Field of Science

Were my original #arseniclife criticisms overly personal?

The PaleBlue astrobiology blog has a new post titled High Impact Science in a Hyperactive Media Environment, discussing lessons to be learned about how to discuss adaptations that are needed to effectively communicate high-profile science in the current media environment.

In general I agree with the points being made.  But I take disagree with how a quote from my original post about the Wolfe-Simon paper is described under Lesson 2: Blogs are a public microphone, and people are listening.  Here's what I wrote:
"I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.  I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication."
The author of the blog then says:
This paragraph is both inaccurate and unfounded. The author of this blog post (Dr. Rosie Redfield) followed a detailed technical critique with a slate of personal attacks, snark, and assumptions as to the motivations of the authors, NASA, and Science’s editors.

I've seen complaints about these two sentences elsewhere, most recently here, and I don't think they're valid.  Here's the comment I just posted on the PaleBlue blog:
Despite all the opprobrium attracted by those two sentences in my original post, I still think they nicely distribute the responsibility for what everyone agrees was a truly terrible paper.
Producing some bad science does not automatically make one a bad scientist, but the authors' continuing refusal to admit they made any mistakes is not a good sign.  NASA's financial support for the work certainly played a role, as probably did the publicity they eagerly provided.  I doubt that the paper would have been accepted if all the reviewers had identified the obvious errors, and Science's editors were certainly complicit in the decision to publish.


  1. While I believe we disagree on various things related to this particular paper, I think we agree on many of the principles involved with respect to science communication. Specifically, openness is good. Along those lines, we have a responsibility to be critical of each others' science and of the agencies and journals that fund and publish our work.

    However, my personal opinion (that's all this is at the end of the day) is that your attacks went too far at the end of the post. To be clear on why I think you went too far: your mostly technical critique devolved into a series of speculations as to the motivations of the authors, reviewers, editors, and funding agencies involved. These speculations are what I am referring to as "inaccurate and unfounded." The "NASA's life in space agenda" aspersion belies a lack of understanding of the astrobiology community's overall impression of the ALH84001 work and the Viking experiments. And if public statements from those that have seen the reviews are to be believed, the reviews were positive. Finally, if you believe what you said in your above comment, that "producing some bad science does not automatically make one a bad scientist," then I would also contend the original "bad scientists" accusation was also unfounded. The authors involved - including Dr. Wolfe-Simon - have led distinguished, prolific careers. So it's one or the other: either one "bad paper" does a bad scientist make, or that critique was off.

    We do ourselves a disservice when we drag our arguments through the mud this way. When we do this, we risk the story becoming the personalities involved instead of the truths we are trying to unveil.

  2. @Shawn: I didn't say that the authors were bad scientists. (I had never heard of any of them when I wrote the first post so I knew nothing about their reputations, good or bad.)

    What I did was to suggest possible explanations for the publication of such a deeply flawed paper. I still think that was a reasonable way to end the post.

  3. Sure is quiet around here these days. Isn't there some other contrived thread about FWS that you can post to stir up some publicity? Surely, at least CBC news is interested...

  4. @ Rosie: "I didn't say that the authors were bad scientists."

    Correct. You implied there were two options:
    1.) They were bad scientists; or
    2.) They were acting on behest of NASA's "life in space" agenda.

    I'm not really sure how 2.) is logically independent from 1.) I don't think anyone publishing just for the sake of pushing a funding agency's agenda would qualify as a "good scientist."

    As I said, I am not saying you should not have tried to place blame for the publication of what you clearly think is a bad paper. I agree we have a responsibility to hold each other and our scientific infrastructure accountable for mistakes. What I am saying is the manner in which you did so was inaccurate speculation.

    I don't think you've countered my critiques at all, but I'm also not sure you're going to back down. That's unfortunate, because to paraphrase your own reply to my post:

    Producing some bad blog posts does not automatically make one a bad communicator, but the author's continuing refusal to admit they made any mistakes is not a good sign.

  5. "Were my original #arseniclife criticisms overly personal?"

    Even the title is hypocrite, Rosie. To answer your question, no, you were not overly personal but you were personal, if this makes it any better. Regards.

  6. Shawn,
    There is an extremely fishy tone to the paper itself and FWS's press conference presentation.

    I feel Rosie's commentary accurately reflected the skepticism and outright suspicion that many people have felt. The (barely) emotional response to the apparent problems with the FWS paper communicates the depth of the matter with the casual reader, who might be blinded by the "artistic interpretation" shown at the press conference.

    Many of us feel this isn't a case of petty jabs being traded between venerable scientists, but a case of someone trying to pull a fast one over the public's eyes. This invites the type of speculation that you seem to take offense to.

    All of us will happily eat our own shoes if FWS is proven "right", but if she is, it wouldn't be because the experiments that were performed in the paper.

    I'd glad Rosie has taken the angle she has on the matter.

  7. @Anon,

    In this case, the speculations were wrong. There is no "There's life in space!" agenda at NASA, and according to public statements on the reviews of the paper, there was no need for Science's editorial board to overrule the reviewers.

    This inaccuracy is part of the reason I think it is unwise - and bad debate strategy - to enter into such speculations. If you have conviction that your technical critique is sound, why turn the argument to things you are speculating on, even if one is "suspicious?" If one is going to do it, why not do a little background research first? For example, I could guess at why Dr. Redfield did so, but I'd almost certainly be wrong. So I don't.

  8. Shawn,
    NASA gets allocated government money based on the utility of its discoveries.

    Many of the researchers that are funded by NASA write proposals based on the notion there is Life In Space to discover. If we were all sure that this notion wasn't true, it would be a pretty silly thing to be spending all this money funding extravagant postdoctoral stipends, launching rockets and building telescopes.

    But it could be true, thus there is a bit of an incentive to keep pushing the possibility on the public. Part of this effort is campaig^H^H^H^H public outreach. I don't think it is unfair to casually refer to this effort as an "agenda".

    I think you need not look further than FWS's press conference itself to see blatant pandering to this agenda. It would be passable as required hyperbole, if the quality of the work done wasn't so dubious.

    My interpretation of Rosie's suggestion of NASA's agenda is one hued with playful cynicism, rather than an accusation of wrong doing.

    Researchers often get funded by large government organizations to do, what we all know, are silly things. You can cite the many papers and press releases that espouse the value of growing lysozyme crystals in space, but a lot of us know much better.

    You may find this cynicism offensive, but rather commonplace amongst those that actually do the work (and some of those very people are the same ones funded by NASA!).

    In the end NASA (including the people it funds externally at other universities) is a large diverse organization, the type that many researchers are familiar with. Most of us know that we can't really ascribe malice to such a large entity, when bureaucratic ineffectiveness seems to explain things just fine.

  9. @Anon,

    There is a difference between a "There is life in space!" agenda and a "Is there life in space?" line of research. Furthermore, both NASA and astrobiology have lines of research much broader than this single question.

    Perhaps I was misreading Dr. Redfield's original post, but "playful" isn't a word I'd use to describe it. And "bureaucratic ineffectiveness" wasn't the critique.

    I do not find cynicism offensive. I don't even find unfounded accusations offensive. I just think they hurt us more than they help us, both as individuals and as a community.

    Finally, I do admit to bias in all this. I'm an astrobiologist, and am proud to be such. I think the field has an excellent track record of following up on controversial, high-profile research. If Dr. Wolfe-Simon's work turns out to be proven wrong, I am confident that much of the research showing it to be wrong will come from other astrobiologists.

  10. Shawn,
    I think the key here is that the paper and presentation inspire cynicism (not just healthy skepticism), I don't think any of the comments by Rosie penetrate past a reasonable thickness of skin. No one is calling anyone's mother names, but a lot of us have our hands on our foreheads saying "Seriously, what in the world are you doing taking a mass spec of MAGIC ARSENIC DNA WHILE IT'S STILL IN THE GEL STILL, WHAT IS THE POINT OF THAT?".

    I think everyone knows that NASA does stuff that has nothing to do with "life in space", I'm not sure where you are reading Rosie's commentary that implies she isn't aware of that.

    The "hurt" that I presume you refer to must be coming from the paper itself, not critiques against it. I really feel terrible about the fact that FWS has directed comments to (impressionable) children and educators. I just hope she will be equally willing admit the mess this whole thing is, once it is revealed to be so.

    With respect to comments about your bias; I didn't know there was such a thing as an astrobiologist. Most people I meet that call themselves as such are the normal variety of scientist (geologist, chemist, biologist etc.) who happen to be getting (some) funding from the NASA astrobiology program (in fact I can't name a self proclaimed astrobiologist who isn't getting funded by NAI).

    It's great that you think an astrobiologist (which I read as someone getting funded by NAI) will refute the FWS paper, but there is no reason why it has to be so. Most of us are asking for pretty simple experiments that could be done by one person who has some experience in growing bugs (beyond just culturing transformed e. coli for protein expression) and knows how to work a LCMS. Plenty of people outside NAI who can do that, but possibly few people with interest in exploring something which appears to be such an obvious dead end.

  11. @Anon,

    I understand there is a lot of cynicism with regard to this work, due both to publicly-stated concerns about the methodology, the high degree of attention the work has received, and the controversial conclusions within the paper.

    And let me try to outline the problem again. I am not hurt by Dr. Redfield's critique. Nor am I implying that Dr. Redfield is not aware of NASA's broader research base. What I am saying is that there is no "There's life in space!" agenda at NASA.

    Most importantly, I think casting the aspersion that a funding agency is pushing a scientific agenda with a specific conclusion - and that scientists are publishing in support of it - is a very serious accusation. This is very similar to the accusations from climate change deniers that the conclusions from the climate change research community are built upon a house of cards where funding agencies have stacked the decks. Thus, given the seriousness of the accusation, one had better be certain of it before making it in public.

    Similarly, accusing a high-profile journal of overruling reviewers is also quite serious. This again is an accusation that strikes to the very core of the integrity of the scientific process.

    And again - this is not to say that no critiques should be directed in the directions of NASA or Science (or the authors). It is to say that the particular critiques are dangerous ones to make, because they are criticisms of the integrity of all involved.

    And I'm also not saying we shouldn't be airing our dirty laundry. Had Dr. Redfield been accurate, then having a "whistleblower" to bring these issues to the light of day would be good. But she was not accurate. So what we ended up with was very public, inaccurate accusations of integrity. We do ourselves a disservice as a community when we voice these in public and we are wrong.

  12. @Anon,

    As to the "I am an astrobiologist" issue, I do admit being an outlier in this regard. (Although that sentiment is more prevalent in my generation of astrobiologists than the ones before me.) That said, I do want to clear something up:

    There are many sources of funding to the astrobiology community. The NAI is a large source of funding in the US, but not the only one. NASA has other funding programs outside the NAI. Furthermore, there are people who consider themselves to be "astrobiologists" that get funding to do what they consider to be "astrobiology research" through other funding agencies, including the NSF (even if the NSF doesn't have a program specifically called "astrobiology.") Finally - and perhaps most importantly - there are many people doing high-quality astrobiology research in other countries that are not NASA-funded.

  13. @Anon,

    One other thing: I think your perceptions of the astrobiology community are common. That's one of the reasons I have started blogging, to clarify some of these things.

  14. NotAnAstrobiologistMay 30, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    Perhaps it would be useful to name one of these people that refer to themselves as astrobiologists and don't get funding from NAI in Rosie's latest post.

    (I'm the same person as the anon you've been exchanging with in this thread of posts)

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. @ NaA,

    Your request is a little difficult because the NAI teams are set up to be capable of easily adding/subtracting personnel. So I hope you don't mind if I instead point you towards lists of projects that are not NAI-funded.

    Here are links to NASA-funded but not NAI-funded astrobiology projects:

    Also, many (but far from all) projects here are astrobiological in nature:

    And yes... many of the researchers on those projects are also receiving money from the NAI. But many are not.

    Want a specific name? How about Lynn Margulis. I believe she considers herself to be a member of the exobiology/astrobiology community, but does not receive NAI funding. Does that qualify?

    What I have given you so far neglects all non-US astrobiologists, due primarily to my own personal ignorance as to their funding structure and lists of ongoing projects. But if you would like a pre-eminent non-US astrobiologist, here you go:

  17. NotAnAstrobiologistMay 31, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    Lynn Margulis is pretty cool (apparently, except for the recent velvet worms controversy).

    Reading her wikipedia article and her faculty page, I don't see the word "astrobiology" used once.

    I feels like Astro/Exo-biology would like to subsume a lot of work that has had to do with geo-evolutionary biology and origin of life.

    The poster "50 years of astrobiology" cites Miller-Urey and Woese. I don't know who funded their original investigations (I do know Miller was getting some exobiology money late in his career), but it seems hard to find an association with astrobiology outside of things like NAI posters.

    I think of astrobiology the same way as I think of "nanotechnology".
    People are only "nanotechnologists" when taking about their work with respect to the "nanotechnology"-initiative that they are being funded from. Most likely they are actually chemists or maybe physicists.

  18. This is a common critique. But isn't this true of many fields, particularly interdisciplinary ones?

    I should also be very clear about this: most people "in the field" do not claim to be astrobiologists "first." I do, but I admit being a rarity in that regard. That said, there are LOTS of people doing research in origins of life, co-evolution of life and the biosphere, exoplanetology, and many other disciplines and subdisciplines that consider their research to be "astrobiology." The field is not simply the search for life outside of Earth.

    How about Jack Szostak? He is funded by exobiology, but I don't think is funded by the NAI. Or Steve Benner?

  19. NotAnAstrobiologistMay 31, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    Steve Benner (who, I think, is pretty awesome); definitely was NAI funded at one point. Funny you mention him, since he like to push the idea of "synthetic biology", which he seems to be oft quoted as the founder of.

    I'm pretty sure Szostak being funded by NAI at one point as well since there is a link to his lab from the NAI site...but I can't be sure.

    I think the point I am trying to make here is that all these fun words like "astrobiology", "synthetic biology", "systems biology" etc. tend to be labels for funding as opposed to sensible names for the science we do. Take a close look as to who is getting funded under those labels and you shall often find that it tends to be the same group of people!

    Costume and know the rest.

    In any case, many of the people hanging out at the NAI events are great (and very smart). I think I just want to say that it's not good to label oneself with the same labels we give to funding initiatives. Picking on a very suspicious paper and presentation with just a touch of salt is fair game; it doesn't demean everyone else being funded under the same umbrella.

  20. Yeah, that much is a reasonable critique. It does raise another question that we hope to dive into at some point over at, which is: what is the definition of "field" or "discipline?"

  21. Steven Benner is currently funded by an NAI node, but is also an author of one of the responses to FWS's paper. This goes back to one of the previous comments. As with ALH84001, much of the science that will be done to refute FWS paper will be done by astrobiologists/people funded by NAI etc. Does it have to be that way? Obviously not. But as Rosie has already pointed out, the work will require interdisciplinary collaborations and people funded by astrobiology money generally have a ready set of these collaborators (this is one of the features/points of the NAI in the first place).

  22. I simply thought astrobiology was to biology like exoplanets are to planets; i.e. by surveying and assessing statistics over large populations of planets that can't be directly visited, the area are nevertheless more informed than without such observation. (Not that there is much statistics on habitable planets and their environment yet.)

    Another way to state this is that there are courses in astrobiology. [Disclaimer: I have taken one of those.] And there are courses in nanotechnology. So these areas are deep enough to be considered fruitful, quite apart from funding issues of research.


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