Scientists need media advisors

The other day I read an article in Popular Science magazine profiling Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the NASA-sponsored scientist who made headlines in December with a paper claiming that a particular strain of bacteria throve in environments high in arsenic and low on phosphorous.  Wolfe-Simon hopes to find a life form that uses arsenic in its DNA in the way that all other known organisms use phosphorous, and NASA foregrounded that hope in its publicity for the paper.  While Wolfe-Simon did not claim that she had proven that the bacteria were using arsenic in this way, so much press discussion centered on that idea that when subsequent findings suggested that they probably weren’t, she was subjected to a kind of disgrace.  In the Popular Science piece, Wolfe-Simon says that her career may very well be over now.

After I’d read this sad tale, I turned on the TV.  The History Channel was showing a program they’d produced in 2008 about Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist who has used game theory to devise an algorithm for use in analyzing high-level decision-making.  To be precise, about a third of the show concerned Professor Bueno de Mesquita.  This third included many excerpts of the professor and his associates talking to the camera about his research.  The other two thirds were about Nostradamus.  Neither Professor Bueno de Mesquita nor any of his associates ever mentions Nostradamus, and only one of the many Nostradamus fans who appear mentions Professor Bueno de Mesquita.  I strongly suspect that the professor did not know that he was going to be presented as “The Next Nostradamus.”

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4 Comments

  1. How can you say that “Wolfe-Simon did not claim that she had proven that the bacteria were using arsenic in this way”? She published a paper with the title “A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus”, which is essentially the claim you’re saying she didn’t make. The actual contents of the paper clearly make this claim too. Have you viewed the press conference, in which she clearly makes this claim repeatedly? Nobody made her look like she was claiming anything that she wasn’t.

  2. acilius

     /  September 12, 2011

    Thanks for reading and commenting, SB!

    In her paper W-S claimed that GFAJ-1 responded to phosphorous deprivation by digesting arsenic, and that claim may well have been the result of an overly hasty interpretation. But the spectacular claim was that arsenic had replaced phosphorous in the bacterium’s DNA, a claim to which she did not commit herself in the paper. As for the press conference, how fair is it to hold anything against her that she said in that supercharged atmosphere? There’s a reason professional politicians usually beat amateurs who challenge them for high office, and part of it is that nobody manages to say what s/he planned to say at any of their first several press conferences. Certainly NASA shouldn’t have hyped the study as it did, but having done so the agency did a second wrong by putting W-S on that stage without preparation.

  3. David Sanders

     /  September 12, 2011

    From the abstract:
    “Our data show evidence for arsenate in macromolecules that normally contain phosphate, most notably nucleic acids and proteins.”

    From the article:

    “Here, we present evidence that arsenic can substitute for phosphorus in the biomolecules of a naturally occurring bacterium.”

    “These measurements therefore specifically demonstrated that the purified DNA extracted from +As/–P cells contained As. Our NanoSIMS analyses, combined with the evidence for intracellular arsenic by ICP-MS and our radiolabeled 73AsO43– experiments, indicated that intracellular AsO43– was incorporated into key biomolecules, specifically DNA.”

    “We report the discovery of an unusual microbe, strain GFAJ-1, that exceptionally can vary the elemental composition of its basic biomolecules by substituting As for P.”

    Arsenic can only be “incorporated into DNA” by replacing phosphorus. It is disingenuous for the authors or you to maintain that the paper did not claim that arsenic had replace phosphorus in DNA.

    NASA is to blame, but the authors are the main bearers of guilt.

  4. acilius

     /  September 12, 2011

    Thanks for commenting, David!

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