NASA: science shouldn’t be debated in media and blogs?!

By Grant Jacobs 07/12/2010 27

A few minutes ago Ed Yong tweeted:

NASA deems it inappropriate “to debate the science using the media and bloggers” But runaway hype okay? HT @david_dobbs

GFAJ-1 grown in ‘arsenic media’ (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
GFAJ-1 grown in ‘arsenic media’ (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The link points to an article on the Canadian Broadcasting Centre* website, discussing Prof. Rosie Redfield’s criticism of the research paper describing arsenic tolerant bacteria on her blog.

Some way into the CBC article, it presents this response from NASA spokesperson, Dwayne Brown:

When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.

This the work NASA announced as:

Dec. 2, 2010:  NASA-supported researchers have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism, which lives in California’s Mono Lake, substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in the backbone of its DNA and other cellular components.

“The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.”

Since then there has been considerable media coverage, along with some scientific criticism, including of the press release and pre-release promotion, the subsequent media coverage and the research itself. In all, something of a small storm.

Let’s make sure we’re reading Mr. Brown’s statement fairly. (I’ll take the CBC’s paraphrasing his statement as accurate: no link is given for the original source.)

I can sympathise with wanting the science to be discussed by people informed on the science, and the traditional channel is research journals. I can sympathise that replying in person, individually one-on-one, to each criticism would be onerous and not practical given how much of it there is.

But you can’t realistically ask scientists not to discuss this work publicly, in their coffee rooms, by the water cooler, at the café or other forums. That includes if media ask them for an opinion, or on their blogs.

It’s almost as if NASA want to cast aspersions at scientists who–how dare they–address the public, or speak in public.

You’d think that NASA already has enough egg on their face to take care over what they say next.

Tufa towers, Lake Mono, source of GFAJ-1 (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Tufa towers, Lake Mono, source of GFAJ-1 (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

NASA is famous for presenting science to the public. Most of the time they do superbly. So do some scientists, and science communicators, on radio, TV, … and blogs.

Scientists discussing papers on-line isn’t new. I have memories of following a discussion and very robust criticism of one of the earlier ‘Mitochrondrial Eve’ papers on bionet from my Ph.D. student days.

This took much the same approach as we  are seeing from Redfield, discussion in a public forum with it being clear early on that it would likely eventually result in a letter to the editor of the research publication.

I agree in the end it will be the formal articles that discuss that issue that will stand for the record, but you can’t realistically ask that scientists and science bloggers not explore the issues in public forums.

There is nothing new going on in scientists writing on blogs, compared to writing on bionet (or its ilk). There might be something new in journalists tapping into this writing, perhaps-?

Should we take this remark as another sign that the media is taking note of science bloggers?

(We–meaning us who write and follow science on-line–have a biased position as we’re more likely to notice anyway; but perhaps this practice is, at least for major stories, spreading more widely? I wouldn’t mind guessing the that science media centres have a hand in it, too.)


* According to their about page, ’Canada’s national public broadcaster’.

** Remind me and I might reminisce about it. It was a wonderful demonstration of international science played out before a student’s eyes.

Update: corrected twitter link to David Dobbs.

Other articles on Code for life:

Should media only report facts and leave interpretation to the universities?

Lecturers sitting in on colleague’s lectures, and laptops

In response to Garth George’s dig at science…

How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

What aspects of biology need to be explained better?

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