Saturday, February 04, 2012

Arsenic and Old Buses

The sound you just heard is most likely the co-authors' bus backing over Felica Wolfe-Simon. Bunnies more than a year old will remember how the NASA Exobiology Program trumpeted a strange paper that appeared in Science a year ago (and Science was no innocent) with FWS as first author claiming that a Mono Lake bug could incorporate arsenic in the place of phosphorous. This made no chemical sense. While Wolfe-Simon was not only first author, but first publicist, and very aggressive at that but she was and remains very junior in the pecking order and the others are busy backing away from here (quoted on page 4 of Tom Clynes profile)

In June, Science reported that Wolfe-Simon had left Oremland’s USGS laboratory to look for a location with better molecular and genetic research facilities. “Actually,” Wolfe-Simon says, “I didn’t leave out of choice. Ron basically evicted me from the group. It was a political decision on his part that I don’t understand, and I didn’t see it coming.” Although she received a NASA fellowship in 2010 that provides support through 2013, she is still seeking a new home for her work.
Clynes, subtitled a rather sympathetic profile of Wolfe-Simon, "Soon she found herself plunged into a maelstrom of bitter backlash and intemperate criticism. A dispatch from the frontiers of the new peer review ".

Others do not agree and much of the disagreement centers on the way that NASA and Science pushed the paper and Wolfe-Simon's way with words.

You will recall that the original study was published online in December amidst a crapflood of publicity. First, the authors and NASA held a preposterous press conference to trumpet their results. Soon afterwards, they were bowled over by a second wave of press regarding the shoddiness of the study. This backlash from the scientific community caused Science to delay publishing the paper in print until earlier this month so they could run it alongside eight technical notes with peer-reviewed criticism of the study.

I’ve already talked about the original paper and some of my personal interactions with Dr. Wolfe-Simon. Now, I’ve also had the chance to look at the technical comments, the authors’ response, and some of the secondary coverage online. Sadly, nothing has changed.

Continuing with ChemBark,
I do not agree with the common sentiment that “this is how the system is supposed to work”. This whole evolution has been a farce, and it is not how the system is supposed to work. Yes, continued work in a field is supposed to be undertaken to confirm or correct original ideas, but a study as flawed as Wolfe-Simon’s should never have been published in Science in the first place. The most obvious problems and omissions should have been ironed out by peer review. For a paper as manifestly flawed (or incomplete—take your pick) as Wolfe-Simon’s to be published in a top-tier journal, something went wrong.
Old news to the exobio types, but just the sort of thing that Andrew Gelman was writing about, commented on here.

One of the folk who lead the doubt was Rosie Redfield who took up the challenge. Well, the results are coming in, papers are being submitted contesting the original claims, with comments being solicited, and the birds are tweeting, or rather not.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I'm glad Redfield is finally going after some of the more senior people who worked with FWS. While generally justified, the uproar had a fair amount of people high on the pecking order doing a beatdown on someone who got uppity. This evens it out a little.

Re the "preposterous press conference", Nasa did invite a skeptic to present, not something you'd normally see.