Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Perhaps I Should Be Called Cassandra

A colleague once called me a hopeful romantic. There’s more than a grain of truth to that. So it’s ironic that the two Wikipedia entries which quote me are linked to my critiques of extraordinary claims that did not provide even ordinary evidence.

The first was my review of Ward and Brownlee’s Rare Earth, in which I pointed out errors that cast serious doubts on their hypothesis. When I wrote the review, I didn’t know that one of their major advisors was Guillermo Gonzalez, an unabashed creationist who made his science fit his philosophy. A few things from my review must have registered, since subsequent editions corrected at least some of these errors (for example, their initial statement that both Mars and Venus are tidally locked).

Yesterday I discovered that I appear in a second Wikipedia entry about “arsenic DNA” — the purported genetic material of the fabulous beastie that NASA announced last Friday during its science-by-press-conference. This entry is fluctuating right now, as people are editing it back and forth (plus they incorrectly call me a microbiologist).  Those of you who are keeping track may know I was an early pebble in the avalanche of criticism that has since fallen on that work, led by Dr. Rosemary Redfield of UBC and summarized by Carl Zimmer in Slate.

I have more to say about the Science paper but first I must meet immovable looming deadlines. For now I will only say that I wish the work had been as exciting as its hype promised. Because I’m an old-fashioned scientist — and a hopeless romantic.

Images: 1st, Stick in the Mud, Steve Jurvetson; 2nd, Outlier, Ben Shabad.

Update: More, as promised, in The Agency That Cried “Awesome!”

4 Responses to “Perhaps I Should Be Called Cassandra”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    The “outlier” cartoon is brilliant 🙂

    I cited you (verbally) when I was talking with my sister about the so-called arsenic life form. It feels bad to rain on people’s parade, but if you pretend pyrite is gold, it lowers the value of real gold (not to mention the fact that pyrite–and bacteria that can adapt to make use of arsenic–are valuable for what they are; no need to characterize them as what they’re not).

  2. Athena says:

    I couldn’t resist! It’s one of the few cartoons I’ve seen that made me laugh out loud.

    More seriously, your pyrite-versus-gold analogy is one of the key issues of this whole debacle.

  3. Caliban says:

    Well, for me the big hint to be dubious (as you hint at in your previous post) is the presence of Paul Davies on the paper. He tends to write splashy, sloppy articles and books and his background is in cosmology and, allegedly, quantum mechanics (including speculations on the role of quantum mechanics in life, shades of Roger Penrose), not in details of biology. Umm, why again is he even on the paper?

  4. Athena says:

    I concur with you about Davies from the biological side. As I’ve said elsewhere, a certain sign of a charlatan is that he speaks of biology to physicists and of physics to economists. I think he was an “honorary” author to increase the perceived “sexiness” of the paper (a no-no, by the way, but who’s counting NASA’s transgressions on this sorry affair by now).