Many months ago, the fossil primate "Ida" was reported to the world with much fanfare, including an entire mass market book and a huge press conference, and everything else one can possibly do to announce a new fossil find. Science bloggers and others got rather upset at the Ida team's over the top fanfare, though few bloggers ever explained why it was a bad thing to make everyone on the planet notice an important new scientific find (and no one made the claim that Ida was not very important). One of the things the Ida team did was to use the term "missing link" in connection with that fossil, which was entirely inappropriate in that case. But the science blogosphere reacted to the use of this term so strongly that a dozen or so bloggers made strong arguments that the term "missing link" is NEVER correct (which is not true).
Recently, NASA affiliated scientists shocked the esoteric world of biochemistry with the finding that a bacterium could successfully replace arsenic with phosphorus in key molecules, such as DNA, and make that work. Although arsenic is often incorporated into bio tissues, no one has been able to point to a prior study that clearly demonstrates that this is possible. This is very interesting science with all sorts of implications, if it works out. There are important as yet unknown details and open questions. The ultimate importance of this research remains to be seen, like any new scientific research, but if it is demonstrated to be as stated, this is very cool, new, and interesting science.
In this case, NASA produced one small press release, the substantive parts of which are reproduced here:
WASHINGTON -- NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency's website at http://www.nasa.gov.
- Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
- Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
- Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
- Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
- James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe
That's it. Prior to this press conference, the blogsophere went moderately wild (I've seen more wild) discussing and predicting what the find might be, talking about aliens, extraterrestrial life, etc. etc. Then, when the finding was reported in a paper released at the same time as the press conference (which is normal) and discussed in the press conference, most bloggers wrote about how NASA had totally screwed the pooch, putting out a press release (the one above) that caused widespread craszsiness in teh blogosphere.
I don't agree. I think the widespread craziness was caused by the blogosphere itself, not by the press release above. I don't think NASA needed to say less, or more, in this press release, but rather, those doing the wild speculation needed to read the actual press release and stick to what it says. Some did, by the way ... several science bloggers pretty accurately predicted what the press conference was going to be about because they looked up who the participants were and did the math, as it were.
So, once again If find myself thinking one thing while the entire planet is thinking something different. I don't think NASA screwed up this press release. (To reiterate: I don't think NASA screwed up this press release. .. I did not mention the press conference or the research itself.) But many do.
So, I want to be edumucated. I want you to change my mind. Rather than stating that NASA did it wrong, prove it. In the comments below, reproduce a part of the press release, then cite a report in the blogosphere that came from this wording that was incorrect and over the top (about aliens or whatever) and show how a thoughtful rational expert or semi-expert in science or science writing can make the link that was made. Show us, in other words, how this press release caused some web site to say that NASA had found alien life, or whatever. Clearly distinguish between the press release being badly done in a way that caused the reaction vs. the blog or web site or press agency in question simply saying stupid crap because it was better press.
As a second exercise, and this would probably be more useful than the first (and the first exercise will not go well, I'm sure) try this: Simply rewrite the press release. This could be useful. I personally know people at NASA in public relations and elsewhere. I'll make sure that anybody who is anybody sees the best of the rewrites.
And, if someone else has bothered to rewrite the press release in the comments, feel free to critique that press release too! We might as well get this right!
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My only complaints about the press release were that it focused so heavily on 'astrobiology'. The discovery was entirely Earth based. As far as I'm aware, the bacteria is a normal archea, just with some adaptations to make arsenic more stable in its DNA.
I think that the major emphasis (including defining the word) on astrobiology was something of an 'over-the-top' bit. It gave the impression that the discovery was non-Earth based.
While I do think that this has implications for astrobiology, (again) as far as I know, we can't determine if an extra solar planet has little phosphorus and a great deal of arsenic. So as far as the 'search for life', I don't think that this really has the implications that some think it does... or even what the press release thinks it does.
OTOH, I do think that the press discussion was needed because I can see reporters who don't understand making a huge deal about this.
Personally, I found it interesting, but there are many, many more questions about the organism that I want to see answered. This is just an interesting discovery.
See? The economists were right all along. How often have we seen the tenet ridiculed on these blogs, that once the price of some commodity, such as P, becomes too expensive, a substitute will be found? Now we know that as rock phosphate deposits become depleted farmers will simply substitute As for P as a fertilizer. ATP will simply become ATAs and everything will be fine.
This may seem like a minor quibble, Kevin, but bacteria =/= archea. They are entirely separate domains of life. The distinction is important.
Otherwise, I agree with you. While the substitution of As for P is a significant detail of microbial metabolism, its implications for exobiology are only hypothetical and don't deserve much emphasis.
darwinsdog, what about exobiology is not hypothetical?
WASHINGTON -- NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss a terrestrial finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Is it overly simplistic that they could have just clarified that this was something relating to earth based life? I'm not saying it was NASAs fault but just that small clarification would surely have stopped all over excitement.
Richard D's press release said:
I don't know about that one. I'd have to add "native" in front of "terrestrial" to ensure people wouldn't start screaming about alien life on earth!
Nothing. Which is why I don't consider to be a science.
NASA felt the need to hype the finding because they feel that public excitement furthers their interests in receiving funding. They probably hire publicists who advised that announcing it as something related to Terran life was too prosaic to generate much excitement. NASA just didn't want to miss a publicity opportunity. Not expecting them to operate in this manner probably is "overly simplistic" in today's world.
I was just trying to think of a way that, should they have wanted to (which they probably didn't), they could have avoided the speculation.
Hah! It wouldn't surprise me.
The concept, I think, is 'plausible deniability'. As Richard D. rightly points out, NASA could easily have issued a more specific press release. Instead, they issued a preliminary press release (thus giving the mediasphere a chance to hype it up) and made that press release general enough that it could have been referring to the most exciting possibilities, eg, extraterrestrial life. NASA wanted to start a media frenzy and hype up their discovery, but, in order not to look like publicity hounds themselves, they let the predictable nature of the media and blogs do their work for them.
In other words: yes, Greg Laden is absolutely correct that the hype came from the blogosphere. That doesn't let NASA off the hook, though, since they deliberately inspired the hype.
"NASA felt the need..."
"NASA...deliberately inspired the hype"
Kudos to Richard D. The original press release does not say it is an outer space thing, and anyone who knows dick about astrobiology knows that a) it really is a science (sorry, but it is) and b) most of it is done with terrestrial systems. But, for a press release, saying "astrobiology" but not saying "but it's about something on earth" may well be an attempt at some of that plausible deniability.
Oh, and I can guarantee that NASA did not hire a marketing consultant. There are a number of things that happened in this process, including the press conference, that even a mediocre marketing consultant would not have allowed.
I agree with Richard D - it could easily have been clarified by announcing that the findings were from a terrestrial organism.
I thought the press release I saw on television was poorly done. There was a side bar with a couple of the station reporters. They clearly did not understand what was being said, and the station abandoned the press release before it was finished.
Once I converted to Cladism, I realized that my previous faith in missing links was mistaken.
Greg, like Kevin and Mad said. NASA did the framing here and NOT the "science blogging community." Let me ask you, since you took the same stance on your original post on this issue: Do you have some motive for not wanting to blame NASA for the hype? It's a serious question.
That said, I'm more skeptical than you and NASA about what this means evolutionarily in general: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2010/12/does-nasa-new-life-form-sign…
Do you have some motive for not wanting to blame NASA for the hype?
Yes I do.
SocraticGadfly, do you have some motive for wanting to blame NASA for the hype? More importantly, do you have any idea what you sound like asking your question?
According to the Science paper about 0.5% of the phosphates in DNA are arsenates under normal circumstances. When they put their bug under strong selection for arsenate they were gradually able to raise that percentage to 3% after many generations.
I can assure you that a discovery like that is not going in MY biochemistry textbook and it's not something that's even going to be remembered a year from now. Besides, it still needs to be independently confirmed.
Sounds like hype to me.
Larry, the paper does not say that, and if this:
"Our data show arsenic-dependent growth by GFAJ-1 (Fig.
1). Growth was accompanied by arsenate uptake and
assimilation into biomolecules including nucleic acids,
proteins and metabolites (Table 1 and 2, Figs. 2 and 3). In
some organisms, arsenic induces specific resistance genes to
cope with its toxicity (7); while some dissimilatory arsenic-
utilizing microbes can conserve energy for growth from the
oxidation of reduced arsenic species, or âbreathe" AsO43-, as a
terminal electron acceptor (18). Our study differs because we
used arsenic as a selective agent and excluded phosphorus, a
major requirement in all hitherto known organisms. However,
GFAJ-1 is not an obligate arsenophile and it grew
considerably better when provided with P (Fig. 1A, B).
Although AsO43- esters are predicted to be orders of
magnitude less stable than PO43- esters, at least for simple
molecules (8), GFAJ-1 can cope with this instability. The
vacuole-like regions observed in GFAJ-1 cells when growing
under +As/-P conditions are potentially poly-Î²-
hydroxybutyrate rich [as shown in other Halomonas species
(19)] which may stabilize As(V)-O-C type structures because
non-aqueous environments appear to promote slower
hydrolysis rates for related compounds (8). We propose that
intracellular regions or mechanisms that exclude water may
also promote this stability."
is confirmed and you leave it out of your textbook, your textbook sucks. Of course, it might not be confirmed, and it is not like you need write a chapter on it.
Greg explains very well the scenario of multiple origins of life with only one surviving, The most parsimonious scenario is a single origin of life surviving to the present. But parsimony and correct are not synonyms. The real question is whether origin of life is a common easy event, or a rare difficult event. Answer to this question affects our thinking about abundance of living things in the universe. I think we have only speculative answers at this time.
Larry, if you are correct that these bacteria are doing what bacteria were already known to do, then it certainly is hype. In fact, perhaps the paper shouldn't have been published.
"Besides, it still needs to be independently confirmed."
Well, you know, every new finding starts out unconfirmed. Then, when a replication is published that's ho-hum. Perhaps there's just no room for hype on your lawn!
Count me among those who think the use of the term "missing link" is always wrong. It's not because it's technically incorrect in any given instance. It's how that phrase is perceived by certain listeners, including probably the majority of the general public: as implying that the theory of evolution itself had a gap in it that had only just been filled, without which, it was reasonable to reject it until now -- and maybe it was still reasonable to do so. This is so far off the mark that it isn't funny, but every time the phrase "missing link" appears in the popular press, that idea is reinforced.
A corollary is the idea that there's only one gap -- the missing link, as indeed it's usually put -- so that every time a new "missing link" is announced, these same listeners wonder what happened to the last one, and do these scientists even know what they're talking about?
I'm not just speculating here -- I saw phrases such as "proof of evolution" widely used in the mainstream press in discussions of Ida. It was appalling.
Replace arsenic with phosphorus? I thought it was the other way around.
ppnl: it is
Nemo: IMHO we have to be really against the wall before changing the language or other aspects of communication becauase there are stupid people. Evolution is a theory. The word theory is always misinterpreted. Do you also think we need to give up that word because of teh stupid?
"Never give an order that can be understood; always give orders that cannot be misunderstood."
-General Douglas MacArthur
Brian, that may work for the army, though I don't have a lot of respected for MacArthur as a philosopher, but it is really not relevant to normal discourse.
We have had the argument before on this blog. It is a good idea to work towards making oneself understood. However, if a thousand people read a blog post and 800 get it, I'm very happy. It is not my responsibility (taking myself as an example here) to cater to the ignorant, especially the willfully ignorant, when I don't even cater to those who are not paying a reasonable degree of attention.
I hope that's clear. But if it isn't, whatever-whatever.
@Greg 15 ... would you care to tell what that motive is? And, I'm not the only person to suspect fiscal reasons as NASA's motive.
@Stephanie 16 ... Yes, I sound like a skeptic. Got a problem with that? Or, at the least, I sound like what a journalist is supposed to sound like - asking actual questions.
Greg, more argument against your support for this angle:
From a commenter at Pharyngula:
So, sorry, Greg, nice try but I think you're flogging a dead horse, or at least an overhyped one. NASA definitely is.
And, lest I offend Stephanie's delicate sensibilities, that will probably be my last post on the subject.
Besides, Larry is probably right in that this won't be remembered in a year from now, unless arsenic-incorporating bacteria get researched by Pons and Fleischmann.
I see the bacterial work as simply showing that some bugs can adapt to extreme conditions in this case very high arsenic concentrations - but arsenate respiring bacteria themselves have been known long before and are in the published literature. What seems to be new here is that the bacteria have been put in even more extreme conditions. I do not see at all what this has to do with exobiology unless someone is suggesting that some life forms may have evolved on another planet and due to some event the planet's phosphorous supply became inaccessible and the life forms would have had to adapt to a more abundant arsenic supply. Aside from bacteria, people have been playing with arsenic and molds for a few decades now, though the work I had read was about trying to get the mold to create various arsenic compounds rather than to thrive in an arsenic environment and substitute As for P.
@Greg 15 ... would you care to tell what that motive is? And, I'm not the only person to suspect fiscal reasons as NASA's motive.
Gladly, and it is a very strong motive.
I want to, in the sense that I dedicate much of my professional time and energy to it, improve the way science is communicated, the ways scientific information is disseminated both in and outside of science, and the level at which scientific/rational thinking becomes more widespread.
In doing so, I find it difficult, even sniffling, if at the very first level of inspection everybody gets it wrong. Many people have made explicit statements about the "hype" in this case, defining the hype very specifically (the hype is that ET was found, the hype is that an entirely new kind of organism was found, etc. etc.) and (pay attention this is important) blaming NASA for the hype.
While it might be that NASA could have helped avoid the hype, they did not cause it. If I build a bunch of houses and sellthem, I can avoid them burning down by making them a bit more fire proof than average, but I can't do much about the residents who occupy them having indoor BBQs or whatever and burning them down.
My motivation is to interject an actual thought process into what is so far a mostly reactionary process.
MadScientist: I think you've pretty much asked and answered your own questions!
Larry, the paper does not say that, ...
Technically you are correct. The data is in the supplements.
The important point is that the bacteria still incorporated lots of phosphates that were contaminants in the media. They did NOT replace all phosphates with arsenates but that's the general impression that most people were left with.
: Your comments are duplicated, and my answer is, here:
sniffling = Stifling.
They did NOT replace all phosphates with arsenates but that's the general impression that most people were left with.
Yes, that is absolutely true. (That they didn't but a lot of people think/assume they did.)
The science blogosphere is taking care of this, though.
"Brian, that may work for the army,...but it is really not relevant to normal discourse" [emphasis added].
"I want to, in the sense that I dedicate much of my professional time and energy to it, improve the way science is communicated, the ways scientific information is disseminated both in and outside of science...".
Brian, yes! But what McArthur said and what I said are distinctly different.
What he said was dogmatic, undoable, and pithy. What I said was thoughtful, flexible, and nuanced.
Oh, SocraticGadfly, my delicate sensibilities and I are laughing our asses off right now. You've never seen a journalist at work, have you? No, what you sound like is the pseudoskeptic who cries, "Pharma Shill!!!!11!" when someone points out that the facts don't match their statements.
Journalists ask questions of everyone, not just those disagreeing with them. They also tend to get some background on a topic, like, say, finding out how many anthropologists NASA typically has on their payroll. Also? They're trained out of using pointless italics.
I suggested in the prior thread that if you wanted to condemn NASA for the hype, you ought to actually address NASA's actions. You have yet to do that. Instead, you implied that yours was the only reasonable position when you suggested Greg needed a special motive to not behave the same way you're behaving. That is, to put a delicate point on it, bullshit.
You want anyone to believe your anti-NASA position is based in anything like fact, start telling us what NASA did wrong. Not what someone else did wrong, not what motive NASA might have for doing something wrong, not why the people who don't agree with you are poopyheads, but what NASA did wrong. That's what you need to do if your point is actually to communicate wrong-doing in this case.
Of course, alternately, you could just tell us why you're invested in us believing that in the absence of any evidence, as I asked upthread.
So you view sweeping statements as being of their own genre, unrelated and irrelevant to slightly less sweeping statements about slightly different fields?
For example, if someone said "When driving with a very young child, always restrain it in a car seat," that would have no relevance to "Seatbelts improve safety for adults in most vehicles. [Insert extra nuance in which exceptions are noted, the cleverness of the statement is retarded to avoid being pithy, and thoughtfulness is flaunted]."
Brian, what about the military and an audience that doesn't have to stick around and incurs no penalties for even deliberate misinterpretation are "slightly different"?
The similarity is that there are genuine negative effects of false positives, so communicating can't merely be a matter of shouting in which one throws mud against a wall and see what sticks. Similarly, it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to spend little effort on comprehensibility on the grounds that an investment of analysis by the receivers of the communication renders a proper understanding.
It's about the opportunity to take a "buck stops here" mentality and maximize the amount of understanding, rather than hiding behind technical correctness, which I thought was the entire purpose of this blog.
In both cases, one's communications affect the world, and an investment in clarifying lessens miscommunication. The military is an extreme case in that the stakes are higher and opportunity for subsequent clarification is lower than for science press releases, however it is instructive insofar as we can see that extreme importance leads experts to value extreme clarity.
I see it as an extreme case being instructive, others apparently see it as a totally alien case from which nothing can be inferred. Either that or they have an interesting definition of "not relevant" to mean something like "not dispositive".
By the way Stephanie, the difference (one of many) you highlighted between the military and science is actually one that militates for having a higher standard for science communications than for military ones. The military is in more of a position to delegate responsibility for understanding to the recipients of communication than any science group is.
Brian, who is advocating throwing mud? Nobody here is advocating writing badly. What has been pointed out to you is that it is impossible to do what MacArthur commanded unless one is in a position to command understanding as well. Greg told you he has no responsibility for making people read carefully or with intellectual honesty, and he lacks that responsibility for just that reason: He has no power of enforcement.
As is becoming rather clear.
"Brian, who is advocating throwing mud? Nobody here is advocating writing badly."
I'm sorry if you haven't heard that idiom before but you are misinterpreting the metaphor by mixing it up with a different one. It does not use mud to endorse either slander or badly rendered things when there are equally available as well rendered things. Rather, it uses it as a metaphor for using a quantity of something with a low cost to produce as much effect (amount of mud ultimately sticking to the wall) as possible, a strategy that is less useful the higher the cost of failure is (e.g. a penalty for mud that fails to stick to the wall and falls). The implicit alternative strategy for getting mud stuck to a wall is to carefully craft and throw each globule of mud so as little as possible is wasted falling.
"Greg told you he has no responsibility for making people read carefully or with intellectual honesty..."
His inability to force people to read carefully does not somehow make him totally not responsible for people's impressions after reading his work, likewise for NASA. Your argument is grounded in a false dichotomy: total responsibility or lack of any responsibility.
Once again, I am trying to reiterate what I thought was at the core of Greg's philosophy and this site's mission: disseminate and foster true understanding of science among an audience it wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to, and encouraging other scientists to do the same. Fostering understanding among people who don't have a scientific background and encouraging scientists to do so is not something done by dodging responsibility for what is implied by framing or things implied but not said (comment #11), nor by citing "normal discourse" as a reference (comment #25) (something that is in real tension with the previous point, by the way).
"He has no power of enforcement."
Are you aware that NASA corresponds to the officer giving orders in the analogy? It has enforcement powers over itself. If the subordinates in the analogy misunderstand a clear communication, it is entirely their responsibility, just as people who misunderstand NASA's clear statements are responsible (this wasn't one of them). The officer's power over subordinates does not create in him a responsibility for the misunderstanding of clear orders except to the extent they are products of his institution (i.e. not if someone was simply transferred under him and has not yet been under his discipline), and even if it did that would not be the analogous part of the analogy-that would be the dissimilar part. Both the officer and NASA are responsible for the stupidity and unscrupulousness of people it communicates with to the extent it controlled them. This is really quite analogous.
Everyone is responsible for what is within their control, not what is outside of it. The clarity of their communications falls under that, particularly when they know their audience is subject to predictable and systematic patterns of misunderstanding. This is of course all the more so when they have something to gain from a misunderstanding, such as the relative importance of their discovery.
Brian, I was not misinterpreting the metaphor. Who is advocating for imprecision or bad communication or whatever else? I'll happily put your description in block quotes if it will get you to answer the question.
As for dichotomies, you're the one saying any deviation from forcing people to understand you is advocating for bad communication (see comments 35 and 38). Greg and I have both told you that different strategies are appropriate for different situations. Perhaps you need to start over and figure out what exactly it is you're disagreeing with Greg about.
"Brian, I was not misinterpreting the metaphor. Who is advocating for imprecision or bad communication or whatever else?...As for dichotomies, you're the one saying any deviation from forcing people to understand you is advocating for bad communication (see comments 35 and 38)"
First of all, it's interesting that you cited comment #35 as revealing my viewpoint when it simply juxtaposes two quotes from Laden and emphasizes a bit of one. Not only am I not sure how you derive that I am "saying any deviation from forcing people to understand you is advocating for bad communication" from that, I am not sure what you mean by "forcing people to understand." Do you mean expressing something so clearly that they don't misinterpret it?
Secondly, simply saying you didn't misunderstand the metaphor and following it with "Who is advocating for imprecision..." is less than unconvincing. The metaphor itself does not describe a situation in which imprecision is preferable to precision per se, so saying the metaphor does not apply here because no one here advocates imprecision is to display misunderstanding.
"Perhaps you need to start over and figure out what exactly it is you're disagreeing with Greg about."
"I don't think NASA needed to say less, or more, in this press release, but rather, those doing the wild speculation needed to read the actual press release and stick to what it says."
Both judgments are simultaneously possible. Saying that NASA messed up does not mean that the speculators did not.
"Clearly distinguish between the press release being badly done in a way that caused the reaction vs. the blog or web site or press agency in question simply saying stupid crap because it was better press."
This sort of proof would be hard to produce, and its absence certainly does not indicate the opposite is true. Asking for it is not unreasonable, but expecting it certainly would be even if one were confident in what Laden describes the "entire planet" of thinking.
"..show how a thoughtful rational expert or semi-expert in science or science writing can make the link that was made."
This is too low a bar to set for a press release, unless big brother restricts the announcement to thoughtful rational experts or semi-experts.
Yes, Brian, your bit about whether or not I understood your metaphor is a beautiful exercise in determined misunderstanding. Nearly textbook.
As for the rest, (1) Greg has already said, in comment 11, that NASA could have improved the press release. What do you disagree with him about there? (2) What proof do you think Greg is asking for and of what? Greg's statement is a request for specificity in people's complaints. (3) You do understand that this press release announced a press conference, yes, not the results themselves? As such, the requirements are that it identify the time, place (including electronic "place"), and general topic to the extent that various parties can decide whether their attendance is warranted. The release did that. What other responsibility do you think it has?
"As for the rest, (1) Greg has already said, in comment 11, that NASA could have improved the press release. What do you disagree with him about there?"
Well, since that statement of his contradicts his original claim, I disagree with that state of affairs. If he modified his beliefs to match mine then my only quibble is that he leaves the original post as is, without a note explaining he has changed his mind.
"(2) What proof do you think Greg is asking for and of what? Greg's statement is a request for specificity in people's complaints."
One example he gave of what he is looking for is of something fantastically hard to show even if what he asked for proof of were true. I did not at all criticize asking for evidence that misunderstanding/misrepresentation occurred that was facilitated by the wording in the press release.
I criticized the emphasis on parsing out whether an individual case was caused by misinterpretation or was rather the result of fabrication. This is a false dichotomy. The wording of the statement can provide cover for falsification that might have otherwise not been made. Similarly, a reporter willing to lie a bit might also misunderstand, thereby misrepresenting the truth more than he intended. Finally, even knowing that an individual was either entirely driven by willingness to lie or inability to understand, connecting motivation to specific incidents is a difficult task. We are left in a situation where someone showing a misunderstanding of the press release is told that his proof is not ironclad because the article in question could have been motivated by a bare desire for attention. Laden makes something that as a request would perhaps be reasonable, but as a demand would be wholly absurd, and it is not at all clear how he means it.
"...general topic to the extent that various parties can decide whether their attendance is warranted. The release did that. What other responsibility do you think it has?"
That depends on how you are using the term "warranted". Broadly it means "justified", and many people unused to the scientific terms involved were bound to interpret this as having to do with extraterrestrial life fairly directly, as actually happened. Such direct evidence would be of great interest to nearly everyone, in which case the number of people who believed their attendance was warranted would not match the true number whose attendance was warranted. So the press release not only allowed people in relevant fields to decide whether or not to attend, it created an large number of false positives. Predictably, and possibly to the benefit of those who created the misunderstanding.
In fact, the more we apply your low standards to scientific press releases, the more likely the wider public would actually be legitimately justified in believing that something momentous could be announced at a press conference announced with Spartan verbosity.
I also object to some people's poor reading when I had expected better. This began with Laden's interpretation of my sharing a quote as unreserved agreement of its applicability for all situations (including its original context), although we do have a legitimate disagreement in that I see situations in which communication is important and subject to various pressures on a continuum with others in which we can learn from other fields on the continuum, and he seems to think that we can't learn from the others. The simplistic observation that the fields are different was obviously inadequate to address that point, but the fact that people thought it was adequate was the disappointing bit.
Also, it's at least arguable whether people understand others' prose but I found it odd to have my juxtaposition of quotes cited as proof I advocate a concept that I do not even understand as it was never well articulated ("forcing people to understand"), and my best interpretations of it are 1) something logically impossible, 2) a misunderstanding of the original quote, and 3) something true that it would be retarded to have phrased in such a manner.
Since you have given no indication you understood the metaphor and have given evidence that you misunderstood it, I'll assume you are just willfully misunderstanding its relationship to the issue at hand and I will explain in a different way. The most reasonable thing for scientists to do when issuing a press release is consider the consequences, and act to produce the best consequences. They can take as a given that some people are dense or dishonest beyond measure, and needn't bother with them. However, they should invest time and thought into not being misunderstood.
I do not dumbly accuse people with other views, such as the belief that releasing information is something that should be pursued only considering whether scientists will properly understand it, of advocating imprecision or bad writing as preferable to precision and good writing. Rather, they advocate saving time and effort at the cost of poorly written press releases (though not imprecise ones-scientists are already good at that and show no inclination to give it up). NASAs text is a prime example of a poorly written, technically accurate press release that a modicum of thought could have improved. Instead, misunderstanding of science has been widely reinforced.
Brian  What the fuck are you talking about? Can you try to speak without falling back on hackneyed phrases?
Brian, you're still disagreeing with a bunch of things you've put in Greg's mouth. Perhaps you should read this: http://quichemoraine.com/2010/02/our-conversations-are-like-a-cold-frui…
I love that post.
I do too.
The science involves research into the biochemistry, physiology, ecology, etc., of terrestrial organisms. There's nothing "astro-" or "exo-" about it. Once the prefixes are attached the exercise enters the realm of the purely speculative and ceases to be scientific. Speculation about adaptations to extraterrestrial environments is untestable - really not a science (sorry but it isn't).
It deserves a paragraph in the chapter on microbial extremophilic metabolism.
Given a sterile, reducing environment, and sufficient time, the evolution of self-replicating, auto-catalytic organic redox systems can be speculated to be quite likely. But that's all it is: speculation. You can't assess probability based on a sample size of one.
The majority of individual organisms fail to reproduce and hence are a link to nothing. Those who are successful at reproducing are a link between their ancestors and their descendants. These links that fail to fossilize or are destroyed and are thus lost to natural history can be said to be "missing" (from the fossil record). Any given fossil specimen may be a link to subsequent generations or may have failed to reproduce. It isn't "missing" by virtue of having been discovered but whether it's a "link" or not is impossible to determine. The point is that every specimen that hasn't been discovered is "missing" and may or may not have been a "link." Hence the term "missing link" isn't "technically incorrect," as you state, but is "always wrong" in general usage, in the sense of being trivial.
That's about the size of it, MtS. All it amounts to. My apologies to all you NASA fans but I don't appreciate my tax dollars being used to hype an admittedly interesting howbeit relatively insignificant fact regarding terrestrial microbial biochemistry as somehow lending insight into hypothetical extraterrestrial life - all for the sake of appropriating more tax dollars to pay for such speculative, untestable pseudoscience. I'd rather see the money going towards something useful here on Earth.
Here's 2 links that tie the 3 subjects together, the first (flat square/triangle archaebacteria that inflates to spheres) is at my URL, the second (fat cells spheres, bone cells flat) is here:
Environment (hypersaline/sunlight/osmotic/respirative/structure) causes internal change
Practically every other scifi novel from the '60s & '70s, seemed like, had Si rather than C based alien organisms as a plot element. Atoms of the elements in the same column of the Periodic Table have the same number of electrons in their outer energy level and hence share similarities in covalent bonding patterns, making them reactively similar. As is directly below P in the 5th column and both have five electrons in their outer orbit. Likewise, Si is right beneath C in column four and both have four valence electrons. I'd be surprised if some Scifi author hadn't already imagined extraterrestrials whose metabolism substituted As for P.
The trouble with As and Si is that they have higher molecular masses than do P & C. It's possible to envision a smaller planet than Earth, with considerably weaker gravity &/or a "geo"chemical preponderance of the heavier elements over their less massive counterparts, yet possessing liquid water & other nutrient elements allowing a metabolism to evolve which substituted As for P &/or Si for C. But there really are advantages to having biomolecules composed of elements from towards the top of the Table. Reaction rates are lower with the heavier analogues, there are more isotopic variants to accommodate chemically, solubilities differ, and other disadvantages obtain. In virtually all environments on Earth, organisms with metabolisms based on the lighter elements would out compete those based on the heavier, driving the latter extinct. Unless there was some ecophysiological benefit to substituting As for P, it would be selected against...
Yet why could not extreme Terran (or imagined alien) environments provide a selective advantage for such a bizarre metabolism? Could not these organisms, if it turns out that they do indeed substitute As for P in a small percentage of the nucleotides of their genome, simply have evolved an unique adaptation to an extreme environment? Or perhaps it represents more of a molecular pathology than an adaptation, in that the active sites of polymerases or ATP synthase are "sloppy" and will "phosphorylate" a nucleotide with arsenate howbeit much less efficiently than with phosphate, and is a selectively neutral or even slightly deleterious feature in this particular environment, in a less extreme environment being lethal.
In any case there is no question of these microbes being relicts of a separate lineage of Terran life. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that Terran life is monophyletic. This isn't to say that it's always been monophyletic, only that all but the extant lineage has long since gone extinct. If this reportedly As for P substituting organism is being hyped as a possible relict of a distinct, primordial lineage of life, this interpretation is patently ridiculous.
Many chemoautotrophic archeans & bacteria obtain energy from the oxidation/reduction of atoms & inorganic compounds. Entire food chains are based on such metabolisms. What is unique about this organism - if it even turns out to be what it's purported to be (see link in comment #16 by Joris above) - is not that it utilizes As in its metabolism but that it allegedly incorporates As into its nucleotides, nucleic acids & other biomolecules, in place of P. It seems like there's been some confusion about this distinction.
No doubt many NASA scientists and public relations personnel have read scifi and make the connection between the substitution of elements in a terrestrial organism's informational storage macromolecule and speculation about feasible extraterrestrial genomic scenarios. Was it a wholesome enthusiasm for this sort of thing that led NASA officials to issue a press release worded in such a way that they anticipated, or should have anticipated, the internet hype it would generate? Or were they going on the calculated hope that the public gets all excited, so then to urge their congressionals to fund NASA generously? Since motives aren't necessarily mutually exclusive it was perhaps a bit of both. In my opinion NASA could have handled the whole thing more elegantly. It may be true that the hype was all on the blogosphere & didn't come directly from NASA but it was NASA who planted the IED & set the timer.
This is just my attempt to put the As incorporating organism extravaganza into perspective, for what it's worth.
I used to have a paper, from the American Museum of Natural History, as I recall, on how to figure standard deviations, range, etc. from a single example. I thought it was somewhat reasonable but never used it, because I always had larger samples. Anyone know that publication?
There is an argument that if a population has a normal distribution, and you randomly catch one individual out of that population, the chances are that you have an individual pretty close to average for the population. Is this a reasonable argument?
In any case, one example is better than no example.
And how do you know the distribution is normal? How do you know that life conducive conditions, if that's what you're talking about, aren't outliers? No, it isn't a reasonable argument since you have no idea as to the shape of the distribution.
If not for that one example we wouldn't be here discussing it. This one example also informs us that it's possible. It says nothing, however, regarding frequency.
I've read it before. Maybe you should re-read it.
"There is an argument that if a population has a normal distribution, and you randomly catch one individual out of that population, the chances are that you have an individual pretty close to average for the population. Is this a reasonable argument?"
I have no idea but generally speaking don't underestimate math.
Greg, it looks like you're defending bad science, not just fluffery:
You really want to keep up this strong of a defense? As a lawyer might say, it potentially "goes to credibility."
@Brian 42/47 - Bingo... that's part of what I'm getting at when I talk about NASA's "framing." As a journalist, I've received enough PR to now that there's some sort of "framing" going on. Given Obama's announcements earlier this year about NASA funding, I consider it reasonable skepticism, and not cynicism, to wonder if funding issues aren't behind the framing/fluffery.
Apparently, Stephanie either doesn't want to get that, or refuses to. I think Greg DOES get the "framing" questtions .. I'll not comment further.
Gadfly, would you care to explain to the class exactly what benefit NASA gets out of having the world's attention drawn to a paper that appears to have serious flaws? How would hyping that help their funding exactly?
Gadfly : "Greg, it looks like you're defending bad science, not just fluffery:"
"You really want to keep up this strong of a defense? As a lawyer might say, it potentially "goes to credibility.""
You've cited a nice blog post that raises valid questions about the research. It raises no questions about my blog post, which uses the research at hand as a suggestive foil to discuss other issues that you have ignored, presumably because you did not read my post (the original post, not this one).
I am not "defending" anything. I am stating that the whinging and hand wringing about NASA's poor treatment of this news story is almost the same as it was when the Ida story came out, and the two presentations were so vastly different that I suspect the complaining is a cultural feature of the science blogosphere rather than a valid citique. I've asked for specific critiques of the NASA press release and have received one, which makes a good suggestion but hardly demonstrates that NASA lied or cheated or flim flamed.
You, on the other hand, are quickly making it onto my list.
"I've asked for specific critiques of the NASA press release and have received one, which makes a good suggestion but hardly demonstrates that NASA lied or cheated or flim flamed."
1) I think it's really important to disentangle the accusations of ill-intent and incompetence. That's because they have different types of proof: intent requires looking into people's motivations, while incompetence can be judged by looking at results. Even proving NASA had reason to believe there would be gain from public misunderstanding does not prove anything else.
2) There are a few different ways to frame the fact that only one improvement was suggested. One is to say that only one error was made, so the problem wasn't large and is more excusable. The other is to say that NASA's failure was large because only one simple change should have been made. I think that having issued the press days before the event and considering the hubbub, they should have known what was being read into it.
The principle that press releases have to accurately let people know if their attendance is warranted is what I am keying in on. Normally it's fine to assume average Joes won't care about a scientific discovery and craft a press release that simply lets science journalists and the like who should attend know that. This press release's only concession to public ignorance was to explain what astrobiology is, emphasizing the extraterrestrial. It's the failure to implement the other clarification that I criticize, not just because I think it was obviously needed but because its necessity became apparent once the response to the press release got under way.
Also, we have to keep in mind that this thing we are talking about was not actually a press release. It was an announcement of a press conference. The press release came out the same time as the press conference.
WASHINGTON -- NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss how the apparent switch of phosphorus for arsenic on the DNA structure of a cultivated bacterial strain will impact astrobiology and the the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. [...]
Done. NASA can hire me for write this kind of stuff next time they want to avoid the hype and possible conspiracy theories resulting from it.
NASA should NOT have said anything in the press release about astrobiology or extraterrestrial life.
I want to also point out that something you wrote should be revised.
"Recently, NASA affiliated scientists shocked the esoteric world of biochemistry with the finding that a bacterium could successfully replace arsenic with phosphorus in key molecules, such as DNA, and make that work."
Since there is no proof (at least yet) that NASA found any such thing, you should have included the word 'alleged' before the word "finding". The "shocked" part is debatable too.
NASA should NOT have said anything in the press release about astrobiology or extraterrestrial life.
Maybe, but I prefer the suggested changes that mention these things ... which NASA has a legitimate reason to link to this sort of finding, and that is why they funded part of the research to begin with ... along with just a few more words to state that this is about an earth bacteria that new research seems to suggest does something interesting.
Kris, that was the finding. Words like alleged are very rarely used in reporting or discussing science stuff. All findings are subject to revision. Indeed, there is a rule of reality: The very first report of finding is always unreplicated! You can't publish a replicated finding until you've published the unreplicated finding, therefore all findings are initially provisional. This is how science works.
I could add a word like "preliminary" but I did say "... if it works out. There are important as yet unknown details and open questions. The ultimate importance of this research remains to be seen ..." and I do expect everyone to read all the sentences and kind of put them together in their heads.
In retrospect "shocked" probably does not describe the world of biochemistry at large, but I'm not sure. It certainly is true that the small number (2, as i recall) of world class experts in this area, including the independent scientist unrelated to the research brought in to comment during the press conference, who wrote the textbook as it were on Prosperous, were truly shocked and used words similar to shocking and were visible shocked.
So yeah, it could be rewritten, but no, it is not wrong.
I'll tell you what is truly shocking: There is a group-think version of how this is all playing out, and I've been told in no uncertain terms by numerous people that if I don't get on board with the group think, then I'm toast. I've lost one or two colleagues/friends over this. Yet, I have not made a claim about this research that is incorrect, I agree with many, probably most, of the criticisms (but not with those that are certainties based on hot air used as foils to demean the researchers for making certainties out of hot air!). What I'm not doing is jumping up and down screaming that NASA totally made up this research, and for that, I'm actually taking heat.
What I have said is that if verified and pending further analysis of the position of P in the biochemistry of the bacteria that would confirm what the scientists doing this research are currently speculating based on published research and a draft paper in process, that this is very interesting. What I am not doing is the collective over the top face-palm that the science blogosphere can't stop itself from doing every time science communicators and/or scientists don't do exactly what they (the collective blogosphere) have somehow determined (post hoc) to be the exact correct thing to do, all alternatives being equivalent to fucking babies with baseball bats or worse.
Greg - I think this is an interesting and relevant discussion to be having. As far as the science is concerned, I can't really fault NASA. They trusted in their scientists and in the peer review process, which isn't unreasonable. I have to agree with what Brian (#62) said:
I think NASA really does care about scientific communication, and I also believe they thought this was a good opportunity to build some positive hype about science: the goals aren't mutually exclusive. In retrospect, the vagueness of the original announcement was clearly a bit ill-advised, but I think the real break-down came after the fact. When they saw the hype, and did not take pains to express the caveats in the research. And when they were criticized in various forms of media, they responded that it's not the right forum to have this debate.
It reads as extreme hypocrisy to hype (rightly or wrongly) your work in the media, and then refuse to have a conversation with the media.
Well, certainly bad form. I'd save "extreme hypocrisy" for other uses.
I agree that it would have been good for NASA to clarify its pre-press announcement, but I doubt there's a mechanism for that. Duct tape saved Apollo 13 but those days are gone.
Also, one could argue that Gawker.com and similar outlets seeing aliens where none were mentioned isn't really NASA's problem, and the people who are really upset about all this aren't especially important. The bla-bla-blawgosphere did not really do a better job in their reaction to this than NASA did in its press conference.
A very important thing did happen here that has not been noted to my knowledge. If you watched the press conference you'd see that among the questions from the standard science press were very few of the kinds of questions that the science bloggers have asked. The reporters taking part in the press conference mostly didn't do a very good job. Although science bloggers as a whole tend to act like babies when they don't get what they want (lacking a sense of professional decorum, even willfully eschewing professional decorum and such things), the fact is that they can ask better questions should be a reason to bring them more often to the table.
The best press release is the abstract of the paper itself, or some modified version of it. For example:
It's a bit boring, but that's what they actually showed. "Science is interesting, and if you don't agree you can fuck off."
Also, why the press conference? I know plenty of people who have Nature and Science papers and never got a press conference. A lot of the anger on the blogosphere is probably due to NASA calling a press conference to present mediocre research. Something like "Next time these clowns hold a press conference, they better have ET standing next to them!"
Bill, that's good text, and to the extent that it is a little boring, it could be punched up, I'm sure.
There isn't a clear set of guidelines for when press conferences are held. I've done press conferences for work that was local numerous times ... archaeological work in Boston or in upstate New York on local news, though actually one of our Boston press conferences was covered nationally, but not for non-archaeology research that was probably much more important in the long run. As I suggested above, it is fairly normal to have press events at major conferences, and any perceived bar for how important something has to be isn't really that important. The individual press releases, conferences, Q&A sessions, etc. are all in competition with each other.
Let me tell you something, though: If A is being substituted for P in long stretches of DNA backbone, and everyone (as Larry Moran has claimed) already knew about it, the the people writing the textbooks are ignoring a very interesting fact of biology. If, on the other hand, this is happening in Mono Lake cultivated bacteria and not previously seen, this is mondo important and interesting. If, on the third hand, it is just normal bacteria that were "evolved" in the lab to defy known biological rules, then THAT is pretty fucking interesting, IMHO. Evolution in the test tube from normal life to something unheard of? Holy crap!
If, on the other hand, it turns out to be contamination, then I will be the first to tear this research team a few new orifices. For my part, I was impressed, in part, because at the press conference they made the explicit claim that they had more results not yet published that would confirm what they were showing in their animation, which is complete replacement of A for P in the DNA backbone. I believe them until proven otherwise. If they were making that up, the'll pay. If not, then that's really cool!
I'll concede that "extreme hypocrisy" is a bit of hyperbole. I'm not sure why you say that there's no mechanism for clarifying the press announcement, they could do it the same way they issued a press announcement in the first place. Maybe none of the news outlets would have paid attention, but still.
And I think that the reaction of Gawker and other news outlets is NASA's problem. If the goal is good communication of science to the public (and I think you and I agree that that's at least one of the goals), NASA must be cognizant of how they will be interpreted, and endeavor to make their message as clear as possible. They can't stop people from running wild with the things they say, but they can improve their messaging strategies.
It also occurs to me that there are two different conversations here: the hype generated before the press-conference (hope that we found aliens) vs the hype about the actual claims made at the press conference (a DNA backbone of As). As I said before, I can't blame NASA for the latter. And I actually think the former is relatively minor on it's own (though similar mistakes should be avoided if possible in the future). I think the combination of a let-down on the ET front, plus the seeming over-hype of the claims of the paper combined to blow the whole thing into a heated controversy.
there's no mechanism for clarifying the press announcement, they could do it the same way they issued a press announcement in the first place.
Yeah, but I'm thinking that this took no fewer than 11 memos and three committee meetings.
NASA must be cognizant of how they will be interpreted, and endeavor to make their message as clear as possible. They can't stop people from running wild with the things they say, but they can improve their messaging strategies.
On one hand, yes, and thus the current challenge. We've done this here with abstracts as well. A few tiny differences would have accomplished that goal, like simply mentioning that it is about research on a common bacteria with a twist, or the version you suggested.
On the other hand, lots of people, including some of the bloggers who are now complaining, made fun of this press release and started talking about ET and such right away, though not seriously. A site like Gawker may be so inclined to go for the funny ET angle (or whatever) that there is nothing one can do.
At the end of the day, as it were, the press release said nothing about aliens, so anyone who reported it as having to do with aliens is, technically, wrong. Since there is no way to avoid ALL mis-interpretation and mis-use, one is not really obligated to work too hard to do it.
there are two different conversations here
Yes, absolutely, and many NASA haters are, in my view, willfully conflating the two.
That's one position to take, and I don't entirely disagree. But I also think we as science communicators are in a precarious position if we stick to "technically right," and don't make allowances for the imprecise nature of human interaction. No one is obligated to work hard to avoid misinterpretation, but I'm personally of the opinion that it should be among the top priorities.
I should also point out, I don't think I'm in the "NASA hater" camp, but I only realized I was conflating the two different aspects of this story (not willfully!) when I started writing about it. It's not hard to get sucked into that.
I don't think you are a NASA hater.
I'm not sure what actually happened, but when I read that press release, the first thing I thought of was the Ida fiasco, and it occurred to me that NASA was trying to say the minimal possible that is correct and, together with the listing of authors, suggestive of what would be presented. Actually, the two or three science bloggers who knew what they were talking about called it pretty closely . So, I am guessing that they missed the mark because they were trying to avoid saying to much. Next time they have to say a little more.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to ask one of NASA's top space scientists (JPL) about the press office at NASA and was told that they may not always be doing a great job.
BTW, a more widespread and timely distribution of the embargoed paper would have helped.
I want to try to put another spin on this whole story, IF and that's a big if, there is never any talk about extraterrestrials or life sustaining environments, such as water on the moon and mars, and other such phenomena, then IF we do come across something in space that the human population has not been prepped for, guaranteed they will freak out and go ape shit.
So I would rather have them make a big deal about the small things so as to prepare the masses IF and when the big news story comes, well that's how I see it but then who am I?
Thanks Sphere, that kind of comment is exactly why I look at comments sections and blogs. I hadn't considered that angle at all.
Somebody named Sphere would say that! Good point.