#ArsenicLife #Fail: A teachable moment

For those that haven't heard about the NASA/arsenic bacteria story that's been exploding all over the science blogosphere over the last couple of weeks, I like the summary over at Jonathan Eisen's Tree of Life blog:

  1. NASA announced a major press conference
  2. at the conference they discussed a new Science paper claiming to show the discovery of a microbe that could replace much/some of its phosphate with arsenic
  3. initial press coverage of the paper was very positive and discussed the work as having profound implications for understanding of life in the universe - though some scientists in some of the stories expressed scepticism of the findings
  4. subsequently many science bloggers further critiqued the paper and/or the press coverage
  5. NASA and the scientists have now refused to discuss the criticisms of their work and press interactions
  6. News stories have now come out summarizing the blogger criticisms and also discussing the unwillingness of NASA / the authors to discuss their work

So, in the middle of all that I really appreciated Bonnie Swoger's recent post, Using the 'arsenic bacteria' story as a teaching moment for undergraduates. It really warmed my cold, dark science librarian's heart.

Precisely because it is so perfectly science-librarianish. It combines an interest and fascination with science and the scientific method with the drive to carry out one of the core missions of the academic librarian. That would be what we call Information Literacy instruction. In other words, helping faculty teach their students about the process of scholarly communication in the sciences.

From the ACRL Information Literacy Standards for Science and Engineering/Technology:

Standard Three

The information literate student critically evaluates the procured information and its sources, and as a result, decides whether or not to modify the initial query and/or seek additional sources and whether to develop a new research process.

Standard Five

The information literate student understands that information literacy is an ongoing process and an important component of lifelong learning and recognizes the need to keep current regarding new developments in his or her field.

From Bonnie's post:

First, you have scientists on record saying that basically, the peer review system didn't work as well as we'd like. These scientists are saying that the scientific methods used were not as rigorous as they should have been. In addition, many folks are arguing that what the scientists actually discovered isn't nearly as important as the hype surrounding it makes it seem.


Second, you have the controversy about where scientific debate should take place. Some scientists see little value in the scientific blogosphere. Many others (including myself) view it as a vital part of the communication between scientists and the general public. In addition, blogger's comments have led to the retraction of at least one article in a highly respected journal (that I know of).

I agree completely with Bonnie that this type of media event is the perfect opportunity to reach students about both the idealized conception of scholarly communications as well as the more sausage-making aspects of a very human process.

In fact, on December 6th, just a few days after the bacteria hit the fan, I was at a workshop session for a fourth year Science & Technology Studies seminar course here at York. I was there to help the students think about their major projects in the context of the sources they will need and just the practicality of various ideas in the time frame they were looking at.

And wouldn't you know it. One of the students wanted to do a media analysis of a scientific controversy. Bingo. I don't know if he'll end up doing the arsenic life story for his project, but it was a good example for me to talk about finding media reporting (new and old media) and the context that blogs and the web in general brings to that sort of issue.

Which led me to #ArsenicLife #Fail and Bonnie's post. Picking up a bit where she left off, I started to think in a bit more detail about how I could use the issue as kind of a case study in scientific communications and the media in the 21st century.

I thought about from the point of view of progression of media documents, from the original reporting to the various reactions. I also saw the case more or less mirroring Eisen's breakdown of the story I quoted above. I wanted my selection of documents to be concise and manageable yet give a good sense of the scale of the controversy and the main themes.

This is what I've come up with. Please, feel free to suggest documents and themes that I've missed that'll add to the picture, especially if you think there's a document that better illustrates one of the themes than the one I've chosen. Do keep in mind that I want to have something that will be manageable to talk about and discuss with a class in, say, 30-45 minutes.

Not that I'm ever going to get to do such a class or make such a presentation -- but it's fun to think about.

Here goes:

It'll be very interesting to see where this goes over even the next few days as the blogosphere digests the authors' latest response and the fact that they've decided to engage at all with non-traditional media.

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Thanks, John, for the complimentary comments about my recent post.

More importantly, thank you for the wonderful link round up - the resources you link to provide the perfect background information for the start of this discussion!

As a journalist, currently a copy editor who considers himself to have more-than-average science understanding and journalism skills, one major takeaway I had is this is a big example of how NOT to do PR. Beyond that, it was an example of how science bloggers can have their own biases and blind spots (maninly, in this case, people like your fellow SciBlogger Greg Laden) taking such bad PR at face value on both the PR and the science itself.


It took less than a month for the scientific community to straighten this out. Contrast to 400 years for the Vatican to apologize to Galileo; and contrast to the Monkey Wars over highschool biology classes, that have only gotten worse.

I'd say scientists are doing a pretty darn good job of cleaning up their messes, by any reasonable standard and especially in comparison to the churches.

I was a bit disappointed that a potentially promising finding turned out to be a mistake compounded by bad PR, but we don't get to choose our facts and it's better to comport with reality than to believe things that aren't correct.

Re. the value of science blogs (and the value of reading the entire posting before replying!):

This place is incredibly valuable. I'm in engineering and I'm ferociously interested (as a layperson) in the sciences in general. This is a place where I can ask questions (e.g. about the results from the LHC experiments & implications for string theory), debate philosophical issues (e.g. agnosticism vs. atheism), and learn quite a bit from people who are smarter than I am.

Scientists and science grad students need to keep up a strong online presence and be willing to talk to foolish laypeople. This is how we win the war against stubborn ignorance and obscurantism, and religious extremism, and all of the related bad attitudes. Though at this point in history, "winning" can't be taken for granted, and the struggle has to continue on all fronts.

Thanks, Rosie. And thanks everyone else. I really appreciate your comments.

referring to this as a "Fail" is really, really premature. And frankly a bit obnoxious. The work may or may not hold up under scrutiny, but it's far from clear that the blogosphere has demonstrated this at all, or even come close to demonstrating it. The cacophony of interpretations and counter-interpretations made in the blogosphere about the quality of this research make it really difficult to assess some of the critiques. Thus I'll wait for other experiments, myself, before determining that this is a "Fail".

By Corey Hart (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

Hi Corey,

Your point is well taken. The scientific aspect of this story is far from completely told. We'll just have to wait and see on that and I'm certainly not qualified to evaluate the research on that basis.

However, my post isn't really talking about the science itself -- more about the way the story unfolded and how it got out of control of the authors, the publisher and NASA.

The authors should have written the article such that it wouldn't immediately provoke such a storm. They, of all people, should have realized where the gaps in understanding would be and make sure their bases were covered.

Similarly, the journal should have made sure that the article stood up to the intense scrutiny it was going to receive, both via the peer reviewers and the editors. This is Science, after all. If any journal is going to have the resources to do this right, it should be them.

Similarly, NASA and the AAAS -- if they were going to promote and pitch the story to high heaven should have made sure what was actually written down on pixels and paper withstood the highest level of scrutiny.

Is the #fail label too strong for all this? Maybe. Maybe not. But it would be interesting to see someone make a case that NASA/AAAS did a good job of rolling out this particular story.

I used this as a teachable moment. I was excited after the initial publication, and brought it up in my anthropology class, even though it wasn't related directly to course material, but a general understanding of biology. The next week two of my bio students asked if they could give an extra credit presentation about the scientific criticism of the project. I made them relate it to anthropology. They updated the class on the potential problems with the research, then we discussed how peer-review works, what will happen next (responses, how a retraction would work if it came to that). Then I defined organizational anthropology for them and we discussed the science of culture. Sure it wasn't in the syllabus, but my students learned a lot that day.

Thanks, Megan. It's really cool that you were able to improvise like that!

Any chance you could blog about it in more detail or even convince your students to post their presentation online?

The authors should have written the article such that it wouldn't immediately provoke such a storm. They, of all people, should have realized where the gaps in understanding would be and make sure their bases were covered.