Finding the truth is a waste of time, scientists say

Before bioinformatics, I worked in both biochemistry and microbiology labs, including a stint in the field of extremophile biology. So like many other people, I’ve been following the “arsenic life” story with great interest.
It seems that far more has been written about the publication, the manner of its announcement, the ensuing online debate and the personalities involved than about the principal scientific question: can arsenate substitute for phosphate in biological molecules? My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the Science paper presented no compelling evidence for covalently-bound As in DNA and that the editors should have asked the authors either to do better experiments or tone it down.

Now, Nature News reports that the criticisms are in, the authors have responded and as part of their response, they are willing to share samples of the bacterium with other researchers for further analysis. Good on them – that’s the right thing to do. What’s bewildering and saddening are some of the responses to the offer. They include (paraphrased): “I wouldn’t waste my time because I don’t believe it”, “if there is no arsenate in the DNA, how could I publish in a high-impact journal and get a job?” and “I have the technology to do it but I have better things to do.”

Is this what biological science has become? The single-minded, career-oriented selfish pursuit of the high-impact publication to the exclusion of everything else – including the truth? I’m afraid that the answer is “yes” and I suspect this attitude is what got the authors of this Science paper into trouble in the first place.

This is what those who imagine some glorious future open-science utopia are up against. All I can say is: be thankful for Rosie Redfield and her lab.

12 thoughts on “Finding the truth is a waste of time, scientists say

  1. Well, science could be completely disconnected from publishable results when it was just a hobby of rich guys; Darwin and Lord Rayleigh, etc. paid for their own research themselves. Not really true in the modern world of professional science and government funding. As for Rosie (whom I’ve met on a couple of occasions), while she has been quite open in the sorts of criticisms that the original peer reviewers of the paper should have presented, I’d be very surprised if she actually does labwork on the issue — she’s Canadian, and NSERC grants are notoriously stingy compared to the rest of the civilized world.

    • Yes, good points. It also seems these days that the burden of proof lies with the originator of the idea, since everyone else is busy with their own problems.
      Still, from what Rosie says, it sounds like a simple experiment: grow cells in As, purify DNA, do mass-spec. But then lab work always *sounds* quick and simple…we’ll see if anyone steps up.

  2. I find the responses to the offer misguided – proving or disproving this intriguing claim is bound to have a tremendous impact on one’s research. That being said not all outlandish claims are worth a second effort – but this particular one has sufficient notoriety to make famous whoever gives it a second run.

    If anything I see these responses as an indicative of fear/anxiety of being unable to properly perform an experiment while being closely scrutinized by a larger community.

    • Quite possible. I suppose one problem is the old “difficult to prove a negative.” You find As, terrific; you don’t, someone says “well, you did something wrong.”

  3. It’s not my field but this article has made me forward it to our gal with the MassSpec to see if she’s interested in having a go at it. Just for the hell of it.

  4. My main funding is from CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research), with a bit more from Genome BC. CIHR is very easygoing about how its funds are spent, so I can afford to spend a bit of my time and resources pottering away at problems not directly covered by the funded proposals. (I wouldn’t assign this kind of stuff to other lab members.)

    I’m now thinking that I’ll do at least a bit of preliminary work, in part because of its value as a high-profile demonstration of open science. I’m not going to rush the work out of fear of being scooped; I’ll just carefully test how the bacteria grow, first without and then with added arsenic, purify DNA from the various conditions, and pass the clean DNA on to whoever has the tools (mass spec?) to test it for arsenic.

  5. Given the media buzz that this issue has gathered, I’m pretty sure that a good “negative results paper” refuting the As claim will be welcomed by more than one high impact journal.

  6. I too found the reaction a little surprising. At the outset, let me say that as a chemist I doubt very much that the original paper was correct. When the ‘cold fusion’ paper burst onto the scene 20-odd years ago, many people spent a considerable amount of time and resources trying similar experiments out for themselves, and the eventual consensus was that there was nothing in it. Scientifically, one would have thought the prospect of establishing ‘As-based life’, or even of trashing it, would be sufficiently exciting to motivate follow-up work in other labs.

  7. I would advise any scientist to spend their energies investigating the questions they perceive as being important, interesting, unanswered & accessible. Not questions which are wildly speculative, poorly-reasoned, and over-hyped by the media. I hope it gets debunked but i can understand the disinclination to chase this particular question. It is perfectly understandable that other scientists don’t want to have their priorities set by hype. A polite refusal would be more appropriate than scorn, but there’s no obligation on anyone else but yourself to prove your particular pet theory. She has not herself addressed the problems that were identified with her experiments and it’d be unreasonable to place the burden of proof on her critics.

  8. Pingback: Arsenic Bacteria link-dump | A Blog Around The Clock

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