Tom Clynes on arsenic life

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Yesterday I wrote about the arsenic life saga, prompted by a long retrospective feature by Tom Clynes in Popular Science. While I recommend the piece, I expressed reservations because it passed along the “scientists besieged by bloggers” spin on the events, when the actual history doesn’t support that.

Clynes (whom I’ve never met) emailed me in the evening with this comments, which he allowed me to share:

Carl,

Thanks for your comment on my Popular Science feature on Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s arsenic-life saga. In some ways, I think you’re on target, though I would like to provide a bit of clarification: Throughout the story, when I convey an argument made by someone who’s on one side of the issue or another, it doesn’t mean that I necessarily buy into that argument.

To that end, I’d like to add a bit of context to a paragraph that you quote, regarding the storm of criticism and the paper’s authors going “underground.” You follow the excerpt with your comment that “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.”

Actually, I don’t believe that, nor would I have my readers believe it. I think it would have been useful to your readers for you to have included my next paragraph, which makes it clear that I am in fact spotlighting both sides of a polarized dialogue regarding this particular point:

Microbiologist Jonathan Eisen of the University of California at Davis called the lack of response “absurd” and told Carl Zimmer from Slate, “They carried out science by press release and press conference. They are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature.”

Though I didn’t state my opinion in the story (better for readers to decide for themselves), I will here: I think that Eisen is on the money here.

Some other opinions: Do I think that the arsenic-life paper was flawed? Yes. Do I think it that some of its conclusions will be dissolved by further investigation? Yes. Do I believe that NASA’s hyped-up approach to publicizing what was actually a rather understated paper was ham-handed, and damaging to everyone involved? Big time.

Do I think the paper never should have been published? No. In a profession where young scientists are advised to avoid controversy as they build their careers, Wolfe-Simon pushed against a paradigm and sought answers to some very big questions. She passed through the same peer-review hoops (imperfect as they may be) at Science as other scientists must. Yes, her research was imperfect and yes, she likely overreached—but plenty of scientific papers are flawed, and many young researchers go too far. If scientists aren’t willing to subject themselves to the possibility of failure, science can’t possibly progress.

Critically, there’s nothing to indicate that Wolfe-Simon did anything unethical, which might have justified the shrill tone and sweeping proportions of the response—and the fact that she was singled out among the paper’s 11 authors. True, she was the lead author, and it was her hypothesis. But it’s surprising that Ron Oremland, the lab director and principal investigator, is rarely mentioned in the criticisms.

If my story has a bottom line, it’s in this quote by the University of Colorado’s Alan Townsend: “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.”