World's Fair

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Carl Zimmer
    December 21, 2010

    Vince–Just a point of clarification. The piece you link to that I wrote appeared in Slate. Slate is not a blog. Nor did I write the story as a blog post, full of revulsion. I simply reported the story as a journalist, synthesizing interviews with a dozen prominent experts who had looked over the paper with great care.

  2. #2 frog
    December 21, 2010

    My take: is a blog posting the equivalent of a published paper, or is it the equivalent of a journal club comment?

    If the former, a blog posting has to be held up to the standards of a published paper — I think that’s untenable.

    If it’s a journal club comment — well, the standards of journal club commentary is partly driven by it’s privacy. The paper’s authors aren’t expected to respond (!!!) and you feel free to verbally “think out” your response, since you won’t be held responsible for your comment either (at least as long as it’s not totally imbecilic).

    So clearly, neither standard is reasonable for a blog posting. It shouldn’t have to reach the level of paper decorum, but on the other hand you shouldn’t say the same shit, in the same tone, as you would in a journal club (which has been the justification of a number of bloggers — that they’re just as mean in journal club).

    Which means the terms of engagement haven’t been quite worked out — some bloggers may need to calm the fuck down, and authors may need to be willing to get a bit more involved. But it’s new media, still disputed territory, and anyone who feels that their position is inviolable is a “pigfucker”. There’s some compromise necessary and negotiation.

  3. #3 Vince LiCata
    December 21, 2010

    Hi Carl, Sorry, yes I know that your’s is definitely one of the higher quality analysis sites (sorry, it’s difficult even on NYTimes to sometimes tell what is a blog, an online version of a print story, or an online only story…my apologies) — but the fact that you reached into the hat and drew a lot of critical scientists (as opposed to Overbye’s earlier piece where he somehow drew all positive scientists out of the hat) did fuel the fire quite a bit. In trying to find the core sources of all the blogospheric screaming, it seemed like everything kept referencing back to Rosie Redfield, Alex Bradley, and you — and then escalated into screeds and insults and wholesale revulsion of the paper from there. Ed Yong was also a central source (and I also rank him as highly reliable, like you, but I didn’t list him as a core since it seemed he was mostly summarizing other reactions in the blogosphere rather than adding new material like you, Redfield, and Bradley had). Although both your and Bradley’s posts/articles are definitely strongly critical, I would not characterize them as “full of revulsion” but I think that they did engender quite a bit of online revulsion for the paper quite quickly in the blogosphere — long winded attempt at explanation, sorry.

  4. #4 Curt F.
    December 21, 2010

    It is really fascinating to me that these three universes are operating in almost complete isolation from one another.

    I do not think the “three universes” are very isolated at all. Do you think there would have been a blogosphere backlash if NASA had decided *not* to hold any press conferences on the paper?

    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)

    Could you please articulate what makes the critiques “disjointed” in your view? You seem to be bending over backwards to cast doubt on the quality of the critiques without actually addressing the substance of any particular critique.

    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.

    First, you should read Derek Lowe’s post if you haven’t already. Second, what do you mean by “scentifically incomplete”? How do we determine if a given blog post (or article in Science for that matter) is scientifically incomplete?

  5. #5 Vince LiCata
    December 21, 2010

    Hi Curt F.

    The three universes don’t seem to be influencing each other much at all – that’s what I mean — NASA researchers are still giving positive press conferences, the mainstream media has noticed the activity on the web, but has not given it much press, and the blogosphere has mostly dismissed the study entirely = three parallel streams without much effect on each other.

    Redfield’s and others’ “disjointed” and “scientifically incomplete” critiques = almost all specific criticism of the actual data has been focused on purity of the DNA, with much of the other data in the paper being ignored, that’s what I mean by “incomplete”. Also, like much blog writing, much of the criticism is quickly written and sounds quite disjointed and sometimes borderline incoherent relative to most scientific papers — with the result that many irrelevant facts are being used to “bash” the paper (for one example, the fact that Mono Lake has high phosphate concentrations — this oft repeated fact has been used on several blogs to “totally discredit” the study — but the study force-evolved the bacteria to grow in arsenic — the phosphate concentrations in Mono Lake are an interesting fact, but it is not a make-or-break criticism of whether the force-evolved bacteria are using arsenic or not). Much of the other criticism in the blogosphere has been about what the authors “should have done” — which is a good guide for helping them decide what to do next, but doesn’t mean that what they did do was necessarily “flim-flam”. Put 10 different scientists in a boat in Mono Lake and you’d get 10 different studies, with everyone saying the 9 other scientists should have done it their way. This doesn’t make any of the 10 studies “crap”, except, apparently, if some of the 10 scientists have blogs and are willing to use them for “insults and casual discourtesy”.

  6. #6 bioephemera
    December 21, 2010

    Interesting take on the whole thing. But there’s a little more going on here that you need to incorporate into your model for it to capture the way the “universes” interact.

    First, the universes aren’t distinct. Many of us live/write/interact in more than one of them. (As Carl points out, at the margins, blogosphere and online mainstream media are really tightly interlaced.) Speaking just for myself, my reaction to the paper *as a piece of scientific literature* was “huh, that’s interesting, can’t wait to see if it pans out.” I wasn’t angered by the paper; maybe the techniques left a bit to be desired, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been published. That’s what replication is for. My reaction as a science communicator, though, was “WTF!?”

    IMHO, the blogosphere backlash wasn’t a reaction to the research, but rather to the press hype that NASA and Science generated. We bloggers are extremely sensitive to misrepresentation and overstatement of scientific results, because many of us have science communication as a main interest/activity. So when the PR machine catapulted this paper into the mainstream media, we started evaluating it as a science communication event, not a research paper. And as a science communication event, it was dreadful. The runup misled the public, Science refused to break embargo even when speculation went way of the rails, all the stuff Carl and Ed have noted. At that point, the only thing that would mollify the blogosphere would be if it were a truly revolutionary paper. And it just wasn’t – which is why the quality of the paper became an issue at all. We tend to set a higher bar for what qualifies as a science media event telling the general public something big has happened, than for an incremental advance.

    Many of us think that, at the very least, when you make your research into a media event, you incur certain responsibilities to the general public and the science community: you become a temporary ambassador for science. That’s why the authors’ refusal to engage in informal discourse about the paper added insult to injury: when you leverage the mainstream media and blogosphere to generate publicity, it’s bad form to basically turn around and imply those forms of discourse are beneath you. I don’t know to what extent the authors were roped into all this by grantors/publishers, but regardless, they put themselves out there and didn’t follow through.

    Finally, while I agree that the level of personal vitriol in the blogosphere was disturbing, that’s not peculiar to this incident. At this point in time, the science blogosphere is a generally vitriolic medium/culture/whatever, just as mainstream media remains a little blander and more formal. So I wouldn’t read too much into that. Just my 2 cents.

  7. #7 Kevin R
    December 21, 2010

    the same ‘separate universes’ idea is perhaps even more pronounced in politics, where liberals and conservatives each inhabit their own echo chamber, and those few ideas that get picked up from the alternate universe exist solely as a source of derision and scorn.

    The time scale issue is equally at play. Running an effective government requires long term planning. Economy policies, energy policies, education policies, military strategies and R& D efforts play out in a timescale of years or even decades while modern politics plays out more like a competitive sport than a foundation for good
    government.

    and the same basic problem applies

    Figuring out how to meld these two universes is a critical contemporary question —and figuring out how to bridge this orders of magnitude difference in timescales will have to be part of the solution.

  8. #8 office 2010 key
    December 21, 2010

    Economy policies, energy policies, education policies, military strategies and R& D efforts play out in a timescale of years or even decades while modern politics plays out more like a competitive sport than a foundation for good
    government.

  9. #9 Rosie Redfield
    December 21, 2010

    @Vince: I evaluated all of the paper for which I had the appropriate expertise. Alex Bradley seems to have been the only other blogger to do this, at least in the first few days. That’s why the other posts and articles link to us.

    @Vince and others: Please bear in mind that (as now noted on it), my original post was written mainly to clarify my own thinking, with an expected readership of somewhere between zero and five.

    @bioephemera: I was motivated to closely examine the paper because of its associated publicity, but I evaluated it by normal scientific criteria, not as a science communication event. I and most other scientists who’ve read it carefully found it unacceptable.

  10. #10 SocraticGadfly
    December 21, 2010

    Your subset of scientists must be small indeed. Beyond Rosie, who’s posted here, on the day of the announcement, your fellow Sciblogger PZ said that arsenic “organic” compounds weren’t new in general, while at the same time, this one was iffy.

    Since then, it’s also been pointed out by many people that hydrolysis is an issue, AND it turns out that Wolfe-Simon’s answer to that part of the critique has been …

    Hand-waving, basically, claiming that the hydrolysis rates in arsenate DNA would be much lower than in smaller-sized compounds, which ain’t necessarily true.

    The real problem is the hand-waving; she apparently hasn’t actually tested that, it seems, or hadn’t beforehand??

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

    As Office2010 @8 points out, there’s modern politics involved. The fact this was announced at the same time as SpaceX’s successful orbital flight? Not saying NASA *did* do a PR fluff job, but it did have motive.

  11. #11 wholesale electronics
    December 21, 2010

    The runup misled the public, Science refused to break embargo even when speculation went way of the rails, all the stuff Carl and Ed have noted. At that point, the only thing that would mollify the blogosphere would be if it were a truly revolutionary paper.

  12. #12 lhm
    December 21, 2010

    The only real question is whether this paper has any substance to it at all. That is, does this bacterium incorporate arsenic into its DNA? Or is there any reason to believe that it does? It seems that the roots of this idea lie merely in the schematic realm, like the “Silicon based life form” of Star Trek. I note the blog of Bill Gleason cited a SCIENCE review paper of Frank Westheimer from 1987 which dismissed arsenate as “entirely unsuitable” as a substitute for phosphate in cell biology. ( I dug up the paper and its a very interesting tutorial. ) I also found a number of abstracts of papers in the last seven years on the subject of arsenic resistant bacteria. These mostly are surveys of the various types, which are quite common, and one very interesting one by C. Jackson et al. works out the cladistics of the genes responsible for this capability. It seems to me there is a gap in the “universe of papers” between this sort of work and the huge conceptual leap being made by Wolfe-Simon. It also seems to me that this is a leap into space, as it were. What are the genes for this? Can we even imagine it?

  13. #13 Collin
    December 22, 2010

    So if I understand the gist of the study…Certain bacteria (or archaea?) can operate in arsenic rich environments and substitute arsenic for phosphorus (most of the time). Albiet, they operate less efficiently than when they use phosphorus.

    The problem was that MSM (mainstream media) tried to make this story into something it wasn’t… proof that life could operate without phosphorus… as well indirect vague evidence for aliens?)

    The MSM (print/television journalism) tried stretched what was being said for sensationalistic purposes, and ideological purposes. The blogsphere, being ideologically diverse and critical of all claims controversial responded.

    The responses by knowledgeable people regarding the study helps inspire new science (how much can phosphorus be substituted by arsenic? what systems? why? is a particular blog criticism valid? how could said blog criticism be addressed in a follow up study?).

    Sorry folks, but the blogsphere helps catalyze the progress and process of science…because true science involves criticism, testing of hypothesis, inquiry and thorough understanding.

  14. #14 Grant
    December 22, 2010

    My thoughts are very similar to bioephemera’s. Just to add to her thoughts, and the remark that these “different universes” interact at the margins, I tried to point out (not terribly well!) on my blog that discussion of controversial papers on-line has been going on for a good 20-odd years, i.e. that’s not what’s new, but what might be new(ish) is the media picking up on this on-line material. I wrote this because it seemed to me that many of the MSM articles where inspired by material that originated on blogs. Just my 2c to add to bioephemera’s. (Hey, you’ve got 4c now!)

  15. #15 wudwan
    December 22, 2010

    The blogosphere is a great medium for sharing ideas and thoughts.

  16. #16 Zachary Knight
    December 22, 2010

    Can you provide links to any examples in which bloggers have personally attacked the arsenic-life authors in a way that you think is inappropriate.

    I have seen harsh criticism of the science, but nothing close to people being called “pig fuckers” or “shit eating whack-jobs” in the blogs that I read.

  17. #17 Ender
    December 22, 2010

    “The blogosphere is a great medium for sharing ideas and thoughts.”

    Yes, mainly the thought that the person you are arguing with is a moron, morally reprehensible, a wingnut, a libtard, a creotard, a Godbot, misogynist, feminazi, privileged scum, whining victim-complex, racist, reverse-racist, and most of all, dumb. Stupid, idiotic, retarded, cretinous, brainless, thick dumbasses.

    All of which is totally reasonable because it’s obvious that those who disagree with you are evil*, and the only possible way they could have come to the wrong conclusion is that their native intelligence is flawed. Everyone has the same life experiences, so that’s the only possible explanation.

    *It’s odd that everyone on every side of every issue is evil, but I don’t make the rules, I just report the implication of the most popular rhetoric on the net.

  18. #18 anonymous
    December 22, 2010

    The blogosphere and mainstream media have totally different interests(atleast majority of them). So there seems to be no doubt that they are actually isolated. Media ignores the blogosphere all the time (cherry picking).
    Secondly, bioephemera is absolutely right about the authors not responding after initial publicity(most probably political reasons). But again, this might not have anything to do with the research itself being wrong.
    It would have been so much better if NASA would have just cleared all the misinterpretations that media is making out of this. I guess, its been a long time since Moon Landing !

  19. #19 Paul
    December 22, 2010

    If you’re interested in the blogosphere’s reaction to scientific work, another great case study is Deolalikar’s recent proof attempt that P!=NP (Computer Science). An outsider to traditional academia circulated a proof of arguably the biggest outstanding CS problem to a number of theory professors. Some of them found the technique novel and promising, and leaked the paper. It got moderately far into mainstream press (at least the technical subset), and really split the CS theory blogging community. Some were very dismissive, going as far as to call Deolalikar a fraud, some were very enthusiastic (or enthusiastic about the attention the field was getting), a small subset (including a Fields medalist Terence Tao) worked collaboratively to verify the proof and in the end the consensus was that while it had some interesting ideas, there were fatal flaws that made it highly unlikely the technique could work.

    Same basic evolution: finding short circuits traditional scientific review process, going mainstream quickly. A small subset provides technical analysis, which the rest of the blogosphere use to debate and discuss the idea. Some people get angry, discussion polarizes, eventually technical scrutiny on the topic shows the idea was correct/incorrect.

    The dynamics do seem to be a small number of people providing arguments about the topic, which then serves as fodder for debate across the internet. The quality of the for/con arguments advanced by influential blogs is probably the most important factor for how the discussion evolves: if one side is particularly persuasive, the blogosphere more or less collapses into a consensus state. Then it moves on. When new evidence comes to light, I suspect the current debate will provide some citations detractors will quickly point to, but the process will basically repeat itself.

  20. #20 Michael
    December 22, 2010

    Hi Vince,
    I am afraid that you completely missed the point. Yes, Wolfe-Simon may be wrong, she may be right. However, this does not justify publishing a gel (their Fig.2A) without an appropriate description of what is on that gel. This does not justify publishing a spectrum (their Fig.3A) without an adequate explanation and adequate controls. And it most definitely does not justify showing side-by-side two images with a 25-fold difference in scale for As and P (Fig.3B).

    Yes, blogs can be excessively harsh, and not all bloggers understand how much As atoms would distort the DNA structure. However, Wolfe-Simon et al. do not seem to understand it either (Paul Davies, one of the authors, actually brags about it in his Dec. 4th article on WSJ online: “I had the advantage of being unencumbered by knowledge. I dropped chemistry at the age of 16, and all I knew about arsenic came from Agatha Christie novels.”). IMHO it was this feeling – that the authors just do not respect their audience – that motivated much of anger in the blogs. It did not help that Wolfe-Simon et al. proved unable to respond to the fully justified criticism of their paper (after refusing to do so, they posted some unconvincing responses that generate even more questions). The authors asked for the responses through proper scientific channels. Now there is at least one at the Faculty of 1000, a “post-publication peer review” web site, http://f1000.com/6854956?key=y11r1klww5vkfxh#eval7379055

    Most remarkably, instead of praising Rosie Redfield for the terrific job she did in dissecting this paper and restoring some sanity in the community, you – and others – concentrated on the largely irrelevant personal moments of the story. If that’s all you are interested in, read the Davies’ article “The ‘Give Me a Job’ Microbe” in WSJ online and contemplate if it was really worth for ‘a young researcher’ to ‘risk it all to chase an arsenic-guzzling bug’ and generate that much (bad) publicity. I do not think this is really the best way to get a job.

  21. #21 Binjabreel
    December 22, 2010

    Ender, you’re an idiot. :D

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. But in America we have a stupid fucking obsession with making sure nobody’s feefees get hurt by hard cold facts. My favorite example: how we all just pretend that all Segregationists magically disappeared in 1964, instead of still populating most of South Carolina.

    If there’s one thing I’ll never lament, it’s the fact that people speak frankly on the Internet.

  22. #22 Curt F.
    December 23, 2010

    If there’s one thing I’ll never lament, it’s the fact that people speak frankly on the Internet.

    Says anonymous commenter “Binjabreel”.

  23. #23 Vince LiCata
    December 23, 2010

    @Rosie: Hi, glad to “meet” you. Here’s what it has looked like to me: yes you raised some really good points about controls in the DNA purification, and in running the gel, and definitely about trace element contamination, but also, as you fully note, were not able to evaluate the mass spec or X-ray analysis (e.g. the XAFS data suggesting that the As is in a similar environment to the phosphate position in the DNA backbone is really quite compelling). Then the blogosphere went nuts claiming that you had effectively destroyed the paper, that it shouldn’t have been published (you and Zimmer, and then everyone else), and so on — an extreme amplification effect from what appears to me to be some quite straightforwardly addressable “reviewer technical concerns”. When Wolfe-Simon didn’t respond within the 24 hours required by the blogosphere (and then responded by saying she wouldn’t respond), the situation escalated even more. But it did seem that you were consciously leading the mob to some extent — your multi-footnoted responses to Wolfe-Simon’s answers to your criticisms is another example – I’m not saying they are wrong in any way – I am saying that 1) they only deal with a subset of the data in the paper (about one third or so by my estimate) and 2) they are issues that do not have concrete answers – e.g. using phenol/chloroform extractions vs. purification kits for DNA, or how many extractions to do – this can be debated ad nauseam, there is no absolute answer. Regardless of which answer is eventually shown to be correct, the fact is that your “internet rhetoric” is far superior to that of Wolfe-Simon (and I mean “rhetoric” here in the positive sense – i.e. knowing how to present an argument to maximum effect for the audience you are addressing), and so the “group decision” on the blogosphere has subsequently been “the paper is crap” (it was like you were throwing little pieces of raw bacon into an army of badgers, including some well respected bloggers who turned badger). Here’s another version of what it looked like to me: Wolfe-Simon did some interesting experiments that were difficult to interpret, came up with a far fetched but very interesting and relatively (but not totally) consistent hypothesis and then it all got carried away far out of proportion by the NASA PR and mainstream media hype machine and she just rode with it. Redfield made some valid criticisms of some of the methodology in the study which were serious but not totally devastating for the study, and then it all got carried away far out of proportion by the blogosphere hype machine and she just rode with it. The thing is, I can understand both events – being carried along by an insane mob has got to be quite exciting and exhilarating – you really just want to keep throwing them more bits of raw bacon, even though you know it’s not a balanced meal (and if you throw them some peas and broccoli, they’ll probably just get bored and dissipate).

    @Michael: thanks for the Faculty of 1000 and the bizarre Davies quotes – both quite interesting. Also in your post, sorry, it seems to me is a perfect example of one aspect of this mob mentality I’m talking about: saying that the figure legends in the paper were difficult to read (they always are in Science because of the forced space constraints), and that the authors didn’t make the figures the way you would have is just not a critical issue. Surely it’s a real and valid criticism, sure it could/should have been done better. But almost all of the criticism of the paper in the blogosphere has devolved to this type of criticism: “The authors didn’t say what volume of chloroform they used in extractions – therefore the paper is “crap”, the researchers are “incompetent”, and the paper should never have been published”. That’s the problem, that’s not peer review, it’s not a balanced logical syllogism, and that’s what the blogosphere is mostly doing – it just doesn’t seem to me like the science-blogosphere’s finest hour.

  24. #24 Jack Aidley
    December 24, 2010

    This part of your piece interested me:

    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.”

    Well, surely this is simply a reflection of lack of knowledge? You’d expect this, wouldn’t you? The blog readers have the benefit of the expertise of Rosie, Alex and others whereas the non-blog readers have a much more limited range of informed opinion to go on.

    Though there is a problem here: assessing the credibility of the criticisms. I don’t know anything about the techniques described, except a bit about PCR, so when I read Rosie and Alex’s criticisms I’m simply relying on an impression of competence to believe what they’re saying. Now, in a peer reviewed piece, confidence in the basics is supposed to be provided by the reviewers who should, in principle, be experts in the field but on the blogs what fills that role?

    I get the impression that criticism from multiple sources should do so, and that the picking up of the criticism from Rosie and Alex by multiple blogs represents not mob-mentality but the selection of high quality criticism from the general noise of the internet. And blogs, of course, establish their own reputations – that particular bloggers picked them up carries more weight.

    However, some high profile bloggers seem to me to have dropped the ball on this. PZ Myers first piece that dismissed the significance of the finding if true struck me as deeply naive about the biology of this at the molecular level.

  25. #25 Vince LiCata
    December 24, 2010

    @Jack Aidley — I agree with your second point about “assessing the credibility of the criticisms” — that is a key problem on the blogosphere, and one that will take a while to solve. The first point is more of a mixed bag, however — yes many blog readers will have little expertise and so will have to rely on the few blog posters that have some expertise — but one of the points is that the few “expert” bloggers are a minority group — for example, we have numerous excellent microbiologists in our department, many of whom work on extremophiles, we also have several faculty that I interact with in chemistry who work with XANES and XAFS techniques — also about 5 faculty in our department have been funded by NASA for astrobiology research — so my “non-blog reading…small subset of all scientists” actually have far more combined expertise than Redfield and Bradley — they are just not very involved in the blogosphere (if at all) — and that was one of my main “separate universes” points.

  26. #26 supratall
    December 27, 2010

    However, some high profile bloggers seem to me to have dropped the ball on this. PZ Myers first piece that dismissed the significance of the finding if true struck me as deeply naive about the biology of this at the molecular level.

  27. #27 Hugo Bohorquez
    December 29, 2010

    I find this blog an oversimplified view of a much more interesting subject. It is clear that the author did not saw (or understood) the HUGE claims made by Dr. Wolfe-Simon in her press conference, such as: “the textbooks have to be rewritten” (because the substitution of P by As in DNA) and “the bacteria thrives on arsenic”, neither of which is supported by the facts reported in the Science paper. Not to mention that even if these claims are true (which is very unlikely, considering the known laws of biochemistry), the bacteria is not a new form of life, but more likely another extremophile. So no implications of alien life there either.

  28. #28 Frank Lipsky
    December 31, 2010

    In the blogosphere how does one separate noise from signals
    or the good genes from the bad genes ;since they are instantly contaminated by the medium and the people using medium
    No reputable scientist should particpate in blogs
    “Don’t cast pearl to the swine!”

  29. #29 Rosie Redfield
    January 1, 2011

    @Vince #23: (didn’t see this until today)

    The fact that FWS and I disagree about technical issues doesn’t mean that these “can be debated ad nauseam, there is no absolute answer”. Any molecular biology lab manual will support my criticisms of the phenol extraction, ethanol precipitation, and gel purification.

    These ‘reviewer technical concerns’ are not minor points. They’re deep flaws that normally would cause a paper to be rejected.

    The blogosphere didn’t ‘go nuts’. Knowledgable scientists agreed that the criticisms I had raised invalidated the paper’s conclusions, and other bloggers reported that.

    My post critiquing FWS’s initial response only addresses the points she raised in her Q&A because that’s precisely what its aim was (read the first sentence).

  30. #30 Adam
    January 3, 2011

    The difference between peer reviewed science and blogosphere is that the latter by definition expresses mostly feelings while the former has to meet strict factual review criteria. It is like comparing science and religion so I would not expect that these two universes could ever converge.

  31. #31 Vince LiCata
    January 5, 2011

    @Rosie (#29) – These are sort of re-iterations of some of the same points again, but, there certainly are many variations of DNA purification procedures in the literature, in lab manuals, and commercially available – each having its own debatable pros and cons in any purification situation (e.g. relative loss of DNA, removal of salt, removal of protein, etc.) – as does the Redfield lab procedure. These really are technical concerns (real ones) with (only) one part of the study, blown up (on much of the blogosphere) into the wooden stake (“deep flaws”) through the heart of the arsenic vampire. Peer review certainly has its own problems, but this whole situation has not seemed to be a very good example of balanced peer review in action.

  32. #32 Marion Delgado
    January 7, 2011

    The other part of this is the “shadow biosphere,” no?

  33. #33 Marion Delgado
    January 7, 2011

    Also, on balance, this seems to me a lot like the normal give-and-take that is, in fact, the science process. It’s a relief to not have to wade through hidden agendas like when discussing vaccines, climate, evolution, etc.

  34. #34 capsiplex
    January 9, 2011

    The blogosphere didn’t ‘go nuts’. Knowledgable scientists agreed that the criticisms I had raised invalidated the paper’s conclusions, and other bloggers reported that.

  35. #35 DNA
    September 26, 2011

    It’s a constant worry of mine concerning the lack of balance that the blogosphere brings to scientific discussion. While it’s fantastic for the dissemination and ease of access that it creates, we have no peer review (even though at times peer review has it’s flaws). Any doofus with a internet connection can spout off utter nonsense without any checks and balances to keep the scientific discourse on an even keel. Thanks for providing legitimate scientific input and analysis.

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