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NASA Science

NASA's 'Arsenic Microbe' Science Under Fire 152

radioweather writes "The cryptic press release NASA made last week that set the blogosphere afire with conjecture, which announced: '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.' may be a case of 'go fever' science pushed too quickly by press release. A scathing article in Slate.com lists some very prominent microbiologists who say the NASA-backed study is seriously flawed and that the finding may be based on something as simple as poor sample washing to remove phosphate contamination. One of the scientists, Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado said 'This paper should not have been published,' while another, John Roth of UC-Davis says: 'I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn't look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people,' The experience reminded some of another press conference NASA held in 1996. Scientists unveiled a meteorite from Mars in which they said there were microscopic fossils. A number of critics condemned the report (also published in Science) for making claims it couldn't back up."
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NASA's 'Arsenic Microbe' Science Under Fire

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @09:53AM (#34485690)

    I can't bear to follow them any more
    They used to be able to call press conferences for event like "Hey, we landed on the Moon!" "Hey, we put a telescope in orbit!" Then they started with "Hey, we landed on Mars! Only at a much steeper angle due to some conversion error..." arriving to the current "Hey, we don't have any budget for space stuff, but this paper here looks interesting!"...

  • by Pojut ( 1027544 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:00AM (#34485738) Homepage

    If you read what the detractors are saying, it sounds like they're whining. This happens with every single major scientific discovery.

    Every. Single. One.

    Could they be right? Of course they could be right. It wouldn't change the fact that they sound like five-year-olds.

  • by arkane1234 ( 457605 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:02AM (#34485748) Journal

    That tends to happen when we live in a time when warfare in multiple countries is worth more than expanding the knowledge.
    I mean, at least WW2 produced SOMETHING that altered science... the atomic era. What do we have... Remote-control planes? better guns?
    On top of it, mothballing existing projects... ugh
    Why does it seem like we're in high school and the asshat "cool" kids have taken office?

  • by tetrahedrassface ( 675645 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:03AM (#34485754) Journal

    The paper made it through peer review. It was published by Nature, and while the peer review process and closed nature of Nature Publishing may not be perfect the paper was in fact reviewed. However NASA is in go-mode, and they desperately want to find life out there. Maybe when they really get serious about finding life they will send a probe down to Europa and sniff around. No telling what they will find.

    Also, arguments in the scientific community are nothing new, and a lot controversy occurs because somebodies research infringes on someone else's predetermined view of things. We still don't know about dark matter very well, or even it exists, we still don't know so many things about almost everything! Text books continue to be updated every year, and the current consensus on big things like String Theory, or whatever are laid down to us as authoritative law, yet rescinded just as quickly when we learn something new. This reminds me of the global warming debate a little bit.

    Scientists sure like to argue a lot. :)

  • by egyptiankarim ( 765774 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:09AM (#34485800) Homepage
    Wait, wait, wait. The whole point of publication is to open up your results so that other scientists can poke holes in it and the science can be redone and improved upon. Isn't it kind of a bogus statement say something like "this paper shouldn't have been published"? And with outrage, no less. Could the science really have been that bad and still be approved for publication to begin with? It must have been subject to at least a bit of peer review prior to its release. How come no one was outraged about the guy who reinvented integration (http://science.slashdot.org/story/10/12/06/0416250/Medical-Researcher-Rediscovers-Integration)?!
  • by allcar ( 1111567 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:13AM (#34485848)
    That's complete bullshit. This is how science is (and should) be conducted. It's called peer review and it is one of the most important safeguards of the scientific method. Without thorough and ruthless peer review, people are free to simply make outrageous claims and expect to be believed. That's how religion works.
  • by marcosdumay ( 620877 ) <marcosdumay@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:16AM (#34485878) Homepage Journal

    "I mean, at least WW2 produced SOMETHING that altered science... the atomic era. What do we have... Remote-control planes? better guns?"

    The atomic era, and the computers era, let's not forget the latter. That happened because duing WWII the budget for science was huge, much bigger than during the previous times. And that happened because there was a real war going on, and everything implied that the party with the best science would win (as it did). Nowadays, the budget for science is being cut for letting more available to spend on war, on those countries that are participating on the current warmongering.

    "Why does it seem like we're in high school and the asshat "cool" kids have taken office?"

    Well, one thing is for sure, if you live in a democratic country, the ones in the office are all "cool" man.

  • by __aagctu1952 ( 768423 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:17AM (#34485884)

    If a scientist other than themselves didn't make the discovery, it's obvious the other guy's methods are flawed!

    Scientists can be such whiny, arrogant assholes...whatever happened to science being done for science, rather than recognition?

    You do realize that criticizing research is a crucial part of the scientific method, right? Letting claims go unchallenged is the domain of religion, not science.
    People are ripping apart this paper because it makes grand claims based on a potentially flawed methodology. If the results can be replicated with those flaws fixed, then the NASA team's research recieves further validation. If not, hey, I guess they jumped the gun. Either way, you have to identify the potential flaws, which is what people are doing here.

    Also, to once again quote Rosie Redfield [blogspot.com]:

    There's a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true.

  • by edremy ( 36408 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:27AM (#34486052) Journal
    I'm teaching a course in the scientific method and controversial theories this semester, and this is such a perfect example of how science is *supposed* to work. This isn't cold fusion- the original paper passed peer review and was published in Science, not exactly a bottom-feeder journal. NASA is making the organism itself available to anyone who wants it- run your own tests and see if the science stands up.

    If it does- awesome. Really neat microbiology

    If it doesn't- well an awful lot of published papers turn out to wrong. Acknowledge the mistake and move on.

    I see comments about how peer review failed. I'm not a microbiologist so I can't judge if there were any really obvious errors, but peer review isn't supposed to verify claims in papers- it's a sanity check to make sure that nothing blatantly wrong gets through. Given that Science is the 2nd highest impact journal out there I'm sure they have competent peer reviewers available. Is it possible they screwed up? Sure, but it's not a catastrophe: we're seeing science self-correct in exactly the way it's supposed to.

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:32AM (#34486152) Journal
    From your own quote:

    Would this arsenate have left the DNA during the gel purification? Maybe not - the methods don't say that the DNA was purified away from the agarose gel matrix before being analyzed. This step is certainly standard, but if it was omitted then any contaminating arsenic might have been carried over into the elemental analysis.

    Seriously? Her criticisms rely on the assumption that they skipped a 'standard step' and didn't delve into it in their paper? Who's being the presumptuous one now?

    I think it's pretty common for field to omit standard procedure in their papers lest they become too long and verbose. Hopefully NASA and the team get a chance to respond to these comments although it's looking like a landslide right now.

    You know that there are going to be a ton of researchers that are going to want to reproduce these tests so it's only a matter of time.

    I did enjoy that blog post though:

    The authors never calculated whether the amount of growth they saw in the arsenate-only medium (2-3 x 10^7 cfu/ml) could be supported by the phosphate in this medium (or maybe they did but they didn't like the result).

    At times that blog reads more like politics than science. Yeah, it's an extraordinary claim, I guess we should just get used to this sort of reaction whenever something game changing is claimed.

  • by Sockatume ( 732728 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @10:51AM (#34486488)

    They've assembled a space telescope, landed several autonomous rovers on Mars that have exceeded their mission profile tenfold, have a squadron of probes out in the gas giants, another heading for Pluto, a next-generation space telescope the size of a bus is currently under construction. NASA's got a lot of problems but the selectivity of your examples is comical, and your argument bewildering. It's not like the rocket guys go on holiday when the astrobiologists decide to start working on something.

  • by the phantom ( 107624 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @11:03AM (#34486662) Homepage

    Except that your depiction of the debate is incorrect. In reality, it looks more like this:

    Wolfe-Simon et al.: We have made an extraordinary claim!
    Redfield et al.: Your methods appear to be flawed.

    And that is as far as we have gotten. In other words, the process is working.

  • by jpmorgan ( 517966 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @11:56AM (#34487682) Homepage

    Peer review isn't done in blog posts.

  • by gad_zuki! ( 70830 ) on Wednesday December 08, 2010 @12:30PM (#34488298)

    I hate how cynical and ignorant mods mod people like you up.

    First off, you are engaging in the fallacy of idealizing the past, a particular popular fallacy on slashdot. I find the more recent NASA accomplishments a lot more impressive than just lobbing meatbags onto the nearest satellite. Robotic rovers on mars, stardust mission, all manner of flybys and good space science, planetary probe hubble and webb in 2014, etc, Heck, we just had a god damn comet flyby last month.

    You want expensive moon missions? Convince your fellow voters to trim 100+ billion off our bloated military budget and to put into NASA. NASA gets a paltry 17 billion annually. We spend almost that much of corn subsidies. Your defense budget is 700 billion.

    Dont blame NASA because your democracy is broken and prefers to invest its money on war, defense, subsidies, and science last. Its amazing what NASA is doing with such small amounts of money.

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.