Field of Science

Replies to arsenic criticism

An article in The Washington Post describes how Felisa Wolfe-Simon and the team behind the work on arsenic-loving bacteria pushed by NASA are planning to respond to criticism. And indeed, how they have responded as of yesterday. On Felisa's website you can find the FAQ, which I repost here slightly(!) paraphrased:

Some people have questioned whether the DNA was sufficiently cleaned by your technique using gel electrophoresis, to separate it from other molecules. Do you feel this is a valid concern?

(Shorter) Answer: No.

Others have argued that arsenate-linked DNA should have quickly fallen apart when exposed to water. Could you address this?

(Shorter) Answer: No experiments have previously been done relevant to our study.

Is it possible that salts in your growth media could have provided enough trace phosphorus to sustain the bacteria?

(shorter) Answer: We think not.

Is there anything else you’d like for the public to understand about your research, or about the scientific process?

(Hmm, I wonder who asked this question. It's not really one of those very critical questions that this whole debacle included.)

(Shorter) Answer: We love science, and we love you.

I'm not saying that is what the team intended to say in reply to that lat question, but that's the feeling I got from it. Overall, good answers, because they are standing their ground. That means that vindication will be sweet, or that the fall is going to hurt even more. Fun in the blogosphere either which way it goes. And science progresses, but that was never in doubt.

The Washington Post article also includes this bit of cluelessness:
He said that when people launch online attacks on the work done by him and biochemist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, he doesn't really know who is behind them. "I don't want to get involved in what can end up in a Jerry Springer situation, with people throwing chairs," he said.
Oremland is pretty senior, i.e., trained before the advent of the internet. So no wonder. However, practices change, and we must, too. I was trained to write job applications on paper and send it by mail, but (next to) no one does that anymore either. Deal. Also, yes, we do know who is behind much of the serious criticism. Rosie Redfield. George Cody. Steven Benner, surely. The internet is great for looking people up.

But either way they will respond, so all is well on that front.
Yet not only was Oremland on the panel Thursday because of the blogging, but the research team also put out a series of answers to questions frequently asked about their work, and promised to respond by next month to more than 20 letters and e-mails sent to the the magazine Science questioning their work. The team announced as well that it would make samples of the microbes available to other scientists for their research.


  1. All of these technical details are way beyond me, although I feel I have followed enough of the criticism to be pretty confident that the team only showed that the bacteria might be using As in non-trivial quantities.

    The thing that bugs me about the team here is their failure to "live by the sword, die by the sword." If you are going to hype the hell out of your research paper in the mainstream press, you're going to have to deal with haters -- regardless of whether they have a point or not. If they had quietly published it in a technical journal, and then the blogosphere jumped on them, I'd feel some sympathy. But as it is... you know, live with it. "Boo hoo, our research is getting too much publicity." Cry me a river.

    (Incidentally, I am led to understand that some of the first researchers to publish hypotheses about whether the laws of physics allow time travel intentionally tried to bury their work where the mainstream press wouldn't freak out about it, because it was so obvious that it would be distorted. "Here's this thought experiment that (while completely impossible from any practical perspective) seems to obey the laws of physics, and yet it creates a time travel paradox -- does this work?" becomes "Mad scientist invents time machine!!11!1"

  2. Agree about the boo hoo part.

    For the record, I am also not capable of evaluating the technical arts of their answers and techniques.


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