On science blogs this week: Alien abductions

NASA SCIENTISTS DISCOVER ALIENS ON TITAN! OOPS, SORRY, NEW LEDE. NASA SCIENTISTS DISCOVER EARTHLINGS IN CALIFORNIA! Let's start with a subhed the Christian Science Monitor slapped on Randolph Schmid's otherwise blameless AP piece on Wednesday. Schmid was seeking to damp down unhinged speculation about the probable topic of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency's news conference on astrobiology, scheduled for Thursday. The Monitor's subhed: "The Internet buzz is that alien life was found on Titan. Not entirely true, according to reporters who have seen the research."

It's the subhed that's not entirely true. The buzz was completely false.

The initial trigger for this blogging madness was a NASA release early this week announcing a Thursday press conference about a paper to be published in today's Science. NASA's press release, with the hed "NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery," managed the neat trick of revealing next to nothing while hinting at far too much. It was extraordinarily provocative, and what it provoked was a 'Net full of speculation — speculation that was itself full of it.

The key naughty word, of course, was astrobiology. The blog fog appears to have commenced with a post from Jason Kottke in which he examined the list of announced speakers and deduced, wrongly:

So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I'd say that they've discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements). Or something like that.

Or, as it turned out, nothing like that. What it is, as you already know by now, is a bacterium — from California of course — that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in many of its functions. Consult the ever-reliable Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science for an accurate summary of the Science paper and some caveats. See the also ever-reliable Carl Zimmer for a leisurely trek through this research, complete with introductory domestic anecdotes.

WHY THIS DISCOVERY IS CRUCIAL FOR ASTROBIOLOGY. OR NOT. Note that the bacterium really prefers phosphorus to arsenic. Just like the rest of us. And what does this bug have to do with astrobiology? Nothing, except perhaps to remind the people hoping to find extraterrestrial life that such life may not look familiar, that even here on Earth there are surprises. Which they should already know. Yet some media haven't gotten the message. This wrong-headed hed is from Time: "Life, Redefined: NASA Proves Life Outside Of Earth Is Possible With New Microbe."

No, it didn't.

So an interesting question is whether, by playing up the (nonexistent) astrobiology angle, the NASA PR folks were deliberately trying to stimulate interest in this finding, and if so, to what end? Or were they just clueless about what was likely to ensue when they started waving the word astrobiology around as a label for new research results? In either case, I'm unhappy that my taxes are paying their salaries. I urge them to seek other careers.

But perhaps I am laying the onus at the wrong door. Perhaps I should blame NASA Administration. One of the news conference speakers, Mary Voytek, director of NASA's Astrobiology Program, fed this mass delusion by comparing the bug that can swap phosphorus for arsenic (just below phosphorus on the Periodic Table) with the horta, a creature that uses silicon instead of carbon (which is just above silicon on the Periodic Table.)

Never heard of the horta? That's a failure of pop culture. The horta, a rocky but devoted mom, starred in one of the many Star Trek episodes that preached comity between humans and extraterrestrials. That's she on the right in the pic, getting Spock to feel her pain at the destruction of her children. (A lit crit aside on '60s sci fi: Observe how writer Gene Coon had no trouble imagining a silicon-based life-form, but couldn't get beyond conventional ideas about reproduction, sex roles, and motherhood.)

SOME SANITY ENSUES. Post-press conference there were some sane and useful musings in addition to Ed Yong's and Carl Zimmer's. Derek Lowe expatiated on life's wiggle room In the Pipeline at Corante. A long post about how the arsenic bug fits into the prevailing notion that Earth's life evolved from a single origin appears at Greg Laden's Blog.

At the press conference Q&A, a reporter — I think from a radio station — wanted to know what NASA astrobiology research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the paper's first author, was looking for when she found the bug. The question bewildered her for a moment because the bug she found is the bug she had been looking for. She has speculated that arsenic could replace phosphorus for some years, and deliberately set out to find such a creature — searching, sensibly, in an arsenic-rich environment.

The question revealed what I suspect is a common notion about how science gets accomplished. People think discoveries happen by accident. The scientist is poking around doing something boring when all of a sudden bam, he stumbles on something utterly unexpected (and, preferably, wonderful.)

It is not well understood — even, apparently, by some people who explain science to the public for a living — that science is a long process, a group process, in which (based on past discoveries), scientists develop ideas about new things they might discover and then develop ways to do the discovering.

Science is not, by and large, made up of Eureka! moments, as the broadcaster's question implied. It may be difficult to get rid of that stereotype, though, because it makes for a far more fascinating tale than the hard slog and perpetual grant-writing that is reality.

AN OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD STORY COMPLETE WITH AN EMBARGO BREAK. POSSIBLY. And, ah yes, this is a tale with everything, even a broken-embargo question, always of profound interest to science writers if no one else. At Embargo Watch, Ivan Oransky complained at length that, despite early speculative pieces, some of which even had a fact or two correct, Science resisted lifting the embargo, which was scheduled to be up Thursday at 2pm (ET — no pun intended):

...what better way to fuel even more speculation, and build suspense, than to not officially allow the very press that you supposedly hope will get things right to, um, get things right and tamp down that speculation? See, if Science won’t allow anyone to say what exactly the paper says, and meanwhile says the reports you’ve read — which by then included stories saying this wasn’t ET — were erroneous, there’s still a chance that NASA has discovered life on Mars after all!

Several worthy comments here, including one from Science's Ginger Pinholster defending the decision to stick with the announced embargo timing. Which she then rescinded, lifting the embargo Thursday morning.

THE COMPANY THEY KEEP. The award for the most appalling post I base not just on content, but on venue. The post, headlined "NASA Finds New Life Form," is from Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo, who led with this:

the cat is out of the bag: NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth. This changes everything.

If this ignorant post had stayed at Gizmodo I would have sighed a deep sigh but shrugged it off. But the post also ran at Wired Science. That site is generally home to trustworthy reporting — and recently to a handful of bloggers who are also top-tier science journalists that care about the company they keep. Indeed, most of them left the ScienceBlogs network last summer in the dustup when management allowed Pepsi Cola to buy its way into a blog there. And yet here are their photos and links to their blogs alongside the Diaz transgression.

It's a nice point. For a blogger who has made a reputation doing really fine science journalism, which is worse? Sharing a network umbrella with a Pepsi-Cola marketing campaign disguised as a blog about nutritional science? Or sharing a network with an outrageously irresponsible fact-free speculation pretending to be science journalism?

HIV AND AIDS. GOOD NEWS, MOSTLY. What I had semi-planned for this week was dignified coverage of blogging about the really good news from the New England Journal of Medicine about HIV infection, which is that it can be prevented if those at risk take antiretrovirals faithfully.

Maybe it's just as well that the plan got sidelined by alien invaders (see above), because I didn't find much. Perhaps that's due to the media's loss of interest in HIV and AIDS, according to a European report discussed by Elie Dolgin at Spoonful of Medicine. What I did find were mostly roundups tied to World AIDS Day on Wednesday, like Katherine Harmon's Observations at SciAm.

The good news is that there is good news. The bad news is that it's not all good news. At Superbug, Maryn McKenna describes the NEJM study and its encouraging results, but also quotes the accompanying editorial that takes note of the difficulties: for example, getting people to adhere to the regimen, long-term safety unknowns, and whether effective prevention will encourage people to throw away their condoms. McKenna also notes what may be the biggest unknown of all, which is whether preventive treatments like this one will speed the evolution of disease organisms equipped to evade them.

There was also some confusion about the Pope's apparent endorsement of condoms for disease prevention, described by Matthew Clark at the Christian Science Monitor's Global News blog. I'm confused too, but what I'm confused about is the confusion, because I've thought that was the Church's position all along. The nuns at my convent high school taught that using condoms for disease prevention (not contraception) is a morally responsible act. (Despite the fact that when I was in high school — which was A Very Long Time Ago — we weren't supposed to have occasion to engage in this particular morally responsible act. But that was a different issue.)

Believe it or not, the Pope on condoms also engendered an embargo imbroglio, explored, of course, by Ivan Oransky at Embargo Watch. [Full Disclosure: Ivan is a former editor of mine.] And to increase the deliciosity, it was the Pope's own rag, L'Osservatore Romano, that broke the embargo — and put RC bloggers, quoted by Ivan, in a higher state of dudgeon than I would have believed possible.

I also wouldn't have believed it possible to blog exclusively on embargo issues. Yet — perhaps it's the times we live in — they do keep popping up. And Ivan has absolutely made it work.

What's worse: a mistake, or a major ethical compromise?

Tabitha,

Nice coverage, and you raise a question I think needs answering. Noting that Wired Science ran a sloppy GIzmodo story about the arsenicophilic Lake Modo bug, you ask:

"For a blogger who has made a reputation doing really fine science journalism, which is worse? Sharing a network umbrella with a Pepsi-Cola marketing campaign disguised as a blog about nutritional science? Or sharing a network with an outrageously irresponsible fact-free speculation pretending to be science journalism?"

I'm one of the bloggers who moved from ScienceBlogs to Wired, but I think I'd have the same answer if I'd moved somewhere else: Sharing a network with a sponsored blog masquerading as a regular blog is FAR worse than being at a site that once in a while runs a sloppy news story. And you might note two things: the moment I saw the Gizmodo story, I published a post drawing attention to corrective posts at Nature News and Not Exactly Rocket Science; and Wired Science, within hours, replaced the Gizmodo story with a much stronger story from Science News.

A news site makes scores of go/no-go story decisions every day. They're going to mess one up now and then. Despite an occasional lapse, I think most of us can agree that Wired Science is one of the best science sites out there, partly because they will take a chance now and then but still run stories that are almost always not just solid, accurate, and well-reported, but more interesting than in most places. Here they made a mistake, out of the doznes of decisions they made that day, in running a bought story that they soon recognized was sloppy. The corrected it.

But news and media sites make fundamental ad-ed wall decisions like the PepsiGate decisions only now and then, and when they are big and consequential and concern fundamental matters of integrity and the company does the wrong wrong thing and then sticks to its guns, that says much more about an organization than the occasional lapse in editorial judgment. I don't think the two sorts of problems are even close either quantitatively or qualitatively. Your story is above is mostly spot-on, but I think you badly missed the call on this issue.

RE: On science blogs this week: Alien abductions

OK, I'll allow Wired Science an occasional mistake on grounds that (as in fact I said) it is usually home to worthy stuff, some of which is yours. But this was a reeeeely big mistake. To dismiss that piece as simply sloppy doesn't begin to do its awfulness justice. Sloppy is failing to double-check the spelling of someone's name. That piece was something else altogether.