Meanwhile, scientists are still debating arsenic-based life

Scientists don't get bored with a question just because the press does. Last December, research claiming to have found evidence of "arsenic-based life" on Earth touched off a firestorm of controversy, as many scientists weighed in, via blogs and magazines, on why they thought the research, and its conclusions, were flawed.

Last week, the debate moved into traditional science media, as the journal Science, which published the arsenic life paper, published eight critiques of it, as well as a response to the critiques by the authors of the original paper. One of the critiques was written by Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist who was also one of the first scientists to post a critique of arsenic life in blog form.

These critiques don't completely end the debate. The original researchers recently released their ostensibly arsenic-based bacteria to other scientists, who will now try to replicate the results. But the critiques have changed the discussion in some subtle, and important, ways. For instance, New Scientist and The Washington Post pointed out that, in responding to the critiques, the original researchers have changed their conclusions from having found "proof" to having produced a "viable interpretation." In other words, they haven't backed down, but they have copped to being less certain.


      1. You’re right, you’re right, it’s a little old. You’re a better man then I for pointing it out. And I, for one, welcome our new cranky critical commenter overlord.

  1. “Firestorm” is probably too strong of a word. What’s happening here is perfectly normal science. Which is why it’s meaningful to say that there’s consensus on other theories.

    That said, it’s great to see this being reported. When the media make a big deal about a single study, we rarely hear about the follow-up work.

  2. the original researchers have changed their conclusions from having found “proof” to having produced a “viable interpretation.” In other words, they haven’t backed down, but they have copped to being less certain.

    This kind of stuff happens so much in scientific journals it’s almost irrelevant.

  3. It’s not only old news to the journalism community, it’s old news in the scientific community as well

    No one I know in biology seriously believes the arsenic finding, and at this point we’re just waiting for experimental evidence to confirm our very strong suspicions

  4. @Snig, @Zan: I, for one, welcome our new meta-critical overlords.

    (Do you see what I did there?)

    @Hools Verne: Ah, not really. They chose to announce the initial findings in an embargoed press statement containing the word “extraterrestrial” – that’s the kind of thing that happens when a) you’re doing Nobel-prize winning stuff, and you know it or b) when you’re doing IgNobel-prize winning stuff, and you don’t know it.

  5. Science Magazine has been getting itself into trouble like this on a regular basis. If the claim is cool enough, they ease off on the editorial judgement and let some unsubstantiated claims get in that should easily have been vetted by the reviewers. Then they compound the problem with a hyperbolic press release, and embargo the article for one news cycle after the presser goes out. Scientists who are puzzled about the bizarro news can’t even access the original story. It’s just bad editorial policy. Science is supposed to be a premier journal because of quality and impact of what’s reported. Too often, “cool story” trumps critical review.

  6. The really weird thing is that both creationists and atheists have claimed the possible existence of arsenic-based life justifies their opinions. The two sides are in complete agreement: Any new fact proves they were right in the first place. If this research peters out (instead of panning out), they will still be in agreement that it didn’t actually mean anything.

  7. Maggie, I love you. Your posts in biology are interesting, serious and just mind-boggling. Please keep up the good work!

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