Big claims require big proof, especially if they’re contrary to all scientific reasoning thus far. If I were to say, “The moon orbits the earth,” that’s pretty well known at this point, and doesn’t require much to back it up. If I were to say, in all seriousness, “The moon is made of cheese,” then that would require some serious proof, excavated bits of moon-cheese goodness for analytical testing, and of course the subsequent publication of moon-cheese to variety of wine optimization.
So, as a scientist, here’s my obligatory post regarding the whole “Arsenic Replacing Phosphorus in DNA Backbone” thing. I’ll keep it brief, and for scientists and non-scientists alike. Longest of long stories short: Researchers think they’ve found a species of cell that can incorporate arsenic (usually quite toxic) into the backbone of their DNA in place of phosphorus – a big deal, indeed, considering A) usual toxicity of arsenic, and B) any swap of this kind has never before been documented.
Whether or not it’s true, it really seems as though Wolfe-Simon et al. haven’t fully supported their case, and that’s a problem. (If you want a full breakdown of why the paper is kind of flawed, check out commentaries by Derek Lowe, and Rosie Redfield. They offer a far more detailed look than I can offer.) Again, long story short, it’s cool that the bacteria can tolerate the arsenic, and it’s definitely hiding around the cell somewhere, but there’s far from definitive evidence that it’s actually incorporated in the DNA.
In response to criticisms, via Nature News: “We are not going to engage in this sort of discussion,” she wrote in an e-mail to Nature. “Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated.”
Wh-what!? Now, it’s very possible that bits of the email have been taken out of context, but if not, seriously? Personally, I think this is the biggest problem regarding the whole situation. If you publish a potentially groundbreaking article, in a journal like Science, I don’t think you’re allowed a “Haters Gonna Hate” attitude towards public criticism, especially if such criticism has generally been logical, and scientifically well reasoned. Eventually, the foremost criticisms just might get peer reviewed, at which point, then what will you do? Diplomatically, it might make a little sense to address these criticisms now, rather than copping out in such epic fashion. So, most diplomatically, I’d suggest that the authors nut up, answer some questions, and maybe admit they didn’t do everything within their means to everything to fully support their claim. (Yes, it’s a diplomatic expression. Kennedy totally used it in the “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech.*)
*So maybe I paraphrased just a little bit.