Why Are Some Scientists Attacking NASA's New Life Discovery?

Some scientists are aggressively attacking NASA's new life discovery—GFAJ-1, the microbe capable of using arsenic instead of phosphorous to build itself. The reason: Dr. Rosie Redfield said she "was outraged at how bad the science was."

While some scientists have declared their enthusiasm about the discovery of this new type of life, Dr. Redfield's blog post attacked the paper fiercely, even suggesting that Science's editors may have influenced the peer review process in order "to score such a high-impact publication."

I don't know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they're unscrupulously pushing NASA's 'There's life in outer space!' agenda. I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science's editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.

I wonder if other scientists would really risk their reputation just to give a positive review on a scientific paper, knowing that it was so obviously wrong as Redfield argues. Another boffin, University of Colorado's Shelley Copley, simply said: "This paper should not have been published."

One of the authors of the arsenic bacteria paper, Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey, replied to this accusations talking to Carl Zimmer at Slate:

We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time. If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.

Meanwhile, NASA's astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon declined to comment, arguing that these negative remarks to the press "do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."

UC-Davis' Jonathan Eisen counterattacked, claiming that, since "they carried out science by press release and press conference [...]they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature."

We will know soon who is right, as the authors of the paper have offered the microbe they found so critics can test their claims.

But until the results are in, I urgently beg to everyone involved in this debate to keep it cool and embrace the only other reasonable alternative to clear their differences: Tag team wrestling in the alkaline mud of Mono Lake. [Slate]

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