Field of Science

#arseniclife wrapup

I think that the #arseniclife saga is finally nearing its end.

Our refutation paper was published on Science Express on Sunday July 8; Science lifted its embargo early, to coincide with my Evolpalooza talk.  Another refutation paper by Erb et al.) was released at the same time - we didn't know about this work but it nicely supports and complements ours.  At the same time Science released a rather platitudinous Editorial Statement (available here).  Wolfe-Simon continues to deny that any errors were made and states that results of her more recent work support the original claims (evasive email correspondence here).

Both papers will appear in print in the July 26 issue of Science - I don't know whether there will be any accompanying commentary.

So what should we learn from the whole mess?  The 'Cascade of FAIL' figure above is a summary slide from my Evolpalooza talk.  Although I think everyone involved failed, I'm happy to attribute this to a cascade of human error rather that malfeasance or misconduct.  

Science's Editorial Statement smugly points out that the scientific process is self-correcting, but fails to acknowledge the harm done but the original error, and the cost to many of the correction process.  Unfortunately, nobody involved seems willing to apologize for the trouble they have caused.

Should the original paper be retracted?  David Sanders argues for this at Retraction Watch, but I think not.  The authors are unwilling to admit any errors, and I don't think journals should have the right to remove papers just because the authors made mistakes and their conclusions turn out to be unjustified.  That's especially true now, 18 months after the paper appeared, when the literature contains a number of new papers that respond to and refute these claims.

What about the long-term fallout for the public understanding of science?  It's not as bad as I had feared.  Most of the hits from a Google search for 'arsenic DNA' (below) are to pages discussing the new refutation results or the controversy; only one is to the original report.



3 comments:

  1. precocious undergradJuly 16, 2012 at 8:50 PM

    "Science's Editorial Statement smugly points out that the scientific process is self-correcting, but fails to acknowledge the harm done but the original error, and the cost to many of the correction process. Unfortunately, nobody involved seems willing to apologize for the trouble they have caused."

    What exactly was the harm done? (A harm grievous enough to warrant creation of the FAIL slide above, let alone its presentation in a public setting.) Given that most scientists were hesitant to accept the original As conclusions (if not outright dismissive of them), it's not as if the original paper dramatically altered, say, the landscape of funding in the field. If anything, the fiasco has been beneficial for everyone involved, gaining him or her publicity and a high-profile publication. Or am I arguing some sort of science version of the broken window fallacy?

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  2. Like the above commenter I'm not sure what your mean by the statement the 'trouble they have caused'? And, to be honest, the 'FAIL' diagram was really tacky in the light of you having just published a paper refuting their conclusions. Yes, they were probably wrong, and you are right.....but come on, was this rubbing of faces in the dirt really needed?

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  3. The problem here, and nobody seems to by actually paying attention to it, is that the vast majority of scientists have to work really hard, proof our hypothesis to the last statement, and make sure everything is fine and super solid before submitting the paper. After that, we are tested to death by reviewers that ask for more and more data, more and more experiments, etc.. and we do have to fulfil all those requirements before the paper gets accepted in a medium/low profile journal (not to mention high profile journals such as Science). So yes, the diagram points out, and very well, the long chain of errors that allowed for the publication of a work that NEVER should be accepted in ANY journal given the amount of black spots that has on it (not to mention the conclusions, and the hype the authors wanted to give themselves). Yes, they did change the course of research (many people had to proof them wrong) and yes, they do deserve everyone showing them how wrong they are and how much time good scientist had to put on the bench to proof them that they were deadly wrong. The only way to get out of a hole is stop digging, and Wolfe-Simon seems not to get this point either.

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