Arsenic and Old Wounds

Arsenic (As) and Old Lace

In the olden days of yore, science was taught as a guild craft. Knowledge about essential procedures, and about the interpersonal politics of science, were passed down from advisor to student in much the same way that ancient guilds passed down knowledge from skilled practitioner to apprentice.

That’s the way that I learned science. In this system, there were a number of received truths. Since I’m now one of the Auld Ones, I pass them along to you.

“In science, your score for ability is a zero or a one. Your score for how well you get along with others is a zero or one. Multiply the two scores together.”

This, of course, means that a lot of skill is nice, but if your personality or interpersonal ethics are lacking, that it’s all for naught. Literally.

“Two people is about sex. More than two people, it’s about politics.”

This blog is about politics. Today I want to blog about the politics of science, using the recent NASA press conference and paper on arsenic biology as an object lesson.

Recall that last week the blogs, including this one, were all a-twitter about a NASA press release that teased the possibility of life on other planets.

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Well, it didn’t take long for this to turn sour. First, the predictable response of the blogging community was to blow this statement out of all proportion and turn it into a discovery of life on other planets. Personally, I had hoped for life on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Some points about science. Not all scientific journals are created equal. Journals with wide circulation, such as Nature or Science, or in medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), New England Journal of Medicine, or Lancet are perceived as more “valuable” in terms of publication. Most scientists (including me) have gone through an entire career without publishing anything in these journals. Publications in these journals are expected of junior faculty (to grossly oversimplify, let’s say scientists between 30 and 40) at major universities like Harvard or Yale or Caltech.

So you can see that the competition for these rare publication slots is quite intense. Because the scientists who publish in these journals are, by definition, quite competitive, the journals have imposed something called an embargo which puts a tight lid on release of the research results before the publication date on the paper. In medicine, this can cause problems if a scientist feels she has a cure for some disease that is killing people, and wants to save lives by getting the word out as soon as possible. This rarely happens, but when it does is a quite intense tug-of-war between one’s professional ethics and duty to society. I’m only personally aware of one such finding, the discovery of STI571 (now called Imatinib or Gleevec), a true “miracle drug” that now cures certain types of blood cancer, or leukemia. My uncle died of chronic myelogenous leukemia just weeks before then-STI571 could be approved for use, so I’m keenly and personally aware of the conflicts involved.

This represents what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift,” a now-overused term. Most scientists like me are doing what Kuhn called “normal science”. A paradigm shift turns science’s worldview upside-down by a new method, or new way of looking at the world, or in the case of STI571/Imatinib/Gleevec, a new way of treating cancer. Paradigm shifts are, by definition, exceedingly rare.

Still, scientists will try to make their work into a paradigm shift. That’s what’s happened here. We were promised a paradigm shift (“life on other planets!”). What we got was normal science. That makes people mad.

Really mad. As in, multiple blog posts attacking the authors, the journal, and the agency that supported the work. Carl Zimmer in Slate summarized many of the controversial points surrounding the work.

Why do we feel cheated? Well, the embargo process was manipulated. Wolfe-Simon and her collaborators either deliberately oversold their findings, or allowed them to be oversold, presumably because of the need for publications in so-called “high quality” journals.

In the comments section of last week’s article, the day before the announcement, I said:

I was pretty jazzed too, but it appears that we’ve got the situation where yet another group is fighting for funding in a very restrictive environment and is trying to make an impression on peer reviewers.

It’s impossible to know who’s responsible for overblowing this. As you can see in the Zimmer article and blogs like io9 and Wired, blame is accruing to Wolfe-Simon, NASA, and scientists in general in about equal measure. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, and it’s not helped by NASA saying things like “you scientists need to discuss things like this in the journals and not in the blogs.”

Science has always involved more than two people, so it has always been political. Science now is more political than ever, to the point where people are openly asking whether scientists are advancing a Democratic agenda. It’s sad, but a natural extension of what I was taught, and what Kuhn was writing about in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

About Monotreme

Monotreme is an unabashedly liberal dog lover, writer, and former scientist who now teaches at a University in an almost-square state out West somewhere. |
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20 Responses to Arsenic and Old Wounds

  1. filistro says:

    Wow. From the article Treme linked:

    A Pew Research Center Poll from July 2009 showed that only around 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans; 55 percent are Democrats, 32 percent are independent, and the rest “don’t know” their affiliation.

    Again… wow.

    I know Republicans tend to be “anti-science,” but those numbers are ridiculous. Aren’t they?

    Why on earth are the numbers so disproportionate? After all, the decision to enter science, humanities, journalism or whatever is generally made long before political leanings are fixed. So why do so many who choose science eventually turn out NOT to be Republicans?

    I’d love to see some theories on this.

  2. filistro says:

    Maybe it’s because Republicans tend to be people who’ve grown up in Republican households, and those households discourage their children from pursuing a career in science because they think it’s “anti-God?”

  3. mclever says:

    Well said, Monotreme. I like the ability X people-skills calculation. 🙂

    Maybe it’s because I have geeky friends who work at JPL and a spouse who got a PhD from CalTech, but I thought the “big announcement” was about what I expected to hear.

    As you say, there’s a lot of politics in science, so I listened to what hit the press with a politically tuned ear. I read those pre-release tidbits carefully, and caught that whiff of weasel-words when they said their finding will “impact the search for evidence…” To myself, I figured that means they’ve probably found something that counts as life but isn’t carbon/oxygen based. I wonder if they found it in the deep sea, in Antarctica, or on an asteroid or something. Probably terrestrial, but it would be really cool if it was from Mars or Io.

    As you say… Politics…

    Who gets published in which journals often has as much to do with who you know and your luck of reviewer as it does with how impactful or insightful your research is. So, it’s not surprising if an aggressive researcher over-hypes things…

    I think the bloggers are overreacting. They got themselves all jazzed, and now they’re disappointed when the announcement was exactly what the researchers said, that it would *impact* the search for extra-terrestrial life. Not that it *was* extraterrestrial life. Arsenic-based life is definitely something new, and it shifts the paradigm of what we consider life to be, imho.

  4. drfunguy says:

    I didn’t read the original paper but, although theoretically possible, a demonstration of As substitution for P would be a paradigm shift. So much so that a very high standard of proof should be required. As Redfield has thoroughly discussed, these scientists fail the test. In many ways. So much for Science being the pinnacle of peer-reviewed journals.

  5. mclever says:

    @ filistro

    The evangelical, fundamentalist home-schoolers are a very small proportion of the Republican base. Sure, almost every evangelical, fundamentalist is a Republican, but not enough of them to explain the disparity in Dem vs. Rep numbers of scientists. I don’t think it’s just about science being “anti-God.”

    Keep in mind that I grew up in a staunchly Conservative-Christian Republican home, and my refusal to go into science was a huge disappointment to my parents who thought I was wasting my skills by pursuing music instead. I don’t think they’re that unique, either. I went to a math & science high-school, and my roommate there was also staunchly Conservative Christian with Republican parents. That roommate is now a multi-published micro-biologist with a half-dozen letters appended to their name. I know, anecdotal… But it’s all I’ve got.

    Perhaps it’s more a general culture difference between those who choose to be liberal and those who choose to be conservative? There’s a growing disdain for education among some conservatives, a disdain that has nothing to do with God. Perhaps its that dislike for expertise, especially when experts keep challenging their ideology, that discourages conservatives from pursuing science.

  6. mclever says:

    So much so that a very high standard of proof should be required.

    Good point, drfunguy.

    Perhaps the last sentence of my previous post should be reworded to say, “Arsenic-based life is definitely something new, and if proven it would shift the paradigm of what we consider life to be, imho.”


  7. Number Seven says:

    I actually heard about the arsenic life form before hearing about the big news press release so I figured it would just be about this life form. Made me think of various Star Trek episodes.

    ‘It’s life, Jim, just not life as we know it’

  8. drfunguy says:

    @ Seven and others in case I wasn’t clear.
    Perhaps there are organisms that use arsenic in place of phosphorus, but the team from NASA did not prove it. There are numerous problems with their methods, summarized by Dr. R Redfield of UBC.
    for details.
    To definitively prove this, one would have to grow the organism on As-containing media, then extract DNA and show that the As was incorporated. They didn’t even attempt this but tried to show that something grew in the supposed absence of phosphorus (presumably substituting arsenic for the P). I say supposed because one of the criticisms is that there was enough P in their media to provide for all of the growth observed. There is much more if you follow the link.
    I certainly hope someone someday proves that life can substitute aresenic for phosphorus, but that day has not yet arrived.

  9. drfunguy says:

    Where is that @#$$ spell-checker?

  10. Where is that @#$$ spell-checker?

    I fixed your comment. But, yeah, it’d be nice if the blog server had a spell checker for comments. They have one for writing posts (covers grammar too), so it’s not as if the algorithms aren’t already in place.

    But the comment UI is very different from the post UI.

  11. Mr. Universe says:

    Well, I’m holding out for life ‘as we know it’ on Europa. Of the aquatic variety. Thanks, Authur C. Clarke. But The discovery of life based on something other than the traditional building blocks is a pretty big deal, I think (#7 is probably referring to the silicon based life form ‘Horta’ from the episode ‘Devil in the Dark’ on the original Star Trek series: maybe we should call you 7 of 538).


    You’re a musician too? Damn.

    Now if only you were single and Canadian, bunette with a slight ocular misalignment.

  12. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Felisa Wolf-Simon was on Discovery Science Channel MONTHS ago on one of the alien worlds episodes. It features her taking samples of mud and doing her columns. It also went into her samples from Mono Lake and the arsenic based life forms.

    The NASA announcement was WAAAY late.

  13. shiloh says:

    When we were having one of the many why does someone become a liberal or conservative 538 discussions, Jeffrey said quite pompously he was a conservative Rep because he was raised by (2) loving/caring, well educated parents who provided him w/an excellent education ~ he has (2) degrees and his wife has (3) yada, yada, yada …

    and my immediate 1st thought were all the Nobel Laureate Academics/Scientists etc. who endorsed Obama during the 2008 campaign.

    JFK and LBJ took us to the moon, whereas Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building. 😉

    The yin and yang of Dems and Reps …

  14. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    BTW, Dr. Wolf-Simon got her Bachelors Degree from Oberlin in Music. The oboe I believe.

    Her PhD is in Oceanology.

  15. shiloh says:

    Oberlin was the 1st American college to regularly admit females and African/Americans.

    Michelle Malkin went to Oberlin ?!?

  16. drfunguy says:

    Re. the politics of science, some colleagues of mine published a paper in Nature in 2001 reporting their finding that genes from transgenic corn were turning up in native land races of corn in Oaxaca. ($ for full access).
    Well advocates of transgenic crops came down on them with both feet
    Resulting in the following editorial note: “Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.”
    Reportedly the first time in its 150 year history that the journal has requested a paper be withdrawn…
    I am not enough of an expert in PCR techniques to judge who is right, but my instinct is that an industry-sponsored campaign impugned the reputations of two young scientists because they found out something detrimental to that industry.
    “… yet it moves” – Galileo

  17. mclever says:

    Mr. U,

    Yes, I was the least-talented musician in my family, so of course I went to Northwestern as a trumpet major! In addition to trumpet, I also played saxophone, French horn, and euphonium in various university ensembles. I can play any instrument regularly used in a symphony orchestra well enough to teach beginning lessons… Unfortunately, music is a difficult way to make a living, so I use my math and computer tech skills to earn my play money.

    Sorry I’m not single or Canadian! 😉

  18. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    I play the iPod quite well!

  19. Pingback: Arsenic Bacteria link-dump | A Blog Around The Clock

  20. Pingback: #ArsenicLife Compendium « biologicalhominin

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