Just about a week ago I blogged about NASA’s announcement concerning a scientific study that revealed how a bacterium survives using arsenic instead of phosphorus in developing cell components.
Well, it seems that the announcement and publication of the finding in the peer-reviewed publication Science, has created quite a storm for the following reasons:
- First and foremost, rival scientist claims that the study was flawed and should not have been published
- The role of NASA in creating a sea of hype prior to the announcement and supposedly steering speculation about the study in the direction of extraterrestrial life
- The peripheral question about how a distinguished scientific journal allowed a supposedly flawed study to be published
When I wrote the blog, I took care to steer away from the hype about extraterrestrial life, except only to point out that life as we have become accustomed to it, may in fact be quite different given different environmental conditions. And so the study seemed to confirm, but scientists have been telling us this for years, so it was nothing really new. So while this latest finding may not in fact add another nail to the creationist coffin, it certainly doesn’t have to; that coffin has long been buried and is at a stage of advanced decomposition.
The thing about science is that it is not dogmatic, unlike religious claims. Peer review serves the purpose of pointing out errors in scientific claims and then substantiating any counter-claim. That’s the beauty of the scientific method; scientists abandon their claims when new evidence to the contrary is presented. And in this regard, the author of the Arsenic study released by NASA, Felisa Wolfe-Simon did responded by accepting the criticism of her findings thus:
My research team and I are aware that our peer-reviewed Science article has generated some technical questions and challenges from within the scientific community. Questions raised so far have been consistent with the range of issues outlined by journalist Elizabeth Pennisi in her Science news article, which was published along with our research. For instance, other scientists have asked whether the bacteria had truly incorporated arsenic into their DNA, and whether the microbes had completely stopped consuming phosphorus. Our manuscript was thoroughly reviewed and accepted for publication by Science; we presented our data and results and drew our conclusions based on what we showed. But we welcome lively debate since we recognize that scholarly discourse moves science forward. We’ve been concerned that some conclusions have been drawn based on claims not made in our paper. In response, it’s our understanding that Science is in the process of making our article freely available to the public for the next two weeks to ensure that all researchers have full access to the findings. We invite others to read the paper and submit any responses to Science for review so that we can officially respond. Meanwhile, we are preparing a list of “frequently asked questions” to help promote general understanding of our work.
That’s the way things are done in the real scientific world, not the pseudoscientific one. It’s now up to Felisa’s detractors to prove her wrong, or at least prove that the flaws they refer to are really flaws. And off course she will have the opportunity to respond.
The role of NASA in all of this is reminiscent of how the clergy and their predecessors (shamans etc.) twisted and panel-beated man’s superstitious beliefs into organised religion, to support their political ambitions for dominion. Admittedly, as much as I admire NASA, there seems to be some truth in the claims that they used (abused?) this young female scientist and her research, to promote their own need for funding, and continuation of the space programme.
I can’t really find too much wrong with the last concern raised by this whole saga which concerns the journal Science’s eagerness to publish. Publication is necessary for the spreading of ideas, counter-ideas and information about who is contemplating what scientifically and why. It makes science grow.
However, I cannot wish that the study that was released BY NASA turns out to be true because it would confirm one of my beliefs. Unlike the religious world, science does not permit one to wish something into being because it would make one more comfortable or less fearful.