Is the taxpayer-funded scientific bureaucracy self-correcting?

Consider this post from Evolution News which talks about a paper in the prestigious pro-naturalism journal Science that is drawing a lot of criticisms. (H/T Melissa, Jonathan)


Last December we reported on a controversial paper published in Science which claimed to have discovered bacteria that feed on arsenic instead of phosphorous. According to NASA, this research promised to provide “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” At that time the media reported things like:

  • scientists discovered “a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today” (Wired)
  • the “bacteria is made of arsenic” (Wired)
  • the bacteria is “capable of using arsenic to build its DNA, RNA, proteins, and cell membranes” (Gizmodo)
  • the paper had reported “arsenic-based life” which is “very alien in terms of how it’s put together” and “NASA has, in a very real sense, discovered a form of alien life” (io9)
  • “you can potentially cross phosphorus off the list of elements required for life” (Nature)

But soon after the original Science paper was published, credible scientists began critiquing the paper’s claims. In the June 3, 2011 issue of Science, several of those scientists have published comments critiquing the original paper. Many of their criticisms focus on the claim that the original paper did not establish or rule out the possibility that the bacteria are not still living off of phosphorous.

So you have a paper being published that everyone is excited about because it helps the naturalists to close gaps in their worldview. But was it good science? The Evolution News piece goes on to list the criticisms of the paper.

And here is the result:

Of course the authors of the original paper, including lead-author Felisa Wolf-Simon, co-authored a reply to the criticisms which should also be read. But critics remain unconvinced. Nature news recently quoted Barry Rosen of Florida International University stating, “I have not found anybody outside of [Wolfe-Simon’s] laboratory who supports the work.” Likewise, Rosie Redfield observes:

“With so many mistakes pointed out, there should be at least some where the authors say, ‘you’re right, we should have done that but we didn’t’,” Redfield says. “This as an entirely a ‘we were right’ response, and that’s a bad sign in science.”

Despite the high levels of skepticism of claims of arsenophilic bacteria, Nature reports that few scientists have taken the initiative to attempt to experimentally reproduce the claims made in the original paper:

However, most labs seem too busy to spend time replicating work that they feel is fundamentally flawed and is not likely to be published in high-impact journals. So principal investigators are reluctant to spend their resources, and their students’ time, replicating the work. “If you extended the results to show there is no detectable arsenic, where could you publish that?” asks Simon Silver of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who critiqued the work in FEMS Microbiology Letters in January and on 24 May at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans. “How could the young person who was asked to do that work ever get a job?” Refuting another scientist’s work also takes time that scientists could be spending on their own research. For instance, Helmann says he is installing a highly sensitive mass spectrometer that can measure trace amounts of elements. But, he says, “I’ve got my own science to do.”

Such admissions do not bode well for those who blindly believe in the perfectly objective, self-correcting nature of science. In this case, it seems safe to experimentally critique these claims since so many respected scientists have already expressed vocal skepticism. Yet experiments are apparently not yet forthcoming. What about areas of science where scientists are not able to express their dissent freely? For example, who would take time to experimentally critique claims that are central to neo-Darwinian theory, especially if it’s dangerous to one’s career? One hopes that science will become more self-correcting when it comes to claims made in support of materialism.

In light of what we now know about global warming research, shouldn’t we be a little more welcoming of whistleblowers and critics? Shouldn’t we be a little more careful about hastily approving research that agrees with the religion of naturalism, instead of checking it over thoroughly to make sure that it really is good science?

4 thoughts on “Is the taxpayer-funded scientific bureaucracy self-correcting?”

  1. So in other words, science is working. One scientist/lab publishes their work and the other scientists in the field review it and attempt to duplicate/validate….and they aren’t allowing the scientist/lab to maintain work that is subpar/incorrect.


    1. No it’s not working – the paper is ALLOWED TO STAND. No one is willing to falsify it, because it would be the end of their careers. Did you read the part I put in bold?


      1. That’s because you don’t get grant money to do that. So why would you waste your lab’s time, money, and other resources on items like that when you know that you won’t ultimately get paid for it. As for allowing it to stand, it sounds like it’s getting more than enough criticism. Add on top of that, a papers worth is generally tightly coupled with the number of references it gets, and if it’s hardly referenced, then the greater scientific community isn’t buying it.

        You want those papers to get contested, then you have to increase scientific funding for validating research and not just for producing new stuff.


      2. What alternative do you suggest, retraction? If so, how do you square that with the fuss over Sewell’s paper in AML?

        The paper was trashed by the scientific community, after all the oohs and aahs of the science journalists. That is science working the way it should.

        The first person who should be working hard to replicate the results is Wolfe-Simon, with due consideration to all the suggestions she has received.


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