Thursday, October 06, 2011

Afterword on "arsenic-life" affair

Popular Science magazine has recently published a profile by Tom Clynes on the scientist in the middle of the "arsenic life" controversy, Felisa Wolfe-Simon (see previous Biology Refugia post). This comes after the Science finally published her paper in its 3 June 2011 print issue, along with a selection of responses from her critics (see the editor's note for links).

The magazine feature is sympathetic to her, and notes how much of the initial criticism started by criticizing the science then moved into questioning the scientists' motivations. Many accusations were made at the time, including that they were motivated by fame as a result doing "bad science". But Science didn't publish her paper without peer-review. In fact, additional evidence was gathered as a result of peer review. Were the results inadequate for the claims which were made in the media ("new form of life", "proof that extraterrestrial life is possible", etc.)? Yes, certainly.

My opinion is that this was a "perfect storm" caused by the confluence of mass media and science. Without making any assumptions about anyone's motivations, Wolfe-Simon's team or their critics, we can say that (i) the hyped-up press conference organized by NASA was a mistake, and the oversimplified media kit only led to a proliferation of misinformed headlines, (ii) the quick criticisms by scientists posted to their blogs and websites appeared much faster than any research team could possibly respond to carefully, (iii) the media attention on Wolfe-Simon made it difficult to respond to technical criticisms and also increased their defensive posture (reading the Pop Sci article, I'm struck by how overwhelming it must have been for her) – simply finding the time to do it would have been difficult. I quote Clynes's article:
I find it hard not to feel sympathy for her. In a matter of weeks she was catapulted to fame, then singled out and assaulted with professional and personal criticism, some of which resulted from missteps beyond her control. Wolfe-Simon is an early-career researcher in a field dominated by older men. Few scientists, no matter how established, would have the skills to navigate the situation that she found herself in. What made the level of criticism so extraordinary is that the paper, in itself, is not so flawed that it should not have been published. The argument was compelling, the conclusions were measured, the data was thorough, and the paper made it through the same peer-review process as other articles in Science. 
Some who initially blasted Wolfe-Simon have since changed their mind. Blogger Alan Townsend, who directs the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado, says he was guilty of rash judgment, and that his preliminary opinions—expressed in writing and conversations with his colleagues—contributed to a response from the scientific community that was “often unprofessional, and at times became downright shameful.” He says, “Absent major ethical violations, no junior scientist full of passion for an idea deserves crucifixion for a professional failure or two. If a paper is flawed, it should be dismissed. The scientist should not.”
Learning to deal with the media is not typically part of a scientist's education. After all, most could only wish they were so lucky. If the need should arise at all, it's probably handled by PR departments of their institutions or employers, or from the agencies that fund them, like NASA in this case. Perhaps it's time for scientists to come together and figure out what a code of conduct for publicizing their work should be like. For example, is it a conflict of interest to write a newspaper column that trumpets your own work while raising criticism of your competitors, especially if this is unpublished research? How far should we go in "jazzing up" the science in order to sell it to the public? Some degree of spin and oversimplification is unavoidable, but a technical audience would know where to look when reading a scientific paper to judge for themselves whether a specific claim is justifiable (typically buried somewhere in the Materials and Methods). Should we always be cautious and measured in our pronouncements? What if the issue is something politically-charged like climate change, where climate change "deniers" seize upon caution and use it as supposed evidence of falsehood? Difficult questions for difficult times, and scientists should take the lead in trying to figure them out.

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