Sunday, January 22, 2012

Update on GFAJ-1

        Rosie Redfield, who very quickly challenged the announcement that GFAJ-1* could use arsenic as a substitute for phosphorous in its DNA backbone, has now published her research. The result appears to contradict the original work by Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al., but since it's only a blog-post we'll have to wait for peer-reviewed publication for the next chapter of this highly interesting science "Whosynthedit." As Bob Zimmerman correctly reports, it'll be interesting if Science refuses to publish on the grounds that the world of bloggery got the news first.

        This blog had some fun with Richard Hoagland's hilarious failure to comprehend the original announcement in December 2010, under the title Tiny bacterium defeats pseudoscientist. It took my breath away when he said "This marks the first time NASA has grappled with the concept 'What is Life?'" It seems that, to him, the entire history of NASA's Mars mission planning since Viking in 1976 just never happened.

* It actually stands for 'Get Felisa A Job.'


Chris Lopes said...

Hoagland's confusion on this one was understandable. After all, this is real science in action. Observations were made, a hypothesis was proposed, and experiments were done to verify the hypothesis. One the experimenter thought she had enough evidence to back up the hypothesis, she published her paper describing both the hypothesis and the evidence for it. When other researchers then began questioning the thesis(right at the news conference announcing the finding), Dr. Wolf-Simon's response was to provide more data, not call the questioners names and accuse them of being part of a grand conspiracy.

Now we have another researcher who has tried to reproduce the results and can't find any Arsenic in the DNA. While Dr. Wolfe-Simon hasn't surrendered her position (it's interesting that she is saying the Arsenic DNA might be too delicate for the process used, as the weakness of Arsenic bonds was a major criticism of her thesis), she is willing to listen. Others will no doubt try to replicate this new research, and the results of THAT research will also be open to question.

The process of science I described is nothing Hoagland would be familiar with. That's because none of his work is even remotely falsifiable. Don't see the face on Mars or the glass domes on the Moon? That's because NASA has edited the images. Don't see the secret messages in Obama's Christmas card (or State of the Union Address, or NASA Speech)? You just don't understand the ritual religion that he uncovered. There is always an excuse as to why reality didn't match the narrative. There is always a reason why the prediction that wasn't really a prediction failed. He's very good at sounding like a scientist, he just can't manage actually thinking like one.

As to the open science debate, this should (as you suggest) prove interesting. As long as the researchers provide all the details on how the got their data and how they came to their conclusions, I don't see a problem. Perhaps the peer review process is more exacting than that though.

expat said...

Interesting long essay about Iron Lisa. Turns out she's been eased out of the astrobiology program (and by the way, she was entirely cut out of the NOVA documentary that's described here):

Chris Lopes said...

Very interesting essay. I can see now where much of the blame for this situation can be placed with both NASA and Science (the journal). Both should have seen what was coming (Benner was part of the presentation after all) and warned Dr. Wolfe-Simon about it. I think both could have also done a better job of looking over the work done in the first place.

That said, I think some of the negative reaction the research got was a bit over the top. Some scientists seemed to be reacting to Dr. Wolfe-Simon the celebrity and not Wolfe-Simon the scientist. There is something rather personal about a blog post titled "Is Dr. Wolfe-Simon an alien?" Of course that doesn't make the science being done any better, it just makes the judgment of the critics a bit more suspect.

I'll also note that if the essay is to be believed, apparently Dr. Wolfe-Simon and company were not as forth coming to their critics as I have been saying. It seems they took the personal attacks to heart and responded in kind. That isn't helpful to science either.

P.S. The part about the PBS special was interesting. The good doctor didn't seem to like the whole filming process that ended up never being used anyway.

expat said...

I wrote to the Nova producer asking whether his decision to drop that sequence was a matter of his company (Darlow Smithson Productions) or the Nova office at WGBH distancing themselves from research they no longer trusted. Didn't get a reply.

At the time a few Hoagland disciples were yelling accusations that NASA over-hyped that press conf. Accusations I dismissed at the time but which I now see may have some credibility.

Chris Lopes said...

Yes it does look like NASA went over the top with this, but not for the reason the faithful were giving. NASA wasn't engaging in any "drip, drip, drip" disclosure. They were just pushing research they thought would get the public excited and thus help them with funding. Nothing beyond normal government agency politics was involved.

strahlungsamt said...

They were just pushing research they thought would get the public excited and thus help them with funding.

Yet they hide the TRUTH about the Face on Mars, the pyramids, the lunar domes, the Egyptian rituals at NASA and Hyperdimensional energy.

It's a conspiracy I tell ya's. They're all Freemasons. It all adds up to 33.