Much Ado About Nothing: Science Communication FAIL?
    By Jane de Lartigue | December 3rd 2010 11:27 AM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Anyone who woke up yesterday morning hoping that December 2nd 2010 might be a historic day in the search for extraterrestrial life is likely to be sorely disappointed. All week the hype has been building since the NASA PR machine announced that they were about to release an astrobiology finding that would "impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." Speculation got a little bit crazy to say the least! But I'm not going to talk about that, nor am I going to discuss the science behind the actual NASA findings, since this has already been covered by some truly excellent blog posts by Ed Yong, PZ Myers and Ivan Oransky, to name but a few. Suffice it to say that we all know the link to extraterrestrial life was tenuous at best!

    As many people have pointed out, the findings presented by the team in Science are very interesting (as you'd typically expect from an article in Science). In spite of this, all morning Twitter was alive with incredulous tweets about embargoes, over hyped press releases and feelings of disappointment. The anticlimactic feeling is not particularly surprising since, as Ed Yong points out, people have effectively "been robbed of an opportunity to be excited about a genuinely interesting discovery." To me this highlights some of the key issues with effective science communication and this is what I wanted to talk about.

    NASA and Science: these are two formidable giants of science that alone will make people, with or without a science background, sit up and listen. They really missed a key opportunity to engage members of the public with the kinds of research that they are doing, to show us what our tax dollars are paying for. As one commenter pointed out on hearing the news of the actual discovery, what instead will likely happen is that people will simply see the hyped-up rumour mongering as a transparent attempt to drum up publicity. The fact that the press conference, for many, did not live up to the speculation, simply gives a sense that scientists over-exaggerate their findings.

    We commonly find that the media and PR machines of big organizations take one abstract sentence from the conclusions of a scientific publication in order to make a statement about the potential impact or implications of a piece of research. In this case that was how it might relate to extraterrestrial life, which turned out to be the spark for a speculative frenzy. This isn't necessarily the fault of the authors of the press release, although some have suggested that this might in fact have been their intention, possibly to gain support for funding of projects like the Mars Rover, but it's a big failing in communication of the real science and in engagement of the non-scientific public. The problem with this strategy is that it generates a culture of mistrust. When the hand is overplayed, whether intentional or not, people tend to feel that they have been misled. If things then don't pan out the way it has been predicted or subsequent research puts the findings in a completely different light, or, as in this case, expectations are raised and not met, then it is difficult for the public to know what to believe and to trust. Whilst scientists are likely to easily forgive and look past the charade to the thrill of the real discovery, people without a science background might not be so generous.

    The crux of the problem is that there is a lack of understanding of the incremental nature of science. Rarely are truly mind-blowing and fundamental advances of knowledge made with just one piece of research. Often the real impact of an important finding isn't fully understood until further down the line or scientists hold fast to a theory that fits with our current knowledge, but is later proven to be mistaken. The way that science is communicated often feeds into the myth that scientists are infallible, when really we're all just human and, as the idiom goes, to err is human. The fallibility of even the greatest scientists and the longest held theories is outlined in some excellent articles. 

    We shouldn't have to rely on science bloggers to cut through the hyperbole to get to the real story. However, if ever there was an exemplary response to Royce Murray's piece in Analytical Chemistry about whether bloggers should be of serious concern to scientists, it's this! The majority of bloggers should be applauded, since they are effectively doing the job that the media should be doing and bringing the real science to those outside the lab. Why can't we engage the public with the interesting side of the real findings, instead of throwing meaningless statements of impact at them?

    Dr Kiki Sanford tweeted on the topic of the NASA press conference, "I'm surprised that people are disappointed in the NASA arsenate microbe news. I think verification of speculation is science at its best." I'm not so surprised myself that people are disappointed, but I do agree that it was a beautiful piece of research in itself…now let's scrap the hype and show people science at its best!


    I'm not so surprised myself that people are disappointed, but I do agree that it was a beautiful piece of research in itself…now let's scrap the hype and show people science at its best!
    Done!  ;-)

    people will simply see the hyped-up rumour mongering as a transparent attempt to drum up publicity
    NASA has certainly taken to the streets in 2010 (even more so than other years) and encouraged space science to play it up a little.  It distracts the public from the recent NASA reputation as a bloated monolith more interested in perpetuating funding than bold execution.

    But science can't win here anyway - some spin has been this turned over 'biology dogma' while the usual suspects (New Scientist, etc.) has fed the science hype camp with more ammunition - but you mention Discoverblogs and Scienceblogs and, among the three of us, that is a pretty good chunk of science audience that isn't getting fed hype by the BBC or others.

    I was interested in the Embargo Watch take because we always obey them yet 'embargos are porous' is a gentle way to describe what we all know happens - big papers do it all of the time yet smaller groups like us would get penalized for doing what Sun and others did (while claiming it isn't breaking the embargo if they magically research a story and release it a day early using 'other sources').
    Gerhard Adam
    I think part of the problem is that this information was already known and discussed two years ago.
    Early life could have relied on arsenic DNA
    26 April 2008
    From New Scientist
    As a result, it's hard to be nuanced about something that was already being examined and proclaiming it as a major discovery.  Despite everything that's been said about the discovery, I'm still not clear on what the "discovery" actually is.  Is it simply that these organisms CAN use arsenate in DNA (under laboratory conditions), or that these organisms have been found TO use arsenate under normal conditions.

    Mundus vult decipi
    The title of the article was 'A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus' - fairly put.   NASA hyped this up and Science played along; they are no strangers to this, as witnessed by their 'missing link' articles 3 times per year.  

    Oddly, their crazy old ex-editors are the ones always complaining about bloggers yet their own magazine produces more hype than any blogging site I know about.
    Gerhard Adam
    True enough, but it would be helpful to know if this "discovery" was actually that, or something that occurred in the lab.  After all, it matters if organisms was found doing this on their own versus having been manipulated into doing it in the lab.

    My understanding is that there is potentially a yet to be determined mechanism that is hidden in this process since arsenate isn't stable enough for this role (assuming it is confirmed that no phosphate was present).
    Mundus vult decipi
    "We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we've found is a microbe doing something new -- building parts of itself out of arsenic," said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team's lead scientist. "If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?"

    The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.

    The key issue the researchers investigated was when the microbe was grown on arsenic did the arsenic actually became incorporated into the organisms' vital biochemical machinery, such as DNA, proteins and the cell membranes. A variety of sophisticated laboratory techniques was used to determine where the arsenic was incorporated.

    The team chose to explore Mono Lake because of its unusual chemistry, especially its high salinity, high alkalinity, and high levels of arsenic. This chemistry is in part a result of Mono Lake's isolation from its sources of fresh water for 50 years.
    From the link I gave, Gerhard

    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, Aitch, I've read all those articles.  My point though is that they aren't about "discovering" an organism that uses arsenic as part of its biochemistry, but rather about "discovering" than an organism CAN use arsenic as part of its biochemistry.

    These are two rather different assertions, since the first would suggest how the organism lives under normal circumstances, while the latter is contrived in the laboratory.  This doesn't minimize the importance of seeing that it can occur, but it certainly changes the nature of the debate whether such life is viable in a natural setting over time.  If it isn't, then it suggests that the organism can use arsenic, but prefers to use phosphorus when it is available.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I guessed you probably had, and I agree, however another of my concerns is how this piece of research is being cited in many places as NASA's research, rather than 'NASA funded' as the original article claimed
    It is this sort of inaccuracy in Science which gets objected to, yet not the same detail about the Agency that carries the blame/responsibility, when critical revues/criques are published, like those you later posted - that, in my opinion, gets publicly perceived Scientifically influential bodies a bad name
    However, no doubt, the mention of NASA helped when the story was sold as 'possible alien life connections'

    Jane de Lartigue
    Nice discussion guys, thanks for the comments! Great article also aitch! I wanted to avoid writing about the science behind the discovery because so many people have covered it so well, including you! I feel that the level of confusion that still surrounds this discovery, even amongst scientists, suggests that it really was a huge communication failure, even more so than I touched upon in my article.
    Gerhard's point was also brought up in the discussion of some of the other blog pieces I mentioned. The bacteria were subjected to high levels of arsenic in the lab, it's cool that they are able to incorporate it into their DNA and survive (though not really thrive) but we don't know whether this is something that they would do under normal circumstances.  I think given the cells didn't grow as well and that they developed huge vacuoles in their cytoplasm in the presence of arsenic, that they would probably preferentially use phosphorus when it's available.
    of course the bacteria prefers to use P instead of As if its available, the authors show this in their data and freely admit it in the article. So what if the As use was elicited in the lab under specific conditions, the point is that life is ABLE to do this period under any conditions. That is the novel finding here who cares if it actually happens in the lake or not, thats not the point.

    Gerhard Adam
    Actually that is very much the point, and it might be worth looking at some of the critiques that have surfaced since the original article.
    Mundus vult decipi