Sunday, December 5, 2010

Did Junk Science Motivate Nasa’s ‘New Life’ Announcement?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Oh, Nasa. If only you could invent a time machine and go back to when you actually had a budget. The agency’s claim last week that it had found a new type of life in a lake in California is now under fire from all sides. Encirclement! One Slate article quotes several skeptical scientists who question the veracity of Nasa’s claims. One even said perhaps the most damming thing one scientist can say to another: your paper should not be published. What gives?

You’ll recall that Nasa announced last week it had found a microbe in Mono Lake, in California, that’s able to use arsenic rather than phosphorus when putting together its DNA. It’s big because, well, we’ve never before found any bit of life that’s been able to do that. This changes everything, etc.

And then the knives came out. “They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature,” said Jonathan Eisen, of the University of California, Davis, to the Nasa’s scientists refusal to engage in debate via the media.

Scientific debate, argues the Nasa scientists, is best done through the proper channels. That means academic journals like Science or Nature.

Many of the skeptics say that Nasa basically engaged in bad science. Whether that was motivated by the need for good news (says one scientist, “I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn’t look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people”) or anything else, who knows?

Other sources of error may include not properly cleaning the slides containing the microbe, or not even realizing that arsenic pretty much falls apart in water—how were the microbes able to survive in the lab, to say nothing of Mono Lake, when a main component of their DNA is essentially allergic to water?

In other words, it would look like Nasa has some explaining to do.

But at the very least we’re arguing over science and not, say, what “rules harder,” Xbox Live or PSN. (They’re both neat is the answer! Everyone be nice to each other!)


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