It’s an extraordinary dismissal. Rosie Redfield is a full-bore member of the academy and a researcher in the field under question. She is — to extend the metaphor — a priest. But though Redfield wears the proper robes, Brown wants to dismiss her because she’s not standing on the proper altar.
Science journalist Carl Zimmer got a similar reaction when he decided to check up on the online criticisms from Redfield and others. On Monday, he contacted a dozen experts for an analysis published by Slate. “Almost unanimously,” he found, “they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case.”
When Zimmer got in touch with the two of those scientists, however, they “politely declined” to respond to the criticism:
“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.”
The apparent snub raised the hackles of scientists and bloggers alike. Zimmer reported that despite Redfield’s low opinion of the paper published in Science, “she thinks it’s fine for the NASA scientists to hold off responding to their critics,” and that she is working on a formal letter to Science detailing her objections [Update, Dec. 8: Redfield has posted her letter to Science on her blog]. But, Zimmer continued, UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen won’t “let the scientists off so easily”:
“If they say they will not address the responses except in journals, that is absurd,” he said. “They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature.”
Reactions were similar elsewhere in the blogosphere. On his Code for Life blog, computational biologist Grant Jacobs wrote:
I can sympathize with wanting the science to be discussed by people informed on the science, and the traditional channel is research journals. I can sympathize 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.
The Guardian’s recently created “Science Story Tracker” has done an excellent job of cataloguing the evolution of this controversial story from day one, when people were still speculating about the discovery of aliens. (The site has tracked the unfolding of four stories since it was launched in June, and this latest effort really exemplifies the value of this unique blog.)
How many more installments will we see? Perhaps only one, Zimmer guessed in his post for Slate.
“Critics say that a few straightforward tests on the bacteria would show whether they really do have arsenic-based DNA once and for all,” he reported. “And the NASA scientists say they’re ready to hand out GFAJ-1 to researchers who want to study it. This controversy may be burning brightly at the moment, but it probably won’t burn for long.”