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Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy

Filed under: — group @ 29 December 2010

Recent attention to NASA’s announcement of ‘arsenic-based life’ has provided a very public window into how science and scientists operate. Debate surrounds the announcement of any controversial scientific finding. In the case of arseno-DNA, the discussion that is playing out on the blogs is very similar to the process that usually plays out in conferences and seminars. This discussion is a core process by which science works.

The arseno-DNA episode has displayed this process in full public view. If anything, this incident has demonstrated the credibility of scientists, and should promote public confidence in the scientific establishment.

The story begins with a long-standing scientific consensus backed by an enormous amount of data: DNA is made with a phosphate backbone. Alternative backbones, such as arsenate, have long been considered unlikely for theoretical reasons.

Nonetheless, despite this consensus, reputable scientists have promoted the study of alternatives challenging the prevailing view. And NASA has willingly funded these studies.

Lesson one: Major funding agencies willingly back studies challenging scientific consensus.

The research team, Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues, behind this study collected data and concluded that they had sufficient evidence to demonstrate incorporation of arsenate into bacterial DNA. Although the data were preliminary in nature, Science accepted the manuscript (pdf). With a high profile, potentially groundbreaking paper about to be published, NASA announced a press conference to publicize the findings.

Lesson two: Most everyone would be thrilled to overturn the consensus. Doing so successfully can be a career-making result. Journals such as Science and Nature are more than willing to publish results that overturn scientific consensus, even if data are preliminary – and funding agencies are willing to promote these results.

Within days of the arsenic paper’s publication, strong criticism of the study began to appear on scientific blogs. These blogs attracted the attention of the mainstream scientific press. Soon thereafter, media reported the wide skepticism within the scientific community – with some scientists going so far as to say that the paper should not have been published.

These scientific criticisms opened the door to those wishing to discredit science and the peer-review process, with the contrarian blogs suggesting that this study demonstrates that peer-review is “broken”. A comment on Watts’ blog summarizes their thinking:

It’s amazing how fast the scientific community came out to attack NASA for what they claim is plainly flawed science. Then again, NASA isn’t funding any of the attackers.

In the Climategate mess however, we still have heard very little from an awful lot of so-called scientists who should have been saying a lot more about flawed science but are too afraid to lose their grant money.

This raises an interesting question: just who is critiquing the NASA study? It turns out that many of the critics are also NASA-funded. In fact, many prominent critics of this study are funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute – the very same program that funded the arsenic study.

Carl Zimmer gives us several examples:

  • Norm Pace offers the critique: “Low levels of phosphate in growth media, naive investigators and bad reviewers are the stories here”.
  • Shelley Copley suggested, “this paper should not have been published”
  • Roger Summons remarked that a critical experiment was left undone, and backed the critical blog analysis of his NASA-funded former student.
  • Michael Russell agreed with blogosphere critics, and offered his own critique of the study based on cosmic ratios of phosphorus to arsenic. Russell is a member of the Astrobiology Institute, as well as an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • Forest Rohwer observed, “the experimental evidence in the paper is pretty weak.”
  • George Cody says he “cannot accept this claim until such an experiment [mass spectrometry] (easily done) is performed.”
  • Steven Benner was an early skeptic. To NASA’s credit, they invited him to present his criticisms at the press conference. He has said “we are not expecting this result to survive”.

Each of these scientists is affiliated with NASA Astrobiology.

Lesson three: Scientists offer opinions based on their scientific knowledge and a critical interpretation of data. Scientists willingly critique what they think might be flawed or unsubstantiated science, because their credibility – not their funding – is on the line.

Regardless of whether or not ‘arseno-DNA’ survives the test of time and further study, scientists have shown that they will rigorously criticize science perceived as flawed, with no fear of reprisal from funding agencies.

This is the key lesson to take from this incident, and it applies to all scientific disciplines: peer-review continues after publication. Challenges to consensus are seriously entertained – and are accepted when supported by rigorous data. Poorly substantiated studies may inspire further study, but will be scientifically criticized without concern for funding opportunities. Scientists are not “afraid to lose their grant money”.

Finally, there is the issue of how scientists who publish papers that generate credible blog reactions should in turn react. In times past, it was simple to wait for properly crafted letters and comments to be sent in to the journal. This gave fixed targets to deal with and allowed for considered reflection and response; discussions would perhaps be published 6 months to year later. But today, serious criticisms can arrive immediately (as seen above). Nature (perhaps with a little schadenfreude) had an op-ed suggesting that the authors on this (Science) paper should be more strongly engaged in the reaction, while Science had a plea from the lead author for a little patience, since they were clearly a little overwhelmed.

In our view, this needs to be thought about clearly on a case by case basis. Some criticisms (that for instance accuse the authors of deliberate fraud or misconduct based on a dislike of the conclusions) are not worth rapidly responding to, but it is worth trying to head off any misinterpretations that might be emerging. Short form papers (even with copious supplementary information) do not provide full context for the results in themselves, and so putting together a response to frequently asked questions is certainly useful (as Dr. Wolfe-Simon and colleagues have). This doesn’t replace the need for technical commentary to pass via the peer-review process though. In the end, that is what people will refer back to.


203 Responses to “Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy”

  1. 1
    Ben F. says:

    Its very true that critics arose quickly, and that NASA doesn’t fund these skeptics. Keep in mind that controversy drives web traffic and many of these writers are financially rewarded for being popular more than being authoritative. Who is going to go back and point fingers at a blogger who gets it wrong. No one. The research is forced to stand on its own for years and years.

  2. 2
    arch stanton says:

    “This doesn’t replace the need for technical commentary to pass via the peer-review process though. In the end, that is what people will refer back to.”

    People with integrity will. Some less inclined will keep resurrecting zombie articles, commentary and arguments that suit their agenda but have long been discredited.

    Thank you for another clear and timely discussion. A happy New Year to all who make this place so informative and helpful.

    arch (from the hoi polloi)

  3. 3
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    The big question raised by these bacteria is to what extent do they actually use As in their own biomolecules, as opposed to merely tolerating it in their environment?
    RC readers may profit from this background on arsenic in biochemistry by PZ.
    The disputed point is whether the paper supports the claim that these bacteria in fact use As. This is disputed by Rosie Redfield among others.

    The public controversy may have been exacerbated by overdoing a press release (hardly a new problem). I also wonder about inexperienced young scientists getting involved with Paul Davies (see author list) who may try too hard to be deep.

  4. 4
    Bryson Brown says:

    Great points here, illustrating a fundamental fact about science: it’s about inquiry, i.e. scientists (as a community) aim at epistemic goals, producing and evaluating evidence and arguments. The facile denialist description of scientists as selfish seekers of research support and personal status in a political game ignores how training and the social structures of scientific institutions, including journals, focus scientists’ efforts on epistemic goals. In fact, evidence suggests that introducing other goals (such as substantial monetary bonuses for certain kinds of results) actually reduces scientific productivity.

    How to incorporate the instant but unfiltered feedback provided by the web is a real challenge: free for alls get bogged down in noise, and the sheer scale of what’s out there offers too many opportunities to cherry-pick sources.

  5. 5

    Highly interesting comparison! I fully agree with your lessons. This makes it even more strange why the process you describe, sound and full criticism, is so absent in climate science. However, you are missing one very important point here. Although the arsenic study is scientifically controversial it does not interfere with peoples fundamental values. In climate science the situation is completely different. There the underlying dogma is environmentalism, i.e. the idea that man is damaging the environment, which so many believe and want to believe (maybe as fundamental right now as e.g. believing in democracy). Although climate science is a proper science many of its advocates are typically so revealingly unscientific in their devotion to the subject and this causes the problem (almost embarrasingly conspicuous in this blog)

    [Response: What nonsense. The only people guilty of imposing their politics on a science process are people who make comments like this. – gavin]

    The arsenic case is extra interesting in an unexpected way. The very place for the Study, Mono Lake in California, is a very interesting habitat.

    [Response: Yes indeed it is.–Jim]

    Wolfe-Simon and coworkers chose the place because it is literally loaded with arsenic. I wrote the Mono Lake committee and ask about studies on the environment such as humans, birds of prey, ground water etc. Although I am sure there must be some they could not come up with one! Had this been a man made arsenic dump there would have been uncountable tons of investigations and I doubt that anyone would have been allowed within miles of the place. There you have the full environmental bias and this demonstrates the problem of the comparison.

    [Response: Your story is junk. First of all, the people at the Mono Lake Committee, which is a conservation and education organization, are not the ones to contact for details on scientific investigations on arsenic in the area. They are more geared, in the spirit of their late founder David Gaines, toward natural history education and preservation of water rights in the Mono Basin against the intentions of the city of Los Angeles, which very nearly destroyed that ecosystem, and would have had it not been for David and the Committee. Secondly, there have in fact been quite a number of studies of arsenic (and other rare elements) in relationship to microbial physiology in the saline/alkaline lakes of the western Great Basin, including Mono (and Searles etc) over the last several years, including other articles in Science. A simple Google Scholar search would have shown you this. The rest of your assertions are similar nonsense which you haven’t a chance of backing up, as they are based on your dislike of “environmentalism”, not reality.–Jim]

  6. 6

    #5. Thanks for the comment, Gavin, it underlined my point.

    [Response: Sure it did. Anything to keep you in your little epistemically closed bubble. – gavin]

  7. 7
    Didactylos says:

    Steven Jörsäter, for what you seem to define as an “environmental” study, one needs changing conditions due to some external driver. Otherwise, it’s just ecology.

    [Response: Just? Not sure I follow the reasoning.–Jim]

    If being aware that human activity affects our environment is a bias, then it is a bias that every single human should have.

    So, Steven: don’t just sound off. Show us. Where is this absence of criticism in climate science? My impression is that climate scientists have a double burden to bear, because they have robust criticism from their colleagues and peers, and also the mindless sniping from the uneducated, uninformed wannabe “sceptics”.

    It is particularly telling that the mindless sniping continues long, long after the original research has been superseded (based on genuine criticism and further research, just how science is supposed to work).

  8. 8
    don says:

    Self correcting science, yup, you gotta like climate gate, and those other instances of the scientific method at work for the epistemologically challenged, the mindless, the unwashed, the trogs. Without the principle of intersubjectivity and the empirical invalidation of theoretical models the sun would still be revolving around the earth.

    [Response: Ah yes, the old “principle of intersubjectivity”. How easily we overlook it! By the way, what the hell is it?–Jim]

  9. 9
    Marco says:

    Steven Jorsater comes with the interesting claim that he contacted the Mono Lake Committee, and that they could not point him to any research. Let’s make that an “interesting” claim, as the Mono Lake Committee has a WEBSITE about research on Mono Basin, which includes Mono Lake:
    http://www.monobasinresearch.org/

    Jorstater may also be interested in this paper:
    Oremland et al. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 48 (2004) 15–27, which discusses arsenic and its impact on life forms at Mono Lake, referring to a host of other papers on the same topic.

    It appears to me that Jorstater is caught in his own biased view, and thus makes rather large claims without having any evidence. I hope he proves me otherwise, and thus my challenge to him to prove his claim that “Had this been a man made arsenic dump there would have been uncountable tons of investigations and I doubt that anyone would have been allowed within miles of the place”. After all, in science we do not base ourselves on our gut feeling, we come with quantifiable claims that can be tested.

  10. 10
    Edward Greisch says:

    YES! Excellent example.

    Nature isn’t just the final authority on truth, Nature is the Only authority. There are zero human authorities. Scientists do not vote on what is the truth. There is only one vote and Nature owns it. We find out what Nature’s vote is by doing Scientific [public and replicable] experiments. Scientific [public and replicable] experiments are the only source of truth. [To be public, it has to be visible to other people in the room. What goes on inside one person’s head isn’t public unless it can be seen on an X-ray or with another instrument.]

    Science is a simple faith in Scientific experiments and a simple absolute lack of faith in everything else according to:
    “Science and Immortality” by Charles B. Paul 1980 University of California Press. In this book on the Eloges of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1699-1791) page 99 says: “Science is not so much a natural as a moral philosophy”. [That means drylabbing [fudging data] will get you fired.]
    Page 106 says: “Nature isn’t just the final authority, Nature is the Only authority.”

    In the book: “Revolutionary Wealth” by Alvin & Heidi Toffler 2006 Chapter 19, FILTERING TRUTH, page 123 lists six commonly used filters people use to find the “truth”. They are:
    1. Consensus
    2. Consistency
    3. Authority
    4. Mystical revelation or religion [another name for several forms of mental illness]
    5. Durability
    6. Science

    As the Tofflers say: “Science is different from all the other truth-test criteria. It is the only one that itself depends on rigorous testing.” They go on to say: “In the time of Galileo . . . the most effective method of discovery was itself discovered.” [Namely Science.]

    The Tofflers also say that: “The invention of scientific method was the gift to humanity of a new truth filter or test, a powerful meta-tool for probing the unknown and—it turned out—for spurring technological change and economic progress.” All of the difference in the way we live now compared to the way people lived and died 500 years ago is due to Science. The other truth filters have contributed misery, confusion, war, fanaticism, persecution, terrorism, inquisitions, suicide bombings, false imprisonments, obesity, diabetes and other atrocities.

    Just for 5 Steven Jörsäter, could you dig out some of the early real skepticism of GW? Woops, that would be a lot of unnecessary work. Groan. Steven Jörsäter could look it up for himself, IF he were genuinely interested.

  11. 11

    #1–“Keep in mind that controversy drives web traffic and many of these writers are financially rewarded for being popular more than being authoritative.”

    As someone who writes a bit with the *potential* of profit for “web traffic,” I really, really, doubt that there is any meaningful financial “reward” for anybody blogging in such a specialized area; there’s just not the traffic.

    If someone wants to make money blogging, they need a really high-interest subject–say, Justin Bieber, or the ins and outs of the latest “Survivor.” It takes a topic like that to generate 100,000 page views a month–not arsenic v. phosphorus in DNA.

    Sad, perhaps, but there you are.

  12. 12
    Iso says:

    O.K. Great start. Now lets reverse the situation:

    The consensus is ‘arseno-DNA’. Watson and Crick got it the wrong way due to contamination, and half a century later it is shown to be false, Phosphate is the key or whatever. Science found a way, but is on a dangerous path. There is a resession and the public have become increasingly wary of funding academics who ‘read all day and tell everyone else what to do’…

    Man! All those hundreds of thousands of scientific boffins are so stupid man! And I’ve been fertilising my fields with all this arsenic shit. Arrr!

    Now that would be an interesting press release (or would it?).

  13. 13
    flxible says:

    for Jim, response @8 – The “principle of intersubjectivity” is when a number of the “epistemologically challenged” get stoned together and have the same hallucinations ;)

  14. 14
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Iso
    ‘isotopious’ under a new name, or coincidental similarity?

  15. 15
    James Staples says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t make it clearer what the very definition of the word ‘Science’ is; i.e.: a sort-of contraction of the phrase “Sceintific Process” – which is what peer-review is all about: the moving of a ‘new’ discovery from the Status of ‘Scientific Theory or Hypothesis’, to the Status of ‘Scientific Fact’, through the process of having other accreditable researchers seeking to reproduce (or duplicate) the results in their own labs; as that’s something many of the people commenting here (other than the genuine researchers, and better {self, inmy case} educated types) don’t seem to get: the basic difference between ‘theory’ anbd ‘fact’, and how one transforms into the other.
    This is exciting, and I hope it’s correct; for, given the discovery of a ‘complex multicellular life-form’, living deep in on of the Meds anoxic zones, that uses Hydrogen instead of Oxygen to respirate; as it has, within it’s cells, ‘hydrogesomes’ (sp?) which are Mitochondria-like Organelle that do ‘the metabolic thing’ with (again) Hydrogen instead of Oxygen – well, either one or both, opens up WHOLE PLANETS worth the ‘New’ environments in which life might exist, doesn’t it?
    Nice diversion from the usual Climate Battle.

  16. 16

    #12–“Watson and Crick got it the wrong way due to contamination, and half a century later it is shown to be false. . .”

    Wouldn’t ever take half a century to figure *that* out–especially if fields were being poisoned.

    Was there a point here? Or just “fertilizer?”

  17. 17
    TimTheToolMan says:

    Lesson 4 : Complex, complete and careful analysis of the data is not enough. An appreciation of the data itself and where it came from and how it “fits together” within the context of the experiment is equally important when determining whether a result is at all valid.

    Lesson 5 : It is human nature to want a result to fit in with your belief but until other possibilites are properly considered and specifically investigated to the point of confident exclusion, then the result will always remain in doubt.

  18. 18
    Todd Actual says:

    The only flaw I can find in your arguement is that no one cares about THIS science like they care about climate science. No politician’s career and no trillions of public funds are on the line. No one is willing to put undue pressure on a scientist working in this field, therefore they have no reason to act politically.

    I’m not saying that you are wrong. It’s just that this case does not relate in any way to the climate issue. I do not have any problem with the peer review process. To do so would be to ignore the last 200 years of history. And I do not care about the climate one way or the other.

    [Response: You don’t?–Jim]

    I just think your arguement is flawed.

    It has been proven that people with science degrees will advocate a position that is false for personal benefit. They work for oil companies, tobacco companies, the third reich etc. So why should a person with a science degree who works for public dollars be any different? Not saying there is some conspiracy or that we should throw out science. But scientists are just as corruptible (no more, no less) as the rest of us.

    [Response: Uh, yeah, but you fail to realize that corruptible not = corrupted–Jim]

  19. 19
    Isotopolopolus says:

    Yes, Hank, and there is a coincidental similarity with climate change, or maybe I read too much Michael Crichton….

    What could possibly go worng?, etc..

    >Everything

  20. 20
    Adam R. says:

    Lesson 4 : Complex, complete and careful analysis of the data is not enough. An appreciation of the data itself and where it came from and how it “fits together” within the context of the experiment is equally important when determining whether a result is at all valid.

    Shorter TimTheToolMan: “Climategate! UHI’s!”

    Lesson 5 : It is human nature to want a result to fit in with your belief but until other possibilites are properly considered and specifically investigated to the point of confident exclusion, then the result will always remain in doubt.

    Shorter TimTheToolMan: “Cosmic rays!”

  21. 21
    Bill DeMott says:

    Comment by Todd Actual — 29 December 2010 @ 7:04 PM

    Todd: The falicy in your comment is the notion that falsifying science would help one get a goverment grant or that there would be “pressure” or expectation to get a particular result. Any evidence of falsifying data or distorting science is the fastest way for a scientist to lose any chance of getting a government grant. Grants provide an oppotunities to make rigorous tests of hypotheses. Some of the results of my NSF grants supported expectations but the data always provided suprises. That’s the way science works. In fact, the best results are those that go against expectations.

  22. 22

    Thanks for your comments Gavin, Jim and #7, #9 and #10. First, note my wording, I mailed the Mono Lake Committe and got no specific references. I did not, of course, undertake anything like a thorough investigation of all references. I don’t know the Mono Lake committee but they seem serious enough. My full mail to them and their answer can be read at http://klimatet.jorsater.se/Arsenic.htm . They wrote “As for arsenic in the ecosystem, it is not well-studied” which sounds clear to me and there was no reason for me to doubt that.

    My statement about a man made arsenic dump was clearly NOT scientific but indeed a gut feeling as are many statements on this blog.

    Comment #7 is interesting. Its says “…an “environmental” study, one needs changing conditions due to some external driver.” This may be so and in that case it is an excellent explanation of why environmental science is more or less by definition alarmistic

    [Response: Completely wrong, demonstrating exactly the problem with deniers in general–they cannot for the life of them separate the processes and output of science itself from the processes and output of those that publicize scientific results. Most of them are complete morons in that respect, and it leads to about 99% of all the hullabaloo. Environmental science is “by definition” the science of the environment, nothing more–Jim]

    which in the climate science context can be formulated as “warmer climate and/or higher CO2 abundance are possibly fine as long as they are not caused by humans in which case they are disastrous”. If you believe that then I understand why we disagree.

    Finally, Gavin and others, do you SERIOUSLY believe that science is not at all affected by the values or political views of the scientist? If you think so, take a close look at e.g. biology in the 1930’s.

    See also my comment a moment ago on “Cold winter in a world of warming”? (#414).

    [Response: I have claimed nothing of the sort. Surprise, surprise, scientists are human – with all that this entails. But it is an enormous and unjustified leap to go from ‘scientists are imperfect’ to claiming that a whole field of study involving tens of thousands of scientists of every background, multiple continents, political persuasion, religious outlook and temperament is somehow devoid of critical voices or debate. And I’ll thank you not to implicitly accuse any scientist you disagree with of being a eugenicist. – gavin]

  23. 23
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Isotopolous “…or maybe I read too much Michael Crichton….”

    That would be ANY Crichton. Did he ever get anything scientifically correct in one of his novels?

    [Response: I liked the Andromeda Strain…. – gavin]

  24. 24
    Rattus Norvegicus says:

    And for a from an alternate universe.

    Warning! Do not consume beverages of any type while attempting to read this screed.

  25. 25
    Bibasir says:

    Even though the paper has a lot of serious critics, I think the peer review process worked. A novel result may have a little easier time getting published the first time in order to stimulate discussion.

  26. 26
    Isotopolopolus says:

    While on the topic of climate change, it is interesting that since 1980 to 2009, we have had 0.5 deg C of warming, with a linear trend of .16 deg C per decade.

    So for the warmaholics to be worng we would need 2010 to be -2.2 deg C to kill the trend.

    That’s not something I would bet on! Although perhaps -.16 over the next six years gives slightly better odds?

    Unlikely too I guess but live in fear, who knows what will happen over a decade or two (Oh the excitement!)

  27. 27
    S. Molnar says:

    On the question of whether Michael Crichton ever got anything scientifically correct in any of his novels (Ray Ladbury, #23), I confess with some pleasure that I have never read anything by Crichton, nor have I seen the movies, but apparently most of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” were, in fact, Cretaceous.

  28. 28
    NoPreview NoName says:

    [Response: I liked the Andromeda Strain…. – gavin]

    You mean the one where all the bugs mutated into a benign form at the same time? I was seriously disappointed.

    [Response: I was young.. what can I say? – gavin]

  29. 29
    Todd Actual says:

    Bill DeMott said: “Todd: The falicy in your comment is the notion that falsifying science would help one get a goverment grant or that there would be “pressure” or expectation to get a particular result.”

    Depending on the government it would help one get a government grant very much, like a grant from germany in 1938 to use skull measurements to prove aryan superiority. That is an extreme example and an exceptional one I know but you assume governments are honest. They are as honest as politicians and the people who elect them. And we live in the land of spin, everything is spun. For example even today there are nations that suppress research on sexual health and aids etc. because they are predominantly catholic. If a country and it’s politicians hold a “truth” to be self evident, then of course that opinion will direct the way research money is directed. Scientists aren’t dummies, they know which way the wind is blowing. I’m not talking about falsifying data, I’m talking about keeping their mouth shut and finding research to do that will be more acceptable to popular opinion.

    I’m not saying that scientists are making a concerted effort to pull the wool over our eyes about the climate or anything. Believe me I would trust a research scientist to tell me what he thought was true before I trusted a lawyer or priest or even an MD doctor. But the idea that they are immune to thoughts of self interest, peer pressure and groupthink because the ideals of their profession calls for it is absurd.

    [Response: No one is claiming that scientists are saints, but as expressed above in response to another poster, leaping from that trivial fact to the idea that there is some grand conspiracy of silence because scientists are afraid to rock the boat is completely unjustified. Going to any meeting, hanging out in any coffee hour or just seeing the questions and discussion after a guest lecture would almost certainly dispel any of these notions. Yes, there are are egos and self-interest, but even more obvious is a relentless curiosity to find out what the world is really like and why. In my experience, that trumps everything else. – gavin]

    [Response: As I said, the possibility of something occurring does not prove its actuality. You’re essentially just echoing the vast cynicism that exists in this society–and if you think that has it’s origins in scientists’ behavior you are very seriously missing the boat. It is in fact, the reason most of the deniers get any audience at all.–Jim]

  30. 30
    JiminMpls says:

    18 And no #13 Trillion fossil fuel industry on the line either.

  31. 31
    doug says:

    Steven #22

    You wrote this:

    This may be so and in that case it is an excellent explanation of why environmental science is more or less by definition alarmistic which in the climate science context can be formulated as “warmer climate and/or higher CO2 abundance are possibly fine as long as they are not caused by humans in which case they are disastrous”. If you believe that then I understand why we disagree.

    Steven….I’m going to strongly guess that you can go back through the archives of Realclimate and not find any scientists saying that “CO2 abundance are possibly fine as long as they are not caused by humans in which case they are disastrous”

    Steven, you are clearly an extremely angry man, and are at this time anyways, mad at climate scientists. If you actually READ what these scientists are saying, you’ll find they do not have the biases you think they do. They are data driven.

    Here’s a simple question for you. How much have you read or listened to climate scientist’s on this topic? Seriouisly, how much? If the answer is almost nil, then go to the realclimate homepage and follow the guide to educate yourself on what they are actually saying. I think you’ll find your anger slowly dissapate the more you understand this subject.

  32. 32
    dhogaza says:

    So why should a person with a science degree who works for public dollars be any different?

    Depending on the government it would help one get a government grant very much, like a grant from germany in 1938 to use skull measurements to prove aryan superiority.

    Godwin’s law.

    When you can prove that Lindzen, Spencer, etc have been purged like the Jewish scientists in Nazi Germany, forced to move to another country to fight for the benign nature of cigarette smoking, or the obvious truth that the world was created in six days, and no longer live in the US, but rather in more liberal countries than hours, you might have a point.

    Science in this country doesn’t work like science under Nazi Germany, and the fact that you suggest it might is offensive to the maximum, and indicates that you’re totally detached from reality.

  33. 33
    Mean and Anomalous says:

    Good post, and I fully agree with it; thanks for writing it. The arsenic-based DNA study contains an extraordinary claim, but so far the extraordinary evidence to back it up seems lacking.

    With respect to #23 (Crichton’s Andromeda Strain). You mean the novel where the microbes feed off the plasma from a nuclear blast?? I was enjoying the book immensely until that point. Crichton did not get the science right in that one either; sorry for the spoiler (but it is an old book).

  34. 34
    DeNihilist says:

    My take is that NASA knew this would be a big event, so, unfortunately, they released the details way too early. IMO, it might have been better to release just a couple of days before publication, and in the mean time, maybe have the authoring team talk to some of you guys to get a sense of what was about to happen to their lives!

  35. 35
    Edward Greisch says:

    I would like to hear from the next person who analyzes these bacteria. There is so much to learn. How many substitutions are allowed and where? How does this happen? Can arsenic be made non-poisonous? Are these bacteria more or less efficient than comparable bacteria in other environments?

  36. 36
    Carl Ellstrom says:

    Re #5 Arsenic in the groundwater supply is a big issue worldwide, and especially in Bangladesh. This problem is entirely “the fault of nature”, the only thing man did was drilling the well.

  37. 37
    CM says:

    Shorter Steven Jörsäter (summing up comments on this and other threads in the past 24 hours):

    “I say you’re blinded by confirmation bias, and everything you say confirms I’m right.”

    Anyone hoping to educate Mr Jörsäter may want to note that he has detailed a previous foray here on his Swedish blog (http://jorsater.se/klimatet/?p=49). He even compiled a 22-page PDF of the back-and-forth. To little avail: For instance, his blog post triumphantly repeated a nonsensical claim he made that Jim Hansen thinks 5-10 years suffices for a temperature trend, even though Ray L. had set him straight on the difference between averages (Hansen’s point) and trends.

  38. 38

    EG 10: 4. Mystical revelation or religion [another name for several forms of mental illness]

    BPL: Thanks, Ed. We love you, too.

  39. 39

    Todd 29: Scientists aren’t dummies, they know which way the wind is blowing. I’m not talking about falsifying data, I’m talking about keeping their mouth shut and finding research to do that will be more acceptable to popular opinion.

    BPL: You must never have met any actual scientists. In general they study whatever the H they WANT to study. That’s why they choose a field; that’s how they choose what to look into. The only major influence might be an advisor suggesting they look into this or that when the scientist in question is still a grad student.

  40. 40

    Excellent critique and summary of the scientific process. This is a text book case of how the communications process works in science and how it is different from what is being portrayed as science and the scientific process in the media. It is very important to differentiate the journalist’s process from that of the scientist and show the difference between rhetoric and peer review critique. I am going to use this as an example for my second year PR communications class. Thank you for the article.

  41. 41
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Todd Actual@29&18,
    Your argument betrays a deep ignorance of the scientific process–including the fact that first and foremost, it is a collective, not an individual, enterprise. Yes, A SCIENTIST may be corrupted. And his peers will find out and his career as a scientist will be over.

    The second thing you fail to comprehend about science is that it is not merely a body of knowledge, but a method. Part of that method reproducibility and verifiability. That’s the thing about Nature–ask her the same question and she tends to give consistent answers (at least if you understand the language of science).

    A related issue you evidently fail to comprehend is that science is progressive–each new result builds upon those that came before. Lies and fraud lead nowhere. They present no opportunity to build understanding, and as such they tend to be corrected as understanding builds.

    Science works. Maybe you ought to learn how.

  42. 42
    Mitch Lyle says:

    Two points:
    First,which many have made, this is a case study to observe how science actually does get things right despite the all-too-familiar human failings of scientists. Novel and potentially science-altering hypotheses get attention and get tested quickly. The same happened with the Lindzen claim about strong negative cloud feedbacks and the cosmic-ray hypothesis for cloud formation to make a stronger positive feedback to solar activity. They have been treated seriously but so far have failed experimental/observational tests.

    2) The NASA press release shows the additional pressures associated with 21st century science. One pressure that has appeared in the last decade or so is the perceived need to publicize scientific claims early and to make them relevant to the public at large. Unfortunately, that leads to ‘breakthrough of the month’ science reporting. If people will note, most people objected to the NASA PR. The article kept the speculation more in line with the data.

  43. 43

    Any comments on “the decline effect” as described in this recent New Yorker article?

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all

    Interesting that most of the examples were from the field of neuroscience.

  44. 44
    Maya from the peanut gallery says:

    Walter,

    Personally, I would be wary of taking anything from that field and applying it to another field of science. In no other field of science is there such a thing as a placebo effect, for instance. In fact, there was recently a study that showed that the placebo effect can still work *even when the subjects know they’re taking placebos*. It’s an illustration of the powerful effect the mind can have on the body, or at least the perception of the body.

    However, chemicals don’t react a certain way because we expect them to, thermometers don’t measure a particular temperature because we think they will, and software doesn’t quit working because we’ve gotten tired of it.

  45. 45
    Dan says:

    RE: 29, 18, and the superb response at 41,
    It is indeed a sad reflection on the deniers (and many skeptics) failure to learn how science is conducted via the scientific method as it has been for centuries. It was taught in their high schools and colleges yet they ignore it. Then have the arrogance to claim that they know something or more than literally thousands of peer-reviewed (that’s part of the scientific method process, deniers) climate scientists and every major climate science professional organization across the world. As we have seen by some deniers and skeptics comments here, they will go an absurd and insulting step further by declaring that global warming science is a “religion”! Their intellectual laziness is simply astounding simply because they seem to flaunt it. There is no excuse for it when they have access to the peer-reviewed information to read at their fingertips through the internet and right here at Real Climate.

  46. 46
    Didactylos says:

    Walter Pearce: The ESP results can easily be explained as more controlled conditions in later tests will naturally reduce the scope for cheating. The mental health medication is an interesting case, and personally I believe that the decline is a result of a reduced placebo effect – patients expect less from the drugs, they are wary of the side effects, and often they can tell by the lack of side effects whether they are on the placebo or not. I would like to see more studies testing the strength of the placebo effect.

    But what does this have to do with climate?

  47. 47
    Neil Craig says:

    Presumably it has not occured to the author that rules on funding etc which apply to subjects like this on which politicians have not publicly declaimed may not apply to those, such as alleged catastrophic global warming, on which they have.

    [Response: So how does this supposed to work precisely? Which politicians are we scientists taking our cues from? Senators like Inhofe? Presidents like G. W. Bush? And I suppose you have plenty of evidence for scientists changing their stances or opinions when the administration changes? Please do share! – gavin]

    If I am wrong he will be able to name the equally NASA funded studies by those who are sceptical that we are experiencing catastrophic warming.

    [Response: Roy Spencer and John Christy are both funded by NASA and have been almost their entire careers. ]

    Or perhaps “realclimate” will, once again, censor any dissent here?

    [Response: Or perhaps you could become just a little serious? – gavin]

  48. 48
    Bob says:

    Gavin, a bit OT, but I am curious about something. Have you ever considered why you, as opposed to much more scientific offensive behavior exhibited by the likes of Keith Briffa, attracts so much animosity?

    [Response: Given that I reject absolutely your premise here (Briffa’s behaviour is not offensive either scientifically or otherwise), and I disagree that I attract “much animosity”, your perception is probably due to the fact that I am just more public. So when people want to make up some reason to take offense, or imagine some strawman caricature of what scientists are saying, or jump to conclusions based on nothing more than their prejudices, they attach public names to that. The number of times I find myself described as holding opinions that I have never stated, or acting in ways I would find abhorrent, or taking positions that are the complete reverse of positions I actually hold, is legion. Since these cases have clearly nothing to do with me as a person, and do not appear to have been informed by any kind of fact, I conclude that my name is being used symbolically rather than literally. And it is very easy for people to gather up animosity for symbols they create that represent everything that irks them. Such is life. – gavin]

  49. 49

    Re: #46. Didactylos, I thought the topic wasn’t climate science per se, but rather the self-correcting quality of science. The New Yorker article bothered me and, at the same time, seemed relevant to the topic, so I thought I’d ask for comment here.

    And, thanks to Maya in the peanut gallery — your comments make sense to me.

  50. 50
    Bill DeMott says:

    While politicians have some control over the amount of research funding, fortunately, politicians and bureaucrats do not control which proposals are funded by government agencies. Proposals are very critically evaluated by other scientisits. When I review a grant proposal, I look at the quality of the proposed research and the chance that it will lead to new discoveries, not whether it agrees with my expectations or favorite hypotheses. Scientists do not support weak studies in their fields of expertise. This is for at least two reasons. 1. They are rating their competitors. 2. They care very much about the credibility of research in their field of expertise. Personally, I feel some pride when a researcher in my speciality publishes something that will attract widespread interest. I also am unhappy, when a weak study that generally supports my favored hypotheses is published. I have also reviewed grant proposals for academies of science of seven foreign (not USA) countries and the expectation has always and only been, that I would fairly evaluate the quality of the proposed research and its potential international impact. Oh, I don’t know how research was funded in Hitler’s Germany or under Stalin, but I know a lot about how research is funded around the world today. American’s leadership in world science owes much to the competitiveness, fairness and openess of grant funding in this country.


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