Saturday, December 11, 2010

Anatomy of a Science PR Fiasco

The fiasco is what happened after NASA tried to hype a recent paper on bacteria that thrive on arsenic. The anatomy is the result of two excellent dissections. The first one is by Martin Robbins in The Guardian:

... [T]he science itself is the least interesting part of the affair. What's much more interesting is that the drama has given us an opportunity to see how a collection of related problems in different areas of science outreach can combine to seriously damage the credibility of a highly-respected scientific institution, and by extension science itself.

The affair .. is [essentially] ... a story of everything that's wrong about the relationship between science, peer review, the world of publishing, and the mainstream and independent branches of the media in 2010.

The second one is from Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

It was the big news that wasn’t. Hyperbolic claims about the possible discovery of alien life, or a second branch of life on Earth, turned out to be nothing more than bacteria that can thrive on arsenic, using it in place of phosphorus in their DNA and other molecules. But after the initial layers of hype were peeled away, even this extraordinary claim started falling under suspicious glances.

... This is a chronological roundup of the criticism against the science in the paper itself, ending with some personal reflections on my own handling of the story.