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Using the ‘arsenic bacteria’ story as a teaching moment for undergraduates

December 10, 2010
The bacteria at the center of the debate

The bacteria at the center of the debate

Background: NASA funded scientists published an article in Science about bacteria using arsenic instead of phosphate in their DNA.  NASA held a press conference to promote their findings and comment on the importance of this discovery.  After reading the article, many scientists were not convinced that the discovery was as important as the authors were claiming, nor were they convinced that some of the methodology was sound.  And many of these scientists shared their doubts with the general public via blog posts, blog comments, twitter comments and other informal venues.  The NASA scientists fired back, saying that the scientific debate should happen through the formal process of peer review and publication.  Bloggers and science journalists responded by pointing out that they were the ones who held a press conference.  Carl Zimmer’s articles in Slate and in the Discover blog the Loom outline the issues nicely, and Ed Yong has a wonderful time line of how the story unfolded.

This story provides a unique teaching opportunity for faculty and librarians to discuss the issues of peer review and scientific communication with undergraduate students.

First, you have scientists on record saying that basically, the peer review system didn’t work as well as we’d like.  These scientists are saying that the scientific methods used were not as rigorous as they should have been.  In addition, many folks are arguing that what the scientists actually discovered isn’t nearly as important as the hype surrounding it makes it seem.

An in class discussion about this issue could center around several things:

  • Thinking critically about the methods – scientific criticisms of the article
  • Evaluating the importance of a new discovery – how good is peer review (or any other method of review) at evaluating this?
  • How are scientific discoveries represented in the media – do the stories about the science match up nicely with the science itself?  Students could analyze media stories from mainstream outlets as well as the original article.

Second, you have the controversy about where scientific debate should take place.  Some scientists see little value in the scientific blogosphere.  Many others (including myself) view it as a vital part of the communication between scientists and the general public.  In addition, blogger’s comments have led to the retraction of at least one article in a highly respected journal (that I know of).

An in class discussion about these issues could center around several themes:

  • What type of responsibility does a scientist have to communicate his/her discoveries with the general public?
  • How do less formal communication models (press conferences, blogs, etc.) interact with and relate to the formal communication process within science (peer reviewed articles)?
  • Who has a right to comment on a scientific article?  When should the authors respond to these comments directly?

The amount of information on this story available on the web is quite large, providing lots of opportunities for students to search for and find various opinions.  In addition, the science is multidisciplinary, allowing an opportunity for many courses to engage in these discussions.

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7 Comments
  1. I’d like to see you reframe your suggestions for class discussion slightly. It’s not so much that press conferences or blogs are ‘less formal communication models’ (although I understand what you mean and technically you’re correct). It’s more a matter of scientists (and the organizations for which they work) needing to consider all potential stakeholders when crafting communications. Peers are one stakeholder group. Journalists are another. The general public is yet another. Government (local, state/provincial, federal) another. Employees yet another. So if you look at the ‘peer’ stakeholder group as including all scientists, not merely those who’ve been asked to comment on the paper as part of the peer review process, you modify your approach and your messaging to include – and to include responses to – the whole group. That way you avoid a lot of what’s happened in this situation, and you don’t end up saying ridiculous things as NASA has done, such as ‘we don’t care what bloggers have to say, the paper was peer reviewed.’

    • Ruth – I think your distinctions between audiences make a lot of sense.

      Of course, for an in class discussion with undergraduates, you will need to take into account their level of understanding of scientific communication to begin with and go from there (freshman vs. senior students for example).

      It might make sense to begin with a more general distinction between formal, peer reviewed publications and everything else, then use the class discussion to illustrate the more finer distinctions between audiences that you delineate.

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