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Why Are Some Scientists Attacking NASA's New Life Discovery?

Illustration for article titled Why Are Some Scientists Attacking NASAs New Life Discovery?

Some scientists are aggressively attacking NASA's new life discovery—GFAJ-1, the microbe capable of using arsenic instead of phosphorous to build itself. The reason, according to Dr. Rosie Redfield: She "was outraged at how bad the science was."


While some scientists have declared their enthusiasm about the discovery of this new type of life, Dr. Redfield's blog post attacked the paper fiercely, even suggesting that Science's editors may have influenced the peer review process in order "to score such a high-impact publication."

I don't know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they're unscrupulously pushing NASA's 'There's life in outer space!' agenda. I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science's editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.


I wonder if other scientists would really risk their reputation just to give a positive review on a scientific paper, knowing that it was so obviously wrong as Redfield argues. Another boffin, University of Colorado's Shelley Copley, simply said: "This paper should not have been published."

One of the authors of the arsenic bacteria paper, Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey, replied to these accusations talking to Carl Zimmer at Slate:

We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time. 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.

Meanwhile, NASA's astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon declined to comment, arguing that these negative remarks to the press "do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."


UC-Davis' Jonathan Eisen counterattacked, claiming that, since "they carried out science by press release and press conference [...] they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature."

We will know soon who is right, as the authors of the paper have offered the microbe they found so critics can test their claims.


But until the results are in, I urgently beg to everyone involved in this debate to keep it cool and embrace the only other reasonable alternative to clear their differences: Tag team wrestling in the alkaline mud of Mono Lake. [Slate]

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First off I believe this vindicates all the commenters who were heavily criticized by both other commenters and Giz writers for doubting the results. We were told we were "know-nothings" and doubting the clear authority of the Scientist. It's pretty clear that science is not always so clean cut, and an important part of the proper course of science is examining the results and the procedures leading up to them, not roundly shooting down anyone who dares to suggest that there may be bias or poor science.

Second, I don't understand the demand by everyone here that people like Dr. Rosie Redfield and the others have to "prove" that the results are wrong. Are they supposed to travel to Mono lake, take their own samples, and repeat the entire experiment with their own funds and equipment? That's ridiculous and not how peer review or even just regular critique works.

These are not just scientists going "Oh I don't think you are right", they are specifically pointing out numerous places where standard and proper controls were NOT used, and places where the samples could easily have been contaminated, and places where the results declared by the Mono lake scientists are based on broad assumptions and loose correlations. If you read Rosie Redfield's blog post it is not just some old blog rant, it is a clear and detailed criticism of the research.

The burden of proof is on the original scientists to improve their methods and prove their claim. I want them to be right as much as anyone else here, but I also want proper and good science to be done or it gets a bad name.

So please, don't insult the commenters who are doubtful and explain their doubts intelligently next time, and let's not shoot Dr. Redfield down just because she wrote her critique up in a blog. This way people are discussing the errors far sooner and more publicly than if she had taken the long time to write up a traditional peer review.