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.”