The other day, Ed Yong put up a lovely post-mortem of how the media and blogosphere responded to the Science paper by Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simons and colleagues on the discovery of an arsenic-permissive bacterium. Within this post, Ed did a very honorable thing – honourable, in fact. He noted that he (and the journalism community) should have done a better job in critiquing the original paper before Alex Bradley’s and Rosie Redfield’s pointed scientific reviews of the paper appeared online.
In my view, Ed did a splendid job of dissecting the original paper, timed to post upon lifting of the embargo on December 2nd. Ed did indeed catch a critical flaw with regard to the trace amounts of phosphate in several of the media preparations used that may have still supported growth of the GFAJ-1 bacteria without them having incorporated arsenic into their biomolecules.
But when you scroll in this post down to the December 10th header of his chronology, he is honest in reflecting on how he might have better covered the story and that he should have critiqued the paper more, running it past several experts in the field as he often does for many stories. But that’s exactly the point in my eyes as to why scientists should be blogging to augment what is being reported by pro journalists. Ed did catch some things that were informed by his earlier experiences in the laboratory himself, but the detailed dissection of this paper required not only practicing scientists, but practicing scientists from disparate biological and chemical disciplines.
Anyway, there has been perception in some quarters that Ed’s honest self-critique meant that he did not report from the primary paper, including a tweet from the primary author of the report. Of course, one would have to read Ed’s entire post cited in that tweet to fully understand his self-reflection.
So, to be as completely clear as one can be in a 140-character response:
Indeed, that Ed was so honest and thoughtful in his self-assessment is just another example of why I admire and respect him as a science writer. Frankly, I think he was little hard on himself but, then again, he holds himself to very high standards – as an award-winning journalist should.
From the NASA pre-press conference hype on what some media outlets thought would be an announcement of extraterrestrial life to scientists requesting samples of GFAJ-1 and proposing in detail what experiments should be done to follow up on the original paper, we as a science communication community have seen both the power of traditional and online outlets as well as the limitations of our current model. For me, the lesson is that journalists and scientists are partners, particularly when a funding agency chooses to promote science-by-press-conference, and that the truth as seen by the public lies within this interdependence.
Hence why this particular scientist offers his support to this superb science journalist.