Scientists including the news media in the process of discovery is a volatile affair, as we have all witnessed recently. My fellow bloggers on ScienceBlogs, We Beasties, discussed the role of bloggers and scientists in the process of the NASA scientists announcing their discovery of “arsenic-based life forms”.

Generally speaking, as a scientist I have always been bothered by the idea of a press release to announce a scientific discovery before I had an opportunity to carefully review the study myself. Typically, a friend or neighbor would say “Hey, did you hear about the discovery of …” and I would not be aware, because the paper had not yet been published. How incredibly frustrating! You mean the public has an opportunity to learn about the discovery before the scientists’ colleagues??

Regardless, this is the path that was taken with the announcement of the supposed arsenic-based lifeforms. In the aftermath of the firestorm in the blogosphere and elsewhere, in today’s American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco,
an interview with these scientists addressed some questions from the press and the public, despite the fact that earlier they had been insistent that the process of self-correcting science would take place exclusively within the realm of peer-reviewed science – something I understand completely.

Below is an excerpt of the interview today:

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

Answer: For all of us, our entire team, what this was like was unimaginable. We are a group of scientists that came together to tackle a really interesting problem. We each used our talents, from technical prowess to intellectual discussion, to objectively determine what exactly was happening in our experiments. We freely admitted in the paper and in the press that there was much, much more work to do by us and a whole host of other scientists. The press conference even included a technical expert, Dr. Steven Benner, who voiced some of the concerns we responded to above. Part of our reason for bringing this work to the community was to make the intellectual and technical connections for more collaborations to answer many of the lingering questions. We were transparent with our data and showed every datum and interesting result. Our paper’s conclusions are based on what we felt was the most parsimonious way to interpret a series of experiments where no single experiment would be able to answer the big question. “Could a microbe use arsenic in place of phosphorus to sustain its growth?” The best science opens up new questions for us as a community and sparks the interest and imagination of the general public. As communicators and representative of science, we feel that support of new ideas with data is critical but also to generate new ideas for others to think about and bring their talents to bear on.

We look forward to working with other scientists, either directly or by making the cells freely available and providing DNA samples to appropriate experts for their analyses, in an effort to provide more insight into this intriguing finding.

I look forward to it, too. Yes, the best science does raise new questions, and here there are plenty.

This affair may well become a case study not only for students studying journalism but for science students as example of the communication gap between scientists and the news media.

Comments

  1. #1 SocraticGadfly
    December 17, 2010

    Ahhh, I don’t think it’s nearly as much a case study for either of those as it is a case study for how NOT to do public relations. (And now to not be such a sucker for bad PR, too.)

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2010/12/bad-or-at-least-breathless-science-by.html

  2. #2 Eric Berger
    December 17, 2010

    There are two separate issues here: whether the paper was whomped up from a public relations standpoint, and whether it was whomped up from a scentific standpoint.

    In regards to public relations, the scientists and the journal Science are not so much at fault here as NASA, which issued a press release to the world saying there was a major astrobiological finding coming. In today’s media world where news spreads at lightspeed, and in the absence of hard facts is invariably whomped up to garner attention, NASA should have seen the rampant speculation coming. While the finding was unquestionably interesting, an arsenic-consuming microbe created on Earth is not exactly close to proof of life elsewhere. I confess that, upon scanning the embargoed list of articles that Science releases to reporters and searching for the “major astrobiological finding” I actually skipped over the arsenic paper initially. I hope NASA learns a lesson from this one.

    The separate issue is whether the scientists themselves oversold their research in the paper. Upon this I cannot judge. As a science writer I generally trust the judgment of the editors of major science journals, and if Science thought this was valid research it’s hard for me to disagree. The brouhaha in the scientific community is healthy, I think, because the results will now be validated are not.

    Eric

  3. #3 Jeff
    December 17, 2010

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Your perspective as a science writer is very important.

  4. #4 Jack Schultz
    December 17, 2010

    As scientists become aware of how difficult it is to engage the public in their work and the impact of that on support of their research, they start to dabble in public discourse. These explanatory news releases are part of that. In this case, the lead scientist also made a point of indicating a lack of females in science, and repeatedly asserted that this work was exceptional for a young scientist and should influence tenure. I was kind of embarrassed. Scientists are bad at this game. They don’t know how to be clear, accurate, and convincing without overstepping bounds. The temptation to secure publicity (not so much for fame and fortune as for broader recognition that can influence professional advancement) becomes greater than the need to avoid exaggeration.

    In this case there seem to be valid criticisms of the methods, and I’m not surprised. I teach lots of graduate “journal club” courses in which we dissect recent publications. I’d say that our classes would have rejected, or asked for major revisions on more than 90% of what we read. It is abundantly clear that reviewers and editors are not doing their jobs, probably because they are too busy. The review process at Science, Nature and PNAS is especially shoddy, requiring only two readers for a decision, which is made by editors who weigh interest as heavily as accuracy.

    My guess, from what I’ve read in blogs, is that there are significant flaws in the work and that the story as it was originally described to the public will turn out to be an exaggeration, or false.

  5. #5 Jeff
    December 17, 2010

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I share your embarrassment about how the public relations was handled by these scientists – it illustrates the challenge that we face as scientists in communicating our work in the public arena.

  6. #6 yogi-one
    December 18, 2010

    As a layman, when even I read it, I could sense holes in the narrative. The bacteria weren’t extraterrestrial. They could use the arsenic instead of the phosphorus, but doing so significantly reduced the overall health and robustness of the organisms. You could see if you read down the whole release that this was not, in fact, a game changer.

    It’s a hard lesson, and I do not doubt that the temptation of sitting on top of potentially headline-making science may be a tough nut to handle, especially for younger scientists who haven’t been exposed to the way media can push a seductive story way past it’s original boundaries.

    But it just underscores the point that it’s vital to any good science that the researcher put his stuff out on the firing range and let the scientific community have at it before announcing a “game-changer” FTW.

    It remains the best way to get good science accomplished, and in spite of the temptations, there never has been, and I don’t there there ever will be, any way to shortcut that process and still be able to guarantee results.

Current ye@r *