#ArsenicLife Goes Longform, And History Gets Squished

If you haven’t been tracking the arsenic life saga closely over the past ten months, check out Tom Clynes’s big feature at Popular Science. It focuses on the travails of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the lead author on the paper, who has gone from the Olympian heights of TED talks to getting “evicted” from the lab where she’s worked for the past couple years. (Her word.)

For those of us who’ve been tracking the story for a while, that last fact popped out. Wolfe-Simon had been working in the lab of her co-author Ronald Oremland, but that’s now over. Let’s recall that her senior colleagues dubbed the intriguing microbe she studied GFAJ-1, for “Get Felicia A Job.”

It’s a good article. I won’t be forgetting the opening scene anytime soon, when Wolfe-Simon is ambivalently posing for a television crew, and she sinks into the mud of Mono Lake, where she first encountered GFAJ-1.

But I do share some of the reservations that science writer David Dobbs expresses over at his blog Neuron Culture. As a genre, the profile is one of the most addictive and enjoyable of all. It doesn’t matter if the profile is of a hero or a scoundrel; the story is good as long as it’s full of human nature in all its extremes. But profiles of scientists are tricky, because science transcends any single individual scientist. To do the science justice, you may need to pull the spotlight away and get into the less human stuff, like chemical reactions and pH levels.

The story thus focuses mainly on Wolfe-Simon, with scientific critics effectively reduced to mean chair-throwers, their scientific objections dispatched in a couple lines. People and events are relevant insofar as they affect Wolfe-Simon. And in the process, Clynes writes some mystifying stuff:

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.

And Clynes has us believe that this barrage of extraordinary, brutal criticism (or perhaps questions from journalists) forced Wolf-Simon and her colleagues to go into witness protection:

Overwhelmed with questions from the media, Wolfe-Simon went underground. Guided by NASA’s PR team, she and Oremland and the paper’s other co-authors began citing NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown’s position that the authors would not be responding to individual criticisms. The agency, Brown said, didn’t feel it appropriate to debate science using the media and bloggers. Discourse should occur in scientific publications.

“I wasn’t hiding, but I didn’t want to get involved in a Jerry Springer situation, with people throwing chairs,” Oremland says. “There are hundreds of blogs some viable and some off the wall, and they all want an immediate response. To try to engage in scientific commentary that way seems like a descent into madness.”

What the–?

I’ve seen this version of the arsenic life story before, and I can say (as one of the people mentioned in Clynes’s story) that it simply does not square with the facts. I really hope it doesn’t get set in people’s minds like concrete.

Let’s just run through the timeline, shall we?

Thursday, December 2: An eagerly anticipated NASA press conference, the publication of the paper in Science, front-page news in leading newspapers, with no articles I’m aware of dealing seriously with the critics.

[Update: Friday December 3: Chembark, a chemistry blogger, declares, “I am not convinced.”  Jim Hu of Texas A&M writes, “Could there be arsenic-based backbone in the DNA? Maybe. But it would be extraordinary and so I would like to see better evidence.” I for one missed these posts.]

Saturday, December 4: Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist with a blog she mainly uses for her class, expresses deep skepticism. It is the only such blog post I know of that presented a detailed criticism at this point in the timeline. [Update–I should say, the only blog post I was aware of.]

Sunday, December 5: Alex Bradley, another microbiologist, guest-blogs at We Beasties in a similar vein. The criticisms are harsh but deal in the scientific details of the paper.

The audience for both posts is small–an audience of fellow microbe junkies.

By Sunday afternoon, I think it’s time to write something. I’m wondering if Redfield and Bradley are saying what a lot of other scientists are thinking. I start getting in touch with leading experts in the areas that the paper touches on. In the next couple days they will get back to me, and just about all of them say the paper has serious problems, one simply declaring it should never have been published.

Naturally, it’s only fair to give the authors of the study a chance to respond. So on Sunday afternoon, I send links to the two blog posts above to Oremland and Wolfe-Simon. Oremland promptly writes back, “Sorry, but ‘nope.'”

I’m a bit surprised and email back to find out why. Here’s what I get:

It is one thing for scientists to “argue” collegially in the public media about diverse details of established notions, their own opinions, policy matters related to health/environment/science.

But when the scientists involved in a research finding published in scientific journal use the media to debate the questions or comments of others, they have crossed a sacred boundary.

Monday, December 6: Wolfe-Simon emails back at 12:42 AM, a few hours after I emailed her. She cc’s all her co-authors and administrators at NASA, including the director of the astrobiology program:

Mr. Zimmer,

I am aware that Dr. Ronald Oremland has replied to your inquiry. I am in full and complete agreement with Dr. Oremland’s position (and the content of his statements) and suggest that you honor the way scientific work must be conducted.

Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated. You can see many examples in the journals Science and Nature, the former being where our paper was published. This is a common practice not new to the scientific community. The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.

Regards,
Felisa

In the morning I get busy on my story. That evening, the CBC comes out with a story focused on Redfield’s complaint, relaying NASA’s statement that it’s not appropriate for scientists to debate each other in the media. I scratch my head and get back to work.

Tuesday, September 7: I publish a story in Slate about arsenic life, describing the detailed criticisms of a number of scientists (which I’ve posted in full on the Loom). I quote the no-comments of Oremland and Wolfe-Simon.

—Now, we can have a fine debate about whether journalists should ask scientists to respond to criticism from other scientists about their work. Oremland and Wolfe-Simon may truly believe that this crosses a sacred boundary. I say it doesn’t. It’s standard practice. Science, where the arsenic life paper was published, lets reporters get their hands on papers early, and reporters regularly seek out other scientists for comments on those papers before publishing their articles. If two scientists post their thoughts on public blogs, there is no difference in asking authors of a paper to respond to their critiques. Trying to make such a distinction is pointless.

I’ve been doing this kind of thing for a long time, and I have never encountered a response like this one from the hundreds of scientists I’ve interviewed. And that includes scientists who work for or are sponsored by NASA, despite the claims that popped up that NASA policy forbids such open debate. In fact, the scientist who gave me the headline for my story–“This Paper Should Not Have Been Published”–is herself part of NASA’s astrobiology team. Did she say, “Mister, you’ve crossed a sacred boundary”? Nope. She wrote me a long, detailed explanation of why she thought the paper failed.

In other words, I’m pretty sure I’d win that debate.

But the story you get from Clyne and others is not that Oremland and Wolfe-Simon had some a priori policy never to deign to comment on criticism that weren’t published in a scientific journal. It’s that they were overwhelmed by Jerry Spinger-grade hordes of unseemly scientist bloggers and relentless journalists–so overwhelmed that they had to vanish. They were victims.

But for this version of events to be true, the hordes must have stormed their lab in a single day–at some point between Saturday, when Redfield posted her critique, and Sunday, when the scientists told me they wouldn’t comment for the story. As far as I can tell, there were just two blog critiques published during that time, and a CBC news article. If someone can point to any evidence of this alleged horde that I’ve somehow missed–perhaps the gnawed bones of some graduate student left in its trail–I’d love to see it.

Otherwise, this just seems like one of those stories that sounds good in hindsight. And if any good is going to come out of this strange saga, we should strive to get all its stories straight.

[Update: Clynes responds.]