Science is self-correcting: Lessons from the arsenic controversy

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:

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