Fallible Science

July 10, 2012

Brit Trogen

Let's take a short journey back in time... The year was 2010. We've just been introduced to an utterly stupid instrument called the "vuvuzela." We're reeling with the fall-out of the BP oil spill. Tom and Katie are still blissfully happy. And in the midst of all this, NASA stirred up excitement (broaching on hysteria) with an announcement: it had discovered bacteria that live off arsenic. It was a momentous claim, tauted as the first discovery of "alien" life. 



Oh, 2010... How young and naive we were. 


In the future, this story may not be viewed as especially significant. But it speaks volumes about the modern scientific process, even more so than it does about the science involved. The NASA study was conducted by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a relatively new NASA researcher with a specialization in evolutionary biology. The bacteria, called GFAJ-1, was found in the arsenic-rich Mono Lake of California. Since the initial Science paper, subsequent studies have more-or-less dismissed the idea that GFAJ-1 incorporated arsenic into its DNA in place of phosphate. 


But Wolfe-Simon's mistake was not simply a scientific one of misinterpreted results or flawed experiments. Instead, it revolved wholly around a practice that has become so commonplace we hardly recognize it as unusual: the marketing, packaging and publicizing of scientific findings to the public.

In other words: spin.


I'll admit: it's extremely difficult to avoid stepping into this pitfall. I've done it myself, as have most people who spend time writing or talking about science in public. The issue is not, however, that scientific findings are being discussed, so much that science itself is being misrepresented. It happens every time a new "discovery" is tauted as being one of the greatest or most important findings of our time. Because as history has shown time after time, science does not move forward in clean, discrete steps. Science is messy. It's slow, error-prone, and filled with uncertainty. The nuances of a particular study may only be truly understood by a handful of experts, who pass a diluted, metaphor-laden version of it down to the rest of us (God particle, anyone?). 


When science is portrayed as something that is straightforward or obvious, or as something that reveals the "truth" about some aspect of the world, dissenting studies or opinions come to be viewed as evidence that something went wrong in the original science rather than proof of its true strength. Science is not powerful because it is correct; it's powerful because it is fallible.


From the beginning, the arsenic-bacteria story was criticized as being one of the most over-hyped stories of the year. NASA had called a press conference before proper peer review had been conducted, dominating headlines across the world before the science itself even had time to settle. Now, headlines proclaim that the idea has been shot down. It's a clean, straightforward step in our scientific knowledge... 


And we're making the exact same mistake with the new studies as we did with the original.



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