WUWT readers may recall that I conjectured about the cryptic press release NASA made last week that set the blogosphere afire. See NASA’s extraterrestrial buzz where the press release announced:
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Well newsflash there G-men, it was more terrestrial than extraterrestrial, and now it appears the science behind the press release may be seriously flawed.
It seems that in their flawed zeal to get some press coverage, NASA again has egg of their faces, reminiscent of the Mars fossil microbe fiasco. It’s more “science by press release” gone wild. Slate.com has a scathing review of the fire that is raging in the microbiology camp over this press release:
“It would be really cool if such a bug existed,” said San Diego State University’s Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, “none of the arguments are very convincing on their own.” That was about as positive as the critics could get. “This paper should not have been published,” said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado…
Of course if that was any of us saying the same thing about climate science, somebody would immediately label us “anti-science deniers”. Lets see if somebody comes up with a label for these people asking skeptical questions. Maybe “anti NASA space bug deniers”?
WUWT reader “NoAstonomer” tips us to the fray in progress saying:
The microbiology blogosphere is currently ripping this study apart:
Here’s an excerpt from Slate.com :
In fact, says Harvard microbiologist Alex Bradley, the NASA scientists unknowingly demonstrated the flaws in their own experiment. They immersed the DNA in water as they analyzed it, he points out. Arsenic compounds fall apart quickly in water, so if it really was in the microbe’s genes, it should have broken into fragments, Bradley wrote Sunday in a guest post on the blog We, Beasties. But the DNA remained in large chunks—presumably because it was made of durable phosphate. Bradley got his Ph.D. under MIT professor Roger Summons, a professor at MIT who co-authored the 2007 weird-life report. Summons backs his former student’s critique.
But how could the bacteria be using phosphate when they weren’t getting any in the lab? That was the point of the experiment, after all. It turns out the NASA scientists were feeding the bacteria salts which they freely admit were contaminated with a tiny amount of phosphate. It’s possible, the critics argue, that the bacteria eked out a living on that scarce supply. As Bradley notes, the Sargasso Sea supports plenty of microbes while containing 300 times less phosphate than was present in the lab cultures.
And “NoAstronomer” adds:
Yet some with no expertise in the field stick with the original story. Phil Plaitt at Bad Astronomy notes how he has to trust the peer review process…
But what happens if/when you realize that the process is broken, at least in this case? Can people take a step back and wonder if maybe the process failed in other cases too?
Get a load of this response:
“We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,” declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.”
Umm, well, sir, small point: You and colleagues at USGS and NASA created a veritable firestorm of speculation and coverage with the cryptic press release and “embargoed” story in Science Magazine. Plus a live webcast, and NASA TV live, and now you say “We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,”?
Dude, that ship has sailed. GMAFB!
Gosh, this pattern seems familiar. NASA trumpets these news worthy pieces in a “science by press release” after they pushed the peer review process to where if failed to catch the obvious, and then when called on it, they ignore any criticism.
Yes, the question is, how did this new train wreck get past peer review? Given the urgency attached to the press release by NASA, it certainly looks to me like NASA simply threw caution to the wind again. It seems to be another case of “go fever” that doomed Apollo 1, Challenger, and made them look like fools again following the embarrassing Mars fossil microbe debacle.