I didn’t post on the bacterium that supposedly evolved to incorporate arsenic into its DNA because I was ill, late to the party, and, frankly, not really equipped to judge that paper, which was published in Science. In yesterday’s Slate, however, Carl Zimmer wades into the fray, talking to a number of scientists who attacked the study, including Rosemary Redfield of the University of British Columbia, who published a withering takedown of the original paper. Zimmer’s piece is straightforwardly called “This paper should not have been published.”
Zimmer’s interviewees are pretty unanimous in claiming that the evidence that arsenic was really incorporated into the DNA—the paper’s major finding—is unconvincing. It might well have been a contaminant. Critics blame the paper’s appearance on shoddy science, credulous authors, and poor reviewers.
Zimmer asked two of the paper’s authors to respond to these criticisms, and they refused, claiming that they weren’t going to debate their results in the media. As Zimmer reports, others see this as evasion:
While Redfield considers Wolfe-Simon’s research “flim-flam,” she think it’s fine for the NASA scientists to hold off responding to their critics. She is working on a formal letter to Science detailing her objections. But Jonathan Eisen of UC-Davis doesn’t let the scientists off so easily. “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.”
Eisen’s right. It’s incumbent on the authors, who flogged their paper via press conference, to at least give some sort of public response, if only to say that they’re looking into it and repeating their experiments. This is a new era of science, in which reaction to a paper by fellow scientists can be virtually instantaneous, and not always pretty. I, for one, welcome it. I’d rather know now rather than later if there are problems with this “new life form.” Further, these critiques and counter-critiques aren’t always easy to find when they’re in the scientific literature: many journals bury them somewhere in the online version.