Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A dramatic reading of (a portion of) the arsenic life paper

As part of the Acts of Whimsy for this year's Geek Girl Con, I decided to make a recording of the (in)famous "arsenic life" paper. I hope you enjoy.



If you can, feel free to donate to the cause. Just like last year, if you donate and tell me, I will offer you a handwritten thank you note and for any donation of $20 or more, I will write a post of your choosing.

I do not love soliciting funds, but teaching science and the scientific method to kids is worthy in my opinion. Thanks for listening.

15 comments:

  1. *chuckle* Well-done. I especially liked the X-Files theme.

    I remember thinking at the time this first emerged that it was yet another instance of a certain state university (which shall remain a 3rd-tier aspirant and well-known refuge for those among California's underachievers that couldn't get into Sac State, as well as the default uni for those unfortunate enough to live in its shadow) over-hyping its contributions, but now I'm hard pressed to find any material that cites its role in pushing this.

    Seems to me Felisa Wolfe-Simon might have been better served by sending the original article to the Journal of Irreproducible Results...

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    1. Actually I retract that last sentence. It would have been more appropriate for the original article to be in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, but it strikes me that Wolfe-Simon has not done too shabbily out of the publication of the article and despite the resulting controversy. I will now be violently ill as I consider why that should be the case.

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  2. Not enjoying the schadenfreude here, sorry.

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    1. What, of the comments or the original post?

      If it's the comments, my thinking was that it was the host institution's issue and I said as much - noting also that I couldn't readily find anything that displayed their culpability as clearly as when this first broke (and believe me, the university had its logo all over the story). That university has a damage control machine that exceeds their reputation, to put it mildly. In the follow-up I noted that FWS didn't do so badly out of it (why?) - so, what schadenfreude?

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    2. Anon3:20PM:

      If the "schadenfreude" comment is aimed at me, I take 100% responsibility for it. I confess that it pokes fun a bit, but only a bit, I think.

      If you'd like express yourself further, feel free to e-mail me at chemjobber@gmail.com - I am happy to listen.

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    3. MY god, you are such an insensitive jerk!

      (pot/kettle/black)

      :)

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    4. I think I would have more sympathy if "arsenic life" hadn't been so heavily hyped (with somewhat impure intentions) and if the reaction when people questioned it had been a little better (as opposed to "I'm peer-reviewed, and you're not.") If you can't be as careful in your work as in your hype, well, then you get the contempt that's coming to you.

      The only mitigation for me is that it wasn't faked, just sloppy (the authors don't deserve more contempt than, say, the author of a certain ACIEE synthesis without data) and that others may have done similarly (though probably without as much hype). I don't know if the main author being a woman figures into it. I still don't have much sympathy.

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    5. Me again. I was not familiar with Geek Girl Con, but their stated goal is to "build a fun and welcoming community that promotes the role of women in geek culture." My main objection to this post is that, rather than being an effective way of "teaching science and the scientific method to kids," the message comes closer to "don't take a huge risk and screw up or some dude with a blog will mock you." I'm sure that was not your intent, but that's how it sounds to my ears.

      There IS plenty to be learned from the GFAJ-1 episode and I'm certainly not defending the paper or the hype machine surrounding it. The most nuanced account I've seen was published by (of all places) Popular Science:
      http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-09/scientist-strange-land

      I too am disappointed in the way that FWS contributed to her own hype. And while it's easy to fault her for not being skeptical enough of her claims, many others deserve blame for missing opportunities for skepticism. I'm especially disappointed in the editor at Science, who should be experienced enough to know better. Bruce Alberts himself conceded that they have to do a better job of soliciting specialist reviews for complicated multidisciplinary papers such as this. And I am disappointed in her mass spectrometry collaborators who, presumably because of their over-specialization in ICP-MS and SIMS, failed to insist on a much more definitive MS experiment: to look for evidence of As-containing oligonucleotides. This whole episode might not have happened if she had better colleagues. And GFAJ-1 is fascinating enough without this incredible claim.

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    6. You know, that's a really fair point, Anon, and I think you're more right than wrong. I confess that I have difficulty coming up with good enough "Acts of Whimsy" and so I end up with "things that CJ thinks are funny."

      I'm not going to take it down, since that would be sorta weird/counter to the "Acts of Whimsy" rules that the DIYSciZone has put together. But I will try to think of something a little more appropriate to put together in the next week. Do you think that's a reasonable move?

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    7. I agree that you should not take down this post and I look forward to seeing what you come up with next week.

      One more point, in reply to the first commenter's claim that FWS has "not done so badly" in the wake of all this. This is a chemistry employment blog. As far as I can tell, FWS is no longer employed (or even employable) as a scientist. What other metric would you have us use for how she's doing?

      Note that I am NOT arguing that FWS deserves another opportunity to work as an independent scientist. I just think we can find a more effective way to encourage young women to participate in "geek culture" than to dramatize a case in which an attempt to participate went horribly wrong.

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    8. Anon 8/5/15 3:29 PM here - my current understanding is that she is at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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    9. Anon 8/5/15 3:29 PM again - Also, as I said originally, my feeling at the time was that one of her host institutions was (and still is) anxious to promote itself as something other than IIT-West/Animal-House-on-meth-and-MDMA and really didn't care about the ethics involved (or who might get hurt in the process). I suspect that's the real take-away from the FWS story - choose your friends/collaborators carefully and your host institution even more carefully.

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    10. After being "evicted" from Ron Oremland's USGS lab in 2011 (as described in the Popular Science article cited above), I think she finished up her NASA astrobiology research fellowship (funded through 2013) at LBL. But I can find no evidence that she's still there. Do you have inside information? She does not appear in LBL's online directory or current lists of scientific staff. She WAS still there in April 2013, at least:
      http://www2.lbl.gov/lsd/News_&_Events/e-newsletter_1304.html#9

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    11. No, I have no inside information.
      I did a couple of searches myself, but I haven't turned up anything any later than the newsletter to which you provided the link. She does not appear in the LBL directory search.

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  3. If I might offer a constructive criticism by way of a question, do the kids these days even know the X-Files?

    Over 15 years ago I was talking to some college students and brought up "Caddyshack" only to discover that no-one had any idea what I was referring to.

    These days, you might have better luck with "Rick and Morty."

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