Field of Science

NASA's cowardly responses to their #arseniclife FAIL

I've now seen two responses from NASA about the new publications that refute the Wolfe-Simon results.

The first was sent to Margaret Munro of Postmedia News, by James Schalkwyk of NASA:
We asked the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which had provided funding for the GFAJ-1 research, and he said we're deferring to the actual researchers for their statements on their research. You can contact Felisa Wolfe-Simon, (email address redacted) for their official statement (I assume you already know this though).

I'm sorry this isn't more helpful but it appears we haven't been involved in the research for some time. Good luck!
The second was just posted by Dan Vergano of USA Today on their ScienceFair blog.  It comes from Michael New, astrobiology discipline scientist in NASA's Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters:
NASA supports robust and continuous peer review of any scientific finding, especially discoveries with wide-ranging implications. It was expected that the 2010 Wolfe-Simon et al. Science paper would not be exempt from such standard scientific practices, and in fact, was anticipated to generate significant scientific attention given the surprising results in that paper. The two new papers published in Science on the micro-organism GFAJ-1 exemplify this process and provide important new insights. Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism that can survive in a highly phosphate-poor and arsenic-rich environment toxic to many other micro-organisms. What has emerged from these three papers is an as yet incomplete picture of GFAJ-1 that clearly calls for additional research.
I'm at a loss for words.

19 comments:

  1. To me, the first response is appropriate (though is no doubt a case of passing the buck). If I were an author on a paper that was not being replicated, I wouldn't want my institution or funding agency commenting on my paper.

    The second one bugs me. "(N)either paper invalidates the 2010 observations"? Come on.

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  2. Neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations? Echoing Isidor Rabi, "What more do you want? Mermaids?"

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  3. I know that her email address is found elsewhere on the Internet, but should it be published along with this article?

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  4. Will you make your paper available to the public at some time in the future?

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  5. The only problem I see with "Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism that can survive in a highly phosphate-poor and arsenic-rich environment toxic to many other micro-organisms." is refute may be a better word than challenge. But the second part is absolutely accurate. Neither of the new papers show that GFAJ-1 will not survive in a highly phosphate-poor and arsenic-rich environment.

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    1. The main problem with that response is that this paper - and the NASA PR hype around it - wasn't just about an interesting new extremophile. It was supposed to be a major discovery that changed our definition of "life as we know it", with implications for where else we can expect to find life in the universe.

      *That* part of it has most definitely been refuted.

      But yes, GFAJ-1 is still an interesting little extremophile. Just like dozens of other interesting little extremophiles that did not get high-profile NASA press conferences and Science articles...

      Delete
  6. You know scientists can be wrong without being "bad scientists", "unscrupulous" or "cowardly". It's possible to discuss these things without being mean.

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    1. Just to be clear, it's NASA's press officers I'm calling cowards, not the researchers.

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    2. yes. press officers concerned with trying to hold on to what little respect the general populace has for NASA are certainly being cowards...and definitely not doing their job--which is to keep something almost all scientists should be happy exists, existing.
      what a bunch of spineless tools.

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    3. The only spineless tool here is you, Anonymous.

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  7. scientists can be wrong without being "bad scientists", "unscrupulous" or "cowardly".

    Yes, but only bad scientists would be sluggish to accept that they were wrong, which seems to be the predominant source of frustration here.

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  8. Yes, you can be wrong without being a bad, unscrupulous and/or cowardly scientist, but for senior figures to pass the buck on to the first author who was a postdoc at the time is cowardly indeed.

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  9. No one is ever wrong in science.

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  10. I am pretty sure the geocentric enthusiasts were wrong.

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  11. I'm glad that radical finds are challenged, but I'm really sad and upset at the way you are addressing this. It's bringing down discourse and sending science back to the days when those who yelled loudest were the ones who were believed. It's important to verify radical claims and be open, but insulting people hurts the entire field.

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  12. Anonymous, it is the loud yelling at a press conference on the part of the "Arsenic Life" authors that is the problem here. Had they not been talking about implications for the search for extreterrestrial life, and then following that up with a shoddy paper, the reactions would have been quite different.

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  13. Rosie, No response to FWS statement: "There is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data"?

    Is she technically correct? Of course she made no mention of her "published interpretations"

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