Arsenic’s Poisonous Atmosphere (#ArsenicLife)

May I help you? said the scientist, his hands holding each other.
I need me some strychnine, said Harrogate.
You need some what?
Strychnine. You know what it is dont ye?
Yes, said the chemist.
I need me about a good cupful I reckon.
Are you going to drink it here or take it with you?
Shit fire I aint goin to drink it. It’s poisoner’n hell.

– Suttree (Cormac McCarthy)

I’m a sucker for Cormac McCarthy novels, but they’re not a refuge for those after a feel-good story.  Even his comical moments – such as the above recast of Faulkner’s Emily and her arsenic purchase – are typically moments of dark humor in an ultimately tragic tale.  Every character is flawed, life’s lessons are doled out with a heavy price, and nobody emerges unscathed or without sin.

Perhaps McCarthy should take a look at the saga surrounding the now infamous GFAJ-1 bacteria and its hotly debated relationship with arsenic.

Back in December, when the paper first came out, I reacted as did many in the scientific community.  First, surprise, intrigue and a bit of skepticism.  Second, more skepticism after reading the paper.  Third, a touch of scorn following an email discussion about the paper’s problems.  And fourth, considerably more scorn when I considered and watched the overblown press conference and its lead-up teasers.  No matter how cool the result, nobody likes science being turned into an analogue for sweeps week.

But then, as the weeks passed and all hell broke loose, I found much of my initial scorn dissipating, replaced by a vague but growing discomfort with the entire saga.  Yes, the paper had holes in it – possibly big ones.  Yes, the press conference and its trappings were Exhibit A for how not to engage in science communication.  But the community reaction was at times vicious, often personal, and frequently imbued with hypocrisy.  Criticisms of the paper or its authors were based on conjecture and conspiracy as much as demonstrable fact.  For a while there, I could hardly get through a day at work without reading or hearing some personal jab at the study’s lead author, Felisa Wolfe-Simon.   And some in the blogosphere seemed bent on leveraging criticism of the study and its authors into their own 15 minutes of fame.  All in all, hardly the science community’s finest hour.

Meanwhile, being a biogeochemist, I’d get people asking for my opinion.  And I found myself (uncharacteristically) demurring, perhaps because while many seemed to see clear villains (Wolfe-Simon, NASA, the paper’s reviewers) and heroes (those exposing the study’s flaws), I saw a muddled landscape with generous helpings of blame to go around.  So for the most part, I shut up while my discomfort grew.  Then came the physical publication of the paper, an unprecedented side dish of technical comments, another round of blogospheric flogging…and a new wave of questions from students and colleagues about what I thought.

Hence this post.  I’m not going to deconstruct the paper itself – that’s been done ad nauseum now.  Instead, I’ll focus on just a few opinions – or lessons learned – from the communication of the findings and the community’s response.

Communicating and discussing a cool new result is good.  Taking it too far is bad. 

Increasingly, we are pushed to communicate our science in more ways, more quickly, more effectively, and to more people.  For the most part, this is a good thing.  We should reach beyond ivory towers, we should strive to make our science more open and accessible, and we should embrace new media technologies that can help do both.

But there are risks in all of this, as the arsenic saga clearly demonstrated.  NASA and the study’s authors engineered an initial P.R. blitz that created unmatchable expectations, and then disseminated claims about the study’s implications that were profound (and unnecessary) exceedances of what the data demonstrated — even if all those data are sound.  It was both distasteful and clumsy, and a lightning rod for much of the more vituperative backlash.  Above all, scientists must maintain credibility by not attaching meaning to their data that the data do not support.  That was not done here, and making this mistake around a high profile result can have consequences that reach well beyond a given study or its authors.

Lots of blame to go around.

The above said, too much of the science community’s response was unprofessional, and at times became downright shameful.  The study’s authors were categorically labeled as “bad scientists”, the funding agency accused of half-baked conspiracies, and the lead author besieged with personal criticism.  Too often, such responses were based upon nothing more than a read of the paper, a past experience with one of the authors or the funding agency, or worst of all, a rush to jump on the bash-the-arsenic-study bandwagon…without even having read the paper.  To be sure, not everyone behaved badly, and some excellent and balanced analyses can be found (e.g. see some of Jonathan Eisen’s commentary).  But many – myself included in the initial days post-publication – crossed the line.

Yes, the press conference was handled poorly; yes, the paper has flaws; yes, some of the authors’ responses to the community unveiling of such flaws have been questionable.  None of that justifies descents into personal attacks, undocumented assumptions, or generalizations about a given author’s scientific capabilities as a whole.  Only outright ethical breaches (for which there is no evidence), might – might – condone many of the harsher criticisms one can find online.

Scientists are people – and thus we have failings.  We gossip, we overreach, we sometimes say mean things.  And that’s precisely why the practice of science seeks to filter some of the more damaging of inherent human tendencies.  We are told to leave our biases at the lab door, to strip any personal comments from our peer review process, and to encourage big ideas and the frequent failure that must necessarily accompany the testing of such ideas.  Today’s new media options present new challenges to these professional principles…which brings me to my next point.

Blogs cannot be both a mechanism for professional peer review and unconstrained open forums.

The very nature of many scientific blogs is to blend some science with personality, humor, sarcasm, community discussion, and forays into writing that would never appear in more formal outlets.  Some have been described as online analogues to a lab meeting held at a bar.  But the arsenic episode has exposed a tension between different uses of blogs or other new media tools.  In response to the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper, some blogs posted lengthy technical responses to the study – much like traditional peer review – but also engaged in the types of personal comments and/or conjecture the peer review process would shun.

You can’t have it both ways.  The bar-discussion atmosphere humanizes the scientific process – for better and for worse – but it by definition crosses professional boundaries on which science depends.  It also makes public what were once largely private conversations, meaning that everyone in science will need to develop even thicker skins…in a profession that is already (and necessarily) replete with rejection and peer-critique.   The Wolfe-Simon paper was led by a junior scientist, many of whom understandably battle confidence issues as much as balky lab instruments or unpredictable field conditions.  For many early career scientists, the onslaught of more personal invective heaped on top of stinging professional critiques would be a ticket straight out of the profession.  And that’s a damn shame.

If you want a blog or other new media site to serve as a rapid, efficient and open peer review forum, it has to be just – and only – that.  For any such site, maintaining credibility and maximizing effectiveness means “staying in your lane” — and that requires vigilant avoidance and/or removal of personal comments and irrelevant conjecture.  Too much of the discussion of GFAJ-1, despite some claims to the contrary, has not held to these principles.

It’s wrong to label Felisa Wolfe-Simon with a scarlet A(s).

Much of my discomfort with this entire episode has derived from the extraordinary polarization that has developed around the study’s lead author.  Science has plenty of flawed papers, over-interpretations of data, and distasteful publicity seeking.  But rarely do the people at the center of such moments catalyze such an avalanche of professional and personal criticism.  Nor, typically, is a single author of a flawed or controversial paper – even the lead author – so completely singled out.  Dr. Wolfe-Simon achieved unimaginable fame, notoriety and withering disdain in one fell swoop (while her co-authors are rarely mentioned).  One would think she was a polarizing national political figure instead of a young scientist bent on chasing a big idea.

Is her idea right?  Probably not – though we don’t yet know.  Has she made some questionable decisions in response to both the fame and criticism?  Sure, but she’s also been readily willing to share GFAJ-1 with anyone who wants it, including with those who have spearheaded the criticism.  Ultimately, none of us know what Dr. Wolfe-Simon’s – or anyone’s – motives and priorities truly are, and few (if any) of us would have navigated the arsenic maelstrom without sin or misstep.  A single paper and its aftermath – no matter how flawed that paper might or might not be – should not be a final referendum on a young scientist’s abilities or potential.

Young scientists who chase big ideas will be wrong more often than not.  They will make mistakes in the lab, and in public and professional spheres.  Some will have more abrasive personalities than others, and some will have better mentors than others.  But absent major ethical violations (again, for which there is no evidence here), no junior scientist full of passion for an idea deserves crucifixion for a professional failure or two.  If a paper is flawed, it should be dismissed.  The scientist should not.

2 thoughts on “Arsenic’s Poisonous Atmosphere (#ArsenicLife)

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