Doing Science – Arsenic and Aliens


Now here is a truly fabulous example of how you “Do Science” … The Discover blogger known as Loom (who is better known to his friends as Carl Zimmer) has written about the NASA Arsenic based microbe paper. Now, instead of presenting you with his view, he did something far more scientific, he went out and talked to a wide range of subject matter experts (gasp! … a journalist who actually strayed beyond Google, do they still exist?). He then went on to write a very informed article in Slate about it all that proved to be immensely popular. However, he has not left it at that. Within his Discover blog he explains …

I think that what has gotten so much attention to the story is just how many scientists had such critical things to say. The verdict was not unanimous, but the majority was large. I was only able to quote a tiny bit from just a few of the scientists I communicated with, so I thought, for those who’d like to delve more deeply into this, that I’d post a list of everyone I spoke to, and, when possible, post their reactions. A lot of scientists replied to me by email or even attached word files where they went on at length.

Now this is the truly cool bit, he then goes on to list and link to everything he has. What is praiseworthy here is that he does not cherry pick the folks who agree with his view, and simply dismisses those who don’t, he lists it all. For example, he not only includes links to Rosie Redfield …(when I blogged, I linked to her … she is patient zero of the arsenic critics), but also includes others such as Forest Rohwer (he takes a more positive view, but still has some reservations) … and so on right across a very diverse range of subject matter experts who have all read the paper and come to a specific conclusion.

Is a public forum an appropriate and proper way to do science? Well, that in itself is a debatable point. As Loon explains … (and I agree) …

the authors of the new paper claim that all this is entirely inappropriate. They say this conversation should all be limited to peer-reviewed journals. I don’t agree. These were all on-the-record comments from experts who read the paper, which I solicited for a news article. So they’re legit in every sense of the word. Who knows–they might even help inform peer-reviewed science that comes out later on.

He then writes …(this is key, its the bit I truly applaud) …

I’m going to post everything

So, … click the link in the quote above to see it all … and yes indeed, its a lot of information, with links to even more. So if you wish to become familiar with the conversation, then its a good place to start. While science does indeed work with raw data (the actual evidence), that can only ever be the start, you need to then go further and become familiar with the full conversation that takes place. Now normally that does indeed happen within peer-reviewed journals, and that also is where all this starts, but the folks at NASA (for some strange reason) have taken this conversation out into the public domain (usually not a great idea even at the best of times), but since its there now, if you want to come to a fully informed scientific view, then you also need to become familiar with the full conversation, not just one isolated viewpoint … and also (as Carl writes) … “Who knows–they might even help inform peer-reviewed science that comes out later on.”.

Oh yes, and least I forget, normally peer-reviewed journals only give you an abstract and then make you pay for the full text (and why not, they have a mortgage to pay like the rest of us do) … however, with all the controversy, they have made the paper free, so you can click here to get it. (They still want you to register, but its free … what they get out of this is a huge list of folks interested enough to read it).

So thats science then … its not just the data … but also involves the full conversation associated with it …

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