|Mono Lake, CA, photo by NASA|
Very rapidly, skeptic commentaries from other researchers appeared on the internet, notably on blogs. This is not so surprising, since after all the scientific claim was extraordinary - and so was the announcement of the discovery itself, quite astray compared to the scientific usage. The authors of the arsenic life paper did little to solve the controversy, since they rapidly refused to comment on criticisms that were not published in a scientific journal.
It took Science six more months until the final paper was published, together with half a dozen comments from other scientists. The validity of the authors’ results - that is, that arsenic replaced phosphorus in the DNA - is uncertain, to say the least.
What I find of specific interest in this story is:
- When and how a paper should be discussed? The authors' insistence that they should only discuss peer-reviewed commentaries is disappointing. Why not debating it publicly? See for instance the coverage of the arsenic life by Carl Zimmer, a very insightful discussion.
- The way science is communicated to the public. In this case, we see how the desire to construct an 'event' (the NASA press conference about a new life form) and to embargo the results has backfired. "Never oversell your findings" might be a moral of this story.