I’ve been strangely fascinated by the “arsenic-eating” and maybe “arsenic-utilizing’ bacteria report from NASA researchers and the so-called “backlash” (“arsenic-gate”) in the blogosphere. Many others have posted on this topic. What I’ve found most interesting is that there seem to be several parallel and barely intersecting universes: 1) the scientific literature, 2) the traditional media, and 3) the blogosphere.
Universe 1: Wolfe-Simon has published for several years about the potential for unique
arsenic metabolism (among other topics), and this is the next paper in her series of studies speculating on such a parallel type of living chemistry. Her hypothesis seems hard to believe. Few people at first believed that bacteria could live above 100 degrees Celsius, or at high pressure, or at low pH, etc. She may be wrong, she may be right. She says that only time and continued studies in the scientific literature can prove her right or wrong – this much is true.
Universe 2: Numerous “major media outlets” picked up NASA’s deliberately mysterious and inflated press release on the paper, exaggerated it somewhat into a “new form of life” or a “rewriting of the rules of life” and ran with that. I.e. a very small number of sources (mostly press releases and a press conference), perhaps not fully understood by the major media outlets, were carried wholesale into widespread distribution – the mainstream media were almost universally excited about the “new find”.
Universe 3: Numerous blogs picked up and ran with Rosie Redfield’s long and somewhat disjointed critique of Wolfe’s article (and somewhat on Alex Bradley’s similar blog post), which attacked several specific points in the paper (but ignored much of the data in the paper, especially the mass spec data and the X-ray spectroscopic data). I.e. a very small number of sources (a couple of blog posts), perhaps not fully understood by the secondary blogs, were carried wholesale into widespread distribution – the blogosphere was almost universally dismissive of the “new find”.
Several other aspects of the whole story have been tremendously fascinating to me:
The raw emotion expressed in the blogosphere – complete with raging unfounded accusations, personal attack language, sometimes hilarious and often incomplete and partially erroneous (including Redfield’s) attempts at describing what one lab or another believes is adequate DNA purification (which, indeed varies widely from lab to lab, and between commercial kits), and, of course, the typical highly informal discourse of the blogosphere, including some use of the standard unprofessional jargon of the blogosphere (where I’ve seen bloggers refer to well known scientists and even to each other as “pig fuckers” or “shit eating whack-jobs” – and then some of these same bloggers complain about not being taken seriously). Sadly, this “rudification” of communication on the internet is a strong barrier to acceptance of the blogosphere as real “peer review” by many scientists.
Interestingly, Carl Zimmer’s
postSlate article was also one of the few cores of the blogosphere explosion of revulsion, but rather than being a direct critique by another researcher, it was mainly quotes from a few scientists saying the result was hard to believe — and bizarrely it was in an almost exact opposite counterpoint to the original NYTimes article that contained a similar number of quotes from a few scientists saying how interesting and exciting the paper was. These two articles/blogs alone seem to typify the polarized positive versus negative response from the two media universes.
Among non-blog reading scientists that I have talked to, the interest in Wolfe-Simon’s paper seem to range from “very interesting” to “wow, this is neat”. Clearly, I only talk to a very small subset of all scientists, but the ones I have talked to are universally more interested and upbeat about the paper than the blogosphere. When asked if they think it is true, the general response can be summarized as: “We’ll find out eventually.”
It is really fascinating to me that these three universes are operating in almost complete isolation from one another. There certainly have been a few attempts to bridge between the distinct subcultures (one of the most visible being Nature’s recent editorial urging scientists to pay more attention to bloggers and urging bloggers to be more professional –interestingly most the blogs pick up and run with the first point and I haven’t seen many blog comments on the second point), and now Science’s interview with Wolfe-Simon. There have also been a couple of mainstream media reports about the flurry of blog criticism of the paper. For the most part, however, the three universes seem to be streaming along independently of each other.
The blogosphere has largely touted this incident as a victory of the new media in ousting a bad paper. From what I can see from the dozens and dozens of posts I’ve read (including good ones like Ed Yong’s) – so far this is mostly kind of an embarrassing rant on the blogosphere, where almost everything tracks back to 2-3 serious and interesting, but scientifically incomplete blog posts. For an explosion of blogospheric traffic to call the paper “crap” seems a bit over-reactive. Wolfe-Simon’s interesting paper will eventually be either confirmed or refuted by other researchers, but the blogosphere has already resoundingly dismissed it based on a few incomplete criticisms. Sadly, this just doesn’t sound like good science review or good logic on the part of the blogosphere, it quite frankly reads more like mob mentality than peer review. I’m afraid that it doesn’t seem to give a very positive picture of the potential of the blogosphere to the mainstream scientific community. It’s definitely interesting to read, however.
The dynamic between traditional media and the blogosphere has, of course, been evolving for some time now (and the cross-over between those two universes is certainly more prevalent in this story too). But the “relationship” between the science-blogosphere and science itself is in its infancy. Besides the “insults and casual discourtesy” problems of the blogosphere (quote from Nature’s editorial), another difficulty that this particular story emphasizes is the vast difference in timeframes for the two – the blogosphere wants replies and answers now! One very highly respected and very conscientious science blogger laments that it may take “months” to find out if Wolfe-Simon’s studies are correct. I literally laughed out loud at this. I understand the frustration in a “new media” where the blog-half-life of a monstrous story might be two-weeks (and the blog-half-life of the average story is about 2 days), but in reality, if we know if Wolfe-Simon’s hypothesis is correct or not within the next couple of years, it will be a high-speed triumph of experimental science – and the very real question arises of how many current science-bloggers will still be blogging, and will re-visit the issue, when the issue is actually definitively empirically resolved in the scientific literature? Figuring out how to meld these two universes (science-blogging and science) is a critical contemporary question in science communication – and figuring out how to bridge this orders of magnitude difference in timescales will have to be part of the solution.