us” and gave the appearance of being elitist. He openly apologised for any errors he made. Of the results, he even said, “I’m the first to admit it might have been a fluke”.  Attempts to replicate the experiment will be the deciding factor.

He noted that as a federal servant, he doesn’t have total freedom to engage with anyone he likes before making the right checks. He also noted that he had no interaction with the NASA release (Robert Irion, also on the panel, and David Harris, chairing it, were astounded at this). Later, a press person from the USGS (where Oremland works) clarified that they do not restrict access to their scientists and that Wolfe-Simon was involved in writing the release.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon finally released a promised FAQ, responding to the criticisms of the paper. Rosie Redfield loses no time in putting up a response to the response to her response, and another discussion about why cells couldn’t function if their molecules had a mixture of arsenic and phosphorus.

Meanwhile, Wolfe-Simon broke a general silence to announce her FAQ on Twitter with: “Here we are… and we’re engaged.” She compared the volume of emails and enquiries to a distributed-denial-of-service attack (a concerted effort to stop a website from working by overloading it). Her exact words, strung together from tweets:

“This was for all of us, a DDoS! The sheer volume and speed! There has been no precedent, and regardless of our science, we imagine our colleagues would do the same… The speed of communication is ahead of the sheer time needed to think and get in the lab and work. Codes of conduct develop as we evolve to cope. Let our paper teach us all something about human nature and our respect for one another.

In fact, I was involved in the writing of the press release. But “involved” does not imply in control. We are in control of the science. PR machines are just that. We are scientists. I am a scientist. There are rules in place that may need to be updated. However, new rules may need to be agreed on for the digital decades ahead… So, if I (we) can’t get to each and every comment/question/response immediately…we hope you can all understand now a little better.”

Fair enough, although this might make an interesting comparison. 3.5 hours after I stuck up this post about a woman without fear, the lead author had read it, looked at a critical quote from an external party, emailed me with a response and stuck it up as a comment on the blog. That, my friends, is what “engagement” actually looks like. Echoing this, Nature published an editorial on why they think scientists shouldn’t ignore the blogosphere. “Researchers must accept some harsh truths about the speed and spread of digital criticism.” Hear, hear.

So what actually went wrong? Rudy Baum at CENtral Science covers the timeline, rightly praises Carmen Drahl’s reportage, and writes, “Science did a lousy job of administering peer review. If a single chemist familiar with nucleic acids had reviewed the paper, it would not have been published in its current form.” David Dobbs sees this as an opportunity for more “upstream” reporting – what did happen during peer review or during the genesis of the study itself? Meanwhile, Bonnie Swoger thinks it makes a good teaching moment for undergraduates.

Putting the story in a wider context, the Neurocritic draws a nice parallel between the arsenic paper and the Vul et al paper on voodoo correlations in fMRI, which made a similar massive impact on the blogosphere two years ago. And David Dobbs draws a historical comparison to no less than Darwin, in terms of responding to criticism.

I end up having to clarify that I did read the original paper when I first covered the arsenic story, despite what Felisa Wolfe-Simon seems to suggest. In response, David Kroll put up a very touching post, which I’m very grateful to him for.

And finally, if anyone wonders why any of this matter, I think David Harris (who chaired the AGU panel discussion) said it best: the point of the story is to find good practice in what we’re doing. Oh, and it’s fascinating.

If the citation link isn’t working, read why here

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