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NASA Science

War Over Arsenic Based Life 155

Antipater writes "Slashdot readers may remember the announcement and ensuing controversy six months ago over the NASA discovery of microbes that can supposedly incorporate arsenic into their DNA. Now, The Washington Post reports that Science has published a collection of eight scathing critiques of astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, her methods, and her conclusions. Wolfe-Simon is starting to fire back and gather her own allies — one wonders if we're in for another cold-fusion style science war."
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War Over Arsenic Based Life

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  • Scientific Method (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NFN_NLN ( 633283 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @05:55PM (#36267988)

    One of the basic principles of the scientific method is the ability for peers to independently reproduce results. If this is not the case, then this is not science.

  • by Mindcontrolled ( 1388007 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @05:59PM (#36268026)
    You might want to try to read the literature?
  • by Ruke ( 857276 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @06:14PM (#36268174)

    In this case, it looks like Wolf-Simon published her results, and some peers fired off some immediate critiques of her methods, while others raised questions based off of what is already known of molecular biology. Wolf-Simon is responding to 8 of these criticisms in the latest publication of Science. As far as I can tell, no one has attempted (and succeeded or failed) to reproduce Wolf-Simon's results. There hasn't been a whole lot of time to do the necessary studies.

    As far as I can tell, this is science, as she is performed. You publish controversial/novel results, people immediately try to pick your results apart, and you respond to them. In an ideal world, everything would be done with the same level of rigor as these results are being handled, not just the "hard sciences".

  • by DRJlaw ( 946416 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @06:23PM (#36268260)

    One of the basic principles of the scientific method is the ability for peers to independently reproduce results. If this is not the case, then this is not science.

    You presume that the critics have attempted to independently reproduce the results. They have not. They are merely identifying potential sources of false positives. While the original team would be wise to explain how these potential sources of error were already addressed, and if necessary to run additional experiments addressing lapses or unconsidered factors, hypothetical arguments as to why an experiment cannot have worked do not prove that the results cannot be reproduced and/or are actually caused by other mechanisms.

    "The exchange does not put forth new data on the matter, but centers on the original experiments in which Wolfe-Simon isolated bacteria from arsenic-laden Mono Lake, California, and then tried to grow them in cultures with large amounts of arsenic and no phosphorus, which is typically required for growth."

    Nobody has tried to reproduce the result.

    "University of British Columbia microbiologist Rosie Redfield, the blogger most critical of Wolfe-Simon both personally and professionally, asserts in one of the Technical Comments that Wolfe-Simon did not go far enough in purifying DNA from GFAJ-1 before testing it for its arsenic components."

    Valid criticism, but not proof of irreproducability or alternate mechanism.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. On the other hand, scientists claiming that things are impossible have routinely been proven wrong. Unless something is shown to violate well established laws, hypothetical criticism is usually far less valuable than actual experimentation and reproducible alternate explanation.

  • Re:Just a hunch (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 27, 2011 @06:24PM (#36268270)

    They are just doing their job as scientists. Science is supposed to embrace new ideas slowly. Otherwise we'd be running around believing in N rays [] and whatnot. Granted, this is a cruel environment to come up with new ideas in, but it's still very much a necessity.

  • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @06:56PM (#36268532)

    blah blah scientific theory blah blah taking two different planet Earths blah blah reproducable manner blah blah scientific method blah blah

    You don't have a clue. You don't need a different planet to figure out that increasing CO2 concentrations in an air sample increases its absorption of IR wavelengths. Plenty of tests that can verify that.

    Your standard of what constitutes science is so ridiculously far out there that it would be impossible to figure anything out about anything that is bigger than a science lab. Thankfully, most scientists have figured out that lab experiments provide a nice basis with which to predict larger phenomena.

    And if you really think that that's the only way that discoveries can be made about planet-wide phenomena, please ignore weather reports, tsunami warnings, volcano warnings, earthquake reports, oil discovered through seismic evidence.... yeah, scientists who don't have a second earth to work with have really not contributed anything to society.

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson