On science blogs this week: Replication

ARSENIC BACTERIA PAPER REFUTED IN PUBLIC. Not content with her serial evisceration of the paper reporting bacteria in California that can use arsenic rather than phosphorus in their DNA, which she published first on her blog RRResearch and later as a technical comment in Science, microbiologist Rosie Redfield has now set about trying to replicate the arsenic bacteria experiments. And not succeeding. Find her first evidence refuting the arsenic bacterium paper here. Follow this unprecedented series of public experiments here. The blog tag is #arseniclife, which is the Twitter hashtag too.

This continuing saga carries out a process central to establishing scientific validity: replicating a piece of work, in this case a much-disputed scientific claim that was published in a top journal. But Redfield is doing it in public and in something like real time, which is likely to turn out to be both a blogging landmark and a research landmark, science history in the making. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, catch up quickly here.

IN GENE THERAPY FOR LEUKEMIA, GoD IS IN THE DETAILS. Gene therapy — the idea of modifying a cell's genetic material and then administering the engineered cell to cure disease — has a long history, but not, so far, a notably successful one. This week came a report of striking success at curing desperately ill leukemia patients by genetic engineering their immune system cells to hunt down and destroy cancer cells.

All the treated patients have been in remission for more than a year, surely cause for celebration. But there were only three of them, and the side effects were serious. As Veronique Greenwood reports for 80beats, this was essentially a case report that, while undeniably exciting, needs confirmation in much larger studies. And it's not clear, even if this gene therapy approach turns out to be effective in this leukemia, that the technique can be applied to other cancers.

Those admonishments didn't keep some media types from hyperbole, however. Gary Schwitzer at HealthNewsReview landed particularly hard on effusions from uber-anchor Diane Sawyer. He didn't much like the online stories at CBS and NBC either, but singled out for praise Reuters, AP, and Joe Palca at the NPR Shots blog.

If you could use a brush-up on the importance of those B cells that the genetically engineered T cells were destroying, you can do no better than the brief, clear primer on GoD — generation of diversity (in antibodies, that is) — from incipient immunologist Kevin Bonham at We, Beasties.

THE APA ENDORSES SAME-SEX MARRIAGE. IS THIS A PLOT TO ELIMINATE HOMOSEXUALITY? At the Evolutionary Psychology Blog, Robert Kurzban anatomizes the American Psychological Association's recent endorsement of same-sex marriage (after pointing out slyly that APA classified homosexuality as a disorder until 1973).

The problem, he declares, is that the APA based its endorsement of legalization on data. Big mistake. The organization argued: (1) that same-sex marriage ought to be legalized because continuing to debate it is stressful to gays (and some straight folks, as well, I should think) — and stress makes people sick; and (2) the debate may be harmful, but marriage is good, conferring security, support, and validation upon the wed. (Aren't there also data showing that married people are healthier than single ones?)

Kurzban points out the dangers in this reasoning. It's a justification for letting people do as they please as long as it makes them psychologically healthy — a justification that can just as well be applied to, oh, rape and incest and pedophilia. (My thought: Why not nonsexual behavior that most of us disapprove of as well — stealing and murder, for example?) Kurzban declares:

APA’s use of manufactured justifications for a favored position fits well, of course, with the large and growing body of research that suggests that in many cases, people come to a moral position and only afterwards seek reasons to justify their judgment. And we shouldn’t be surprised if exactly the same findings surrounding a different issue — polygamy, incest, and so on — lead them to precisely the reverse conclusion. Hypocrisy, I understand, is the natural state of the human mind.

If Jesse Bering is right, though, in the future, same-sex marriage will become a non-issue because eventually it will eliminate homosexuality altogether. In fact, in this Bering in Mind post, he has devised a fascinating argument for why people who want to get rid of homosexuality ought to embrace same-sex marriage instead of battling it.

Here's how he explains — I think this is probably at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek — why same-sex marriage will purge homosexuality from the human population:

Where gay men and women are socially scorned, he writes, many hide out in heterosexual marriages. And these marriages are surprisingly fecund; he cites a 1985 study showing that gay men in opposite-sex marriages fathered an average of 2 children, while gay women married to men averaged 1.2 children.

But, he also writes, twin studies have shown convincingly that homosexuality stems partly from genes. So if gay men and women no longer are forced into heterosexual marriages by social pressure, if they are permitted to marry same-sex partners, they will likely pass their genes on to few children. Homosexuality will eventually wither away, wiped out by assortative mating and natural selection.

Are you listening, Michele Bachmann?

GET YOUR GOOGLE+ INVITE HERE, MAYBE. A couple of weeks ago, having just entered the sacred precincts of Google+ myself, I incautiously offered to shower membership invitations on any of you who asked — and then found that the "Invite Friends" link wasn't working. Much chagrin, many apologies, Google apparently rations invitations by simply shutting down the mechanism but leaving the tempting icon standing to lure the unwary.

This morning, huzzah, invitations to Google+ seem to be functioning. She said guardedly. If you are one of those who inquired earlier, please do so again and I'll try to do better this time. And, to anyone who missed this fabulous opportunity the first time around, leave a note in the comments below.

Fingers crossed.

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