In previous posts, I've argued that science is different from religion partly because it's a collaborative effort and allows scientists to correct each others' errors, falsehoods, and episodes of self-deception. Unfortunately, that self-correction doesn't always translate into the public understanding of science right away. The so-called arsenic-based life announcement was a perfect example.
in December 2010, NASA promoted a so-called arsenic-based life form as one of the most important discoveries of all time. A muddled, overblown press conference hinted at the absurd idea that this was part of some new tree of life, represented a "shadow biosphere", and had some relevance to the search for life elsewhere in the universe. It was obvious after 15 minutes of this circus that they were making much out of nothing. Even more annoying, most of the press and blogosphere bought into it.
(I didn't yet write this blog when the news broke, but I wrote two debunking stories for the paper and then revisited the issue in the context of origin-of-life studies in June in this column.)
A scientific paper made the somewhat less hyperbolic claim that some of the phosphorus in the organism’s DNA was being replaced by arsenic. Lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon has publicly stood by this while backing off more her outrageous press conference claims. Even the paper, however, is almost certainly wrong. Several biologists who study heavy metals and microbes told me back in Dec. 2010 that the paper never presented proper evidence that arsenic was in the DNA. Since then, biologist Rosie Redfield has tried to reproduce the experiment, and shown that no arsenic incorporates itself into the organism’s DNA. Here’s the latest on the fiasco from Science News: