Tuesday, December 7, 2010

NASA to Inquiring Minds: Go Fish

I could give a rat’s ass whether some bacterium in Mono Lake incorporates arsenic instead of phosphorus into its DNA. If true, it would be a cool discovery. So I noted the buzz about last week’s hugely hyped Science paper by NASA scientists and went on my merry way.

Then a microbiologist at UBC, writing in her lab blog, called bullshit on the finding and Slate science journalist Carl Zimmer asked the NASA authors to comment. 
I asked two of the authors of the study if they wanted to respond to the criticism of their paper. Both politely declined by email. 

“We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,” declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.”

“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,” wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”
“The proper way to engage in a scientific discourse”? This had me spluttering mad. If you hype your finding in the media, then have the stones to defend it in the media.

Ronald Oremland’s prim arrogance and the unmitigated gall of Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s stonewalling are the antithesis of the scientific spirit. They should be ashamed of themselves. They have flushed whatever respect NASA’s Astrobiology Institute might once have had.

Another of Zimmer’s sources, Jonathan Eisen of U.C. Davis, nails it:
“If they say they will not address the responses except in journals, that is absurd,” he said. “They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature.”
Hypocrites and cowards.

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