The Blurring of Science With Media Spin: NASA’s Announcement About “Arsenic-Based Life”
Posted by mattusmaximus on December 11, 2010
I have to say that last week I was pretty upset with NASA, because – if you recall – there was a lot of hay being made by NASA about a big scientific discovery they were going to announce. In the process, there was a great deal of media spin & speculation on whether or not it was going to be an announcement of the discovery of “alien life” or something similar.
But when it came time for the announcement, it ended up being something quite less spectacular: it was about how a group of NASA scientists had uncovered a form of bacterial life which seems to have adapted itself to living in the harsh conditions of a lake laced with heavy concentrations of arsenic – the original NASA press release can be accessed here.
NASA has made a pretty big deal out of this discovery, but there are some problems with how they’ve rolled it out, in my opinion. I am of the view that they’ve oversold this thing, with overly dramatic phrases (from the above press release) such as…
NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.
This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.
Upon hearing about this discovery, and not being a biochemist or evolutionary biologist myself, I decided to look past the spin being put on this by both NASA and the news media in general and go to people who know the field far better than me. In a short amount of time, I found a great post by PZ Myers over at Pharyngula on the matter, wherein he states, among other things…
… I finally got the paper from Science, and I’m sorry to let you all down, but it’s none of the above. It’s an extremophile bacterium that can be coaxed into substiting arsenic for phosphorus in some of its basic biochemistry. It’s perfectly reasonable and interesting work in its own right, but it’s not radical, it’s not particularly surprising, and it’s especially not extraterrestrial. It’s the kind of thing that will get a sentence or three in biochemistry textbooks in the future. …
… So what does it all mean? It means that researchers have found that some earthly bacteria that live in literally poisonous environments are adapted to find the presence of arsenic dramatically less lethal, and that they can even incorporate arsenic into their routine, familiar chemistry. …
… This lake also happens to be on Earth, not Saturn, although maybe being in California gives them extra weirdness points, so I don’t know that it can even say much about extraterrestrial life. It does say that life can survive in a surprisingly broad range of conditions, but we already knew that. [emphasis added]
And, unfortunately, it seems that the story could get worse for NASA, because if you know anything about how the scientific community operates, you know that when someone makes a really bold claim (such as how the NASA researchers did) then other scientists are going to want to review the work & offer criticism. Well, upon doing so, there has been some quite withering criticism coming from many DNA & biochemistry experts about the manner in which the NASA researchers conducted their work…
… “I was outraged at how bad the science was,” University of British Columbia microbiology professor Rosie Redfield told Slate’s Carl Zimmer. Redfield also posted a scathing critique of the report on her blog.
Redfield and other detractors point out that when NASA scientists removed the DNA from the bacteria for examination, they didn’t take the steps necessary to wash away other types of molecules. That means, according to the critics, that the arsenic may have merely clung to the bacteria’s DNA for a ride without becoming truly ingrained into it.
The report’s detractors also note that the NASA scientists fed the bacteria salts that contained trace amounts of phosphate, so it’s possible that the bacteria were able to survive on those tiny helpings of phosphate instead of the arsenic.
“This paper should not have been published,” University of Colorado molecular biology professor Shelley Copley told Slate’s Zimmer.
So why would NASA scientists make such a big deal out of a discovery that, according to critics, they must have suspected was questionable?
“I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn’t look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people,” UC-Davis biology professor John Roth told Zimmer.
So, now that some of the smoke has cleared and the broader scientific community has had a chance to chime in, I’m beginning to wonder whether or not NASA has shot itself in the foot on this one. In fact, part of me is starting to worry that they allowed themselves to be duped by the biochemical equivalent of the infamous cold-fusion fiasco.
One thing’s for sure: this entire ordeal has shown the danger of scientists & scientific institutions attempting to use media spin to hype research, and the importance of having open analysis & criticism on such research from scientific experts in the field under discussion. I think, in retrospect, it would have been much wiser for the administrators at NASA to have allowed scientific peers within the biochemical and life science community analyze the research first, and then perhaps they could have held an overly-hyped press conference once the research stood up to scrutiny.
That makes sense to me, and I’m at a loss for why the decision-makers at NASA didn’t go that route. Hell, maybe NASA likes having egg on its face.