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Recently, I commented on how NASA’s discovery of an arsenic-based bacterium struck a blow against creationism by implying that life was far more ubiquitous than anyone had previously dared imagine. In the interest of intellectual honesty, I now feel obliged to address the latest reports that the NASA-funded study was “fatally flawed“:
[Rosie] Redfield, a microbiology professor at the University of British Columbia, had been hearing rumors about the papers for days beforehand. … As soon as Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. “I was outraged at how bad the science was,” she told me.
Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. “It would be really cool if such a bug existed,” said San Diego State University’s Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, “none of the arguments are very convincing on their own.” That was about as positive as the critics could get. “This paper should not have been published,” said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado. …
“Low levels of phosphate in growth media, naive investigators and bad reviewers are the stories here,” said Norman Pace of the University of Colorado, a pioneer of identifying exotic microbes by analyzing their DNA, who was another co-author on the weird-life report.
Creationists will likely seize upon this revelation by claiming that the search for extraterrestrial lifeforms has been dealt a mortal blow. More importantly, religious adherents will probably attempt to assert that, due to this one particular example of “bad science,” the entire scientific method is inherently flawed. As we all know from our tiresome encounters with religious zealots, denial of the merits of science almost always relies on isolated, anecdotal evidence. This latest breach of scientific norms will only serve to contribute to the dwindling arsenal of the religious scientific skeptics.
However, there is an entirely different lesson to be taken from this story, one which is intentionally ignored by the adherents of ancient superstition: namely, the innate ability for the scientific process to correct itself. In this instance, we appear to have a group of scientists who allowed their personal hopes to influence the experiment. The scientists involved undoubtedly wished to discover an alternate, arsenic-based life form, and they unknowingly allowed this fervent desire to subvert the experimental process. They failed to take basic precautions to rule out external factors, and interpreted the results in a haphazard manner which happened to coincide with there poorly concealed aspirations for a particular outcome.
So, yes, what we see here is that scientists are imperfect people, just like the rest of us, and that occasional – even frequent – distortions of the scientific process due to innate human tendencies are bound to happen. But what we also see is the integral peer-review aspect of science intervening to reject shoddy research, regardless of how ardently scientists may wish for the original study to be accurate. As senior author of the study Ronald Oremland stated:
“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 knowledge that we derive from the scientific process is not contingent upon a single study. Conclusions from any given research project are not broadly accepted until they have been carefully scrutinized by the broader scientific community, and the outcomes reproduced numerous times. So while scientific research may frequently produce bogus results, it should be realized that such apparent mistakes actually represent one of the great strengths of the scientific method: every hypothesis that is proven to be false brings us one step closer to the truth – which is far more than I can say of the “faith” that characterizes the ancient religions of the world.