09 December 2010

GFAJ-1: Get Fighting And Jousting!

Felisa Wolfe-Simon and NASA have copped a lot of flak for saying repeatedly they aren’t going to address criticisms of their arsenic bacteria paper anywhere but in peer reviewed journals. Even the most recent response says:

We invite others to read the paper and submit any responses to Science for review so that we can officially respond.

At first, I wondered if the team’s attitude towards blogs is another case of the “Nothing matters but papers” attitude. I don’t think it is, since it doesn’t align with them holding a press conference.

I almost get the sense that they think that debating science bloggers would be like wrestling with a pig: they’ll get dirty and the pig would enjoy it.

I have a little sympathy here. I get the sense that there are a lot of people who want to see...


Thunderdome!

Two scientists enter! One scientist leaves!

People love gladiatorial combat. It might not have to be physical, but a scrap is fun to watch. Let’s be honest: it’s exciting to follow the arsenic life story, because you have so many interesting elements. Hype! Embargoes! Egos!

It would be a heckuva a lot of fun to watch if @ironlisa (Felisa Wolf-Simon) and @RosieRedfield (author of a highly read critique) decided to have a “frank exchange of views” on Twitter. As of this writing, though, neither is following the other on Twitter. (Me? If someone cared enough to write about some of my research, I’d probably be following them.)

I’m also a bit sympathetic because I could appreciate wanting to think before wading into this. The team has already been criticized for moving too fast. Ed Yong asked:

(H)ave any of you scientists engaged w/ commenters on other people's posts about your work? If not, why not?

I replied that I have done so, when Scicurious blogged about a paper I co-authored (mentioned here). But that was easy, as the comments were straightforward ones.

I don’t know if I’d have been so ready to jump in and respond to commenters if I was getting told, “This paper shouldn’t have been published.”

And if I did decide to wade into an argument with someone who was that convinced that my work has so little value, what response could I give? Do I just say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll start work on the retraction”? I don’t think I would, for all kinds of reasons. The chance that I’d say something stupid and intemperate and that I might later regret might be fairly high.

There are many, many, many ways that this story could have been handled better. But even if they did it for the wrong reasons, not jumping into the ring and playing, “Let’s have you and them fight,” might be the first smart decision.

Additional: Dr. Isis has some similar thoughts on this matter.

Related link

Science Show feature has some audio with Dr. Wolfe-Simon, which is notable for confirming that the name of the arsenic-tolerant bacterial strain, GFAJ-1, is indeed an acronym for “Give Felisa a job.”

4 comments:

Dave Bridges said...

I dont want to say that the restricted walls of journals are the only place for this sort of debate, but i do worry that in some contexts, allowing for unmoderated debate with (often anonymous) bloggers might open a bit of a pandora's box.

For example, if one was studying molecular evolution, being forced to debate anti-evolution forces over every paper might become a bit of a distraction.

Plus, and i know you were joking about this, this really isnt about the scientists, its about the science

Rosie Redfield said...

Take a look at the photo-mashup of myself and Dr. Wolfe-Simon on Gizmodo!

Seriously, I haven't tried to friend her on Facebook or otherwise contact her, and she hasn't made contact with me. At this stage I think that's wise. I rarely tweet, but I'll check out hers.

Zen said...

Oh, I hadn't seen the photo mash-up. For those playing along at home, it’s here:

http://gizmodo.com/5708875/why-are-some-scientists-attacking-nasas-new-life-discovery

It made me smile, in any case.

Chris Waggoner said...

It doesn't seem so bad to respond only in peer-reviewed journals. Like having a debate with a moderator.

Did you ever watch the Rosencrantz Foundation's IQ^2 debates? They were much better than dorm discussions of the same issues.

And here I'm making the analogy that

dorm : moderated forum :: blogosphere : peer-reviewed journal