After (arsenic) life: Great profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

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9 Responses to “After (arsenic) life: Great profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon”

  1. lorq says:

    Glad to see attention brought to this article; I’d come across it directly in the magazine and was very impressed.  But lately I’ve been impressed with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of their coverage in general; see, for example, their May issue on ocean conservation: 
    http://www.popsci.com/category/tags/savetheseas2011

  2. Warren_Terra says:

    I’m sorry, but while I’m sure her article was wildly misconstrued and she’s not responsible for the stupid claims other people and especially laypeople made in response to it, she is responsible for the extraordinary and unsupported claims made in her own paper. To wit, she said that she believed arsenic had replaced phosphorous in the DNA backbone in her arsenic-adapted and arsenic-saturated bacteria, and an impromptu peanut gallery of scientists and informed readers was able to demonstrate within hours that she simply hadn’t done the sort of experiments required to validate such a claim, and chemists pointed out that while the valence of arsenic is correct to replace phosphorous the differing bond lengths should have made it obvious that her claim was utterly implausible. Actual discrediting of the claim (rather than merely pointing out that it was never proven) will take longer, but at this point I think it’s widely predicted that her claims will be debunked. At that point it does indeed seem likely her career is over.

    Mind you, Prof. Wolfe-Simon is not the only culprit here. The Tom Clynes article you quote point out that her manuscript passed the peer review process – a result that was, in effect, unfair to Prof. Wolfe-Simon, no matter how pleased she was with it at the time. There is a cliche that says “Just because it’s published in Science doesn’t mean it’s not true”‘ this cliche exists because Science in particular (but not Science alone) has made something of a practice of publishing weakly supported papers they feel with attract attention and provoke discussion, especially those that do both in the lay media (see also Life On Mars, ~1997). A peer review process that wasn’t skewed towards encouraging publication of this thought-provoking but deeply flawed manuscript (to wit, one that included a knowledgeable and skeptical chemist or biochemist) would have saved Prof. Wolfe-Simon enormous embarrassment. Her resulting work would have been far stronger when it was published, and would have drawn more attention to the fascinating biology of these extremophilic bacteria, rather than misdirecting attention to a likely erroneous conclusion. But that paper would never have been published in Science, and the general public would never have noticed it.

    Please note also that while you express concern that the likely debunking of Prof. Wolfe-Simon’s claims, and the likely implosion of her career, will lead to work of the sort she was pursuing being similarly damaged, this is in fact extremely unlikely. Extremophiles like her arsenic-adapted bacteria are an area of great interest to a large number of people, both in the academic and for-profit realms. The appearance of her paper was not necessary to motivate people to look in such places, and extremophiles will continue to be of great interest regardless of what happens to Prof. Wolfe-Simon.

    • calf says:

      Is there something you know about Prof. Wolfe-Simon that the rest of us don’t? Why make such an extreme assertion that that one scientist’s career will be “over” because they published a wrong paper, when this happens not at all infrequently (see, history of medical sciences)? How is this attitude not complicit in creating a culture that fears failure?

      The overall point of this post is about the people involved, and the systematic failures that led to the public snafu. To be content with only that the science will continue “regardless of what happens to Prof. Wolfe-Simon” denies that individual her basic dignity, and more generally, marginalizes the human experience of the scientific process.

      • Warren_Terra says:

        She didn’t publish a wrong paper; she published a bad paper. There’s a difference. Preliminary indications that their results might lead a researcher to make extraordinary claims would normally induce them to take great care, to consider other hypotheses and what proofs might be possible and desirable. In this case, it might have lead Prof. Wolfe-Simon to talk to chemists about whether her theory was even physically possible. Prof. Wolfe-Simon did none of these things; instead, she published a manuscript that was widely pronounced dead before the post office had even finished delivering the print edition. That’s not an unfortunately mistaken conclusion, that’s a grievous error of judgment, and it’s one she’ll have an awfully hard time escaping. You ask whether we should fear “a culture that fears failure” as if she bore no culpability here, as if her conclusions happened to be mistaken despite her having done all that could reasonably be expected of her. This was absolutely not the case.

        To be sure, the editor at Science who oversaw the review of her paper should face the consequences of their poor judgment. The people that did peer review the paper should at least feel a private shame, assuming they in fact approved it (Science is a bit notorious for ignoring peer reviewers’ verdicts when it wishes to). There’s plenty of blame to go around – but I don’t see why you’d absolve her of it.

        • lorq says:

          “There’s plenty of blame to go around – but I don’t see why you’d absolve her of it.”
          Calf isn’t “absolving” Wolfe-Simon of anything in particular.  “Absolve” is your word.  (Of course, informal moralistic rhetoric doesn’t require a peer review process.  How convenient for you!)

  3. Tunacorn says:

    As quoted in one of the official responses in Science (I forget which one, my apologies), “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – Carl Sagan. 

    Also, Felisa Wolf-Simon did not back away from her far-reaching conclusions despite some very well substantiated criticisms. I think she should have taken the opportunity to re-evaluate what claims she was willing to defend. 

  4. lostinutah says:

    Decades ago, an American biologist named Barry Commoner used traces of Strontium 90 from children’s teeth (collected and sent to him by dentists all over the country) to map fallout patterns in the U.S. that resulted from above-ground nuclear testing.  Commoner’s work was controversial, but ultimately very important to the eventual cessation of above-ground testing. 

    Strontium is immediately below Calcium in the second column of the periodic table of elements, and it is a fact that chemical elements which tend to form compounds with elements in a column of the periodic table tend to form similar compounds, especially organic ones, with other elements in the same column.

    Arsenic similarly being immediately below Phosphorus in the fifteenth periodic table, it is not unlikely that organisms would similarly form compounds by substituting Arsenic for Phosphorus in much the same way that the human body forms compounds in teeth by substituting Strontium 90 for Calcium.

    Just sayin’…

  5. Tunacorn says:

    lostinutah-

    You should really read some of the official critiques of the paper. You are way oversimplifying a very complicated scenario, and really have no basis for your claim that “it is not unlikely that organisms would similarly form compounds by substituting Arsenic for Phosphorus.”

  6. What has irritated me about this whole fiasco from the start is that they immediately went on national television with their results, instead of waiting for other scientists to mull over their publication and repeat the experiments to verify them. Yes, many times scientific research progresses by leaps and bounds due to the courage and insight of creative thinkers…but it also requires slow-poke verification in the hands of unbiased researchers who are not funded by, in this case, NASA. I hope the story ends on an exciting note, i.e, that these little bugs can live off of arsenic. It would be interesting. However, I doubt Wolfe’s career is over.

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