Arsenic Life and Misunderstanding the Intertoobz

If you remember some months ago, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon held a press conference announcing that they had discovered a bacterium that uses arsenic in place of phosphorus. The paper, when released, had compromising methodological problems (for good coverage, read here, here, and here; and snark). At the time Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues were upset at the treatment the paper received on the internet, and initially refused to respond in any forum other than published journals (this policy didn't seem to stop her from giving a TED talk without any forum for critical feedback. Kinda hypocritical).

Zen Faulkes has two very good posts on a Bioessays review (not by Wolfe-Simon) about the subject, but what struck me was this (italics mine):

As part of our response to Dr. Redfield, we also take this opportunity to offer a general comment on the use of the Internet to "review" the technical literature. To be perfectly clear, to the extent that we are familiar with those who offered signed comments regarding the particular case of the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper, we do not in any way question their scientific expertise. Signed comments should be applauded and indeed offer a measure of authenticity, but nevertheless these "chat room" environments are not constrained or screened and at times become ad hominem attacks, which have no place in the scientific literature. And, further, such communications do not, themselves, offer specific citations to support their position. If they are to be viewed as authoritative and do not simply reflect general knowledge, then they too should at least refer to important, foundational papers that support their view. In general and not in reference to the case of the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper, until there is a process in place to screen and edit such commentary (such as here for our current scientific exchange with Dr. Redfield), there remains a credibility issue. We are all aware of the massive misinformation that pervades the Internet and that is why so many simply choose to ignore it rather than track it as part of their efforts to stay informed of the scientific literature pertinent to their research. Because of such accuracy issues, at present and in its current structure, organization and process, the term "authoritative blogs" far too often represents an oxymoron.

We'll leave aside that much of the commentary by bloggers wasn't anonymous (although some of it was pseudonymous). And we'll leave aside the issue that most of these criticisms were written as if they were solicited reviews of the article--which typically aren't laden with citations either.

What mindboggling is that these reviewers have no idea that there is a different between an authored blogpost and comments left on a blog. They're right in that the validity of a statement left by "Big Schlong 69" in the comments section might be questionable. But if someone writes a detailed post, as Rosie Redfield did, with substantial criticisms, that is different in kind from an anonymous statement in the comments. But comments show up, often unsigned. That's just part of the form. Hell, it's hard enough to keep spam out of the comments section. But it doesn't reflect on what the blogger wrote--in fact, some bloggers like John Hawks don't even have comments. Comments are separate from the post--which can be well written and have scientific merit and a track record of other posts.

Utterly clueless about the intertoobz.

More like this

In the wake of the NASA excitement over the new arsenic study, and my promise to give a detailed review of the paper itself, I have recruited a colleague with strong opinons about the work, a solid chemistry and microbiology background, and "Dr." in front of his name to share his analysis. I will…
I've been strangely fascinated by the "arsenic-eating" and maybe "arsenic-utilizing' bacteria report from NASA researchers and the so-called "backlash" ("arsenic-gate") in the blogosphere. Many others have posted on this topic. What I've found most interesting is that there seem to be several…
Science magazine has published the formal criticisms of the claim to have found extremophiles that substituted arsenic for phosphorus in their chemistry. It's a thorough drubbing, and the most disappointing part is that Wolfe-Simon's rebuttal simply insists that they were right, and doesn't even…
In his highly readable book, One Long Argument, Ernst Mayr breaks down the body of thought often referred to as "Darwin's Theory" into five separate and distinct theories, the second of which being "common descent." Darwin's second evolutionary theory (second by Mayr's count, not Darwin's) is…

Oh great. Now the entire freakin' internet to the right of your post is in italics.

Anyway, yes, interesting post. They are asking for a blanket elevation of blogs and comments to some standard level, rather than taking each comment or post on its own. (Lots of posts, even many comments, did indeed have references to published literature, for example!)

Here's what I want to know: In the press conference, the authors said they had a paper coming out in February that would nail down many of the open questions. Have we seen that yet?

By Herp N. Derpington (not verified) on 22 Mar 2011 #permalink


By Herp N. Derpington (not verified) on 22 Mar 2011 #permalink

If they are to be viewed as authoritative and do not simply reflect general knowledge, then they too should at least refer to important, foundational papers that support their view.

That's absolutely ridiculous. Didn't Wolfe-Simon et al. present their findings as foundational and ground breaking? Which other founding work on arsenic as part of the DNA backbone would have been available? Dr. Redfield and others rigtfully referred to common biochemical, microbiological and ecological knowledge to present their case. They used common sense to analyze the materials and methods section and referred to available literature that Wolfe-Simon et al. didn't know, ignored or willfully didn't mention. Relying on scripture may work for religions but it surely does not for science.