Posted by: Chris | December 11, 2010

Arsenic and Bold Claims

Despite its established interest in discussing these sorts of things, the Lure has thus far avoided discussing the NASA-arsenic kerfuffle.  For those unaware of the events, it was leaked that scientists working with NASA had discovered extraterrestrial life and were on the cusp of releasing such news to Science (the journal).  Once the paper was released, the claim was downgraded to the discovery of a species of extremeophile bacteria living in arsenic-rich dried lakes which replaces the phosphate-anchored skeletons of their nucleic acids with those predicated instead on arsenate (arsenic is just under phosphorus in the periodic table, and thus has some similar chemical properties).  This finding, though likely disappointing to those hoping for a re-enactment of Contact, was nonetheless ricocheted across the interwebs for its obvious portents for terrestrial biological origins and diversity.  However, as more biochemists and microbiologists read the paper and collected their thoughts, it became clear that the researchers did not even effectively establish that arsenate was being incorporated into the bacterial DNA.  I will spare you the details (though I will link to them for the curious), the most aggressive claim one seems able to make about the paper is NASA’s scientists discovered a species both highly resistant to arsenic and capable of normal nucleic acid under incredibly low concentrations of phosphorus.

It has been the metacommentary that has piqued my interest the most.  Previously on the Lure, we have discussed on whether researchers or science writers bear most of the blame in overhyping more mundane findings.   While I am generally sympathetic to the argument against science writers (and even here, they deserve some ample opprobrium; see: extraterrestrial life, above), it does seem that NASA engaged in some very flimsy leaps of deduction to arrive at a more noteworthy conclusion and, unless one dove into the thickets of the paper, it would have seemed reasonable to trumpet their findings.  One might accuse science writers of being insufficiently critical of the paper, since, as the ciphers of the primary literature for the general public, it should be expected of them to poke through outlandish claims rather than simply reiterate any abstract that flits across their screen.  However, science writers are generalists by necessity, and it seems to me utterly unreasonable to expect more from them than a sniff test based on a quick readthrough, along with the implicit trust of the peer-review process.  Additionally, as Razib Khan, David Dobbs and Ivan Oransky note, the embargoes that journals themselves put on big findings also work to distort the reporting on the respective papers, both in the run-up to publication and following the official reveal:

Here’s the problem: When a paper is still under embargo and we journalists call an outside expert to get comment on it, the expert has often not actually seen the paper yet, since, well, it’s under embargo. If time allows (often not, since one usually has only a few days and everyone is busy) then you can send the expert(s) the paper, and they can read the paper and get back. But as the experts usually lack time to compare impressions with peers, few will go out on a limb and really lay into a paper under those circumstances. You usually get either “This looks interesting, with a few caveats I’d like to note” or “I’d rather not comment.” You’ll rarely get an outright dismissal. They lack the time and probably the taste for the trouble it’ll make.

So we get what we got: some measured check on the hype from the best journalists, but mainly, since the claimed findings are ambitious, an especially fascinated version of “This looks damned interesting, and is truly interesting if true, and [this next part usually doesn’t get actually written] I sort of hope it is true, ‘cuz it’s cool.” I don’t think there’s much wrong with that if you follow through and cover objections that rise down the road.

Of course the real question, for the Lure commentariat to discuss at length, is who has the best cinematic pun:* the Lure or archnemesis Wired?  I vote Wired.

*Relatedly, it occurs to me that Arse-Nick serves as a great Nick name.



  1. […] ultimately leading to a sensationalist but erroneous conclusions.  The phenomenon is sadly not a new one.  Indeed, just last month, an over-excited NASA scientist gushing about Mars dust got […]

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