02 December 2010

A Tale of Botched Science Reporting -and/or- A Plea to Headline Writers

If I'm understanding it correctly, then I'm massively disappointed with how someone (Gizmodo? headline writers?) is shaping reports of NASA's new findings on Gammaproteobacteria GFAJ-1. The first release I read, by Gizmodo at Wired Science via an excerpt on Episcopal Café (I love my church), made it sound like a life form had been discovered in Mono Lake whose biochemical makeup included arsenic in the places we expect phosphorus to be.

Not so, explains a second post on Wired Science by Rachel Ehrenberg of Science News. Researchers believe they have coaxed the bacteria to replace phosphorus with arsenic. The actual situation is still pretty mind-blowing but much more modest than we'd been originally led to believe (apparently Tom Faber commenting on Episcopal Café's Facebbok page has since also caught the error). Here's the NYT's take:

The bacterium, scraped from the bottom of Mono Lake in California and grown for months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, gradually swapped out atoms of phosphorus in its little body for atoms of arsenic.

I'm usually not concerned with "Who's to blame?!" in these situations, but I just spent ten minutes thinking the universe was vastly different from what we thought it was. And now I find out that, well, some people working in a lab think that maybe it might be that way and have compiled some evidence based on a clever experiment. Again, this is still a mind-blowing piece of science news, but the ball has definitely been dropped, journalistically.

So who is to blame? Well, it may be that Gizmodo just didn't write a very good article. But if you go over to the NASA press release, I think you may find that the culprit could be who the culprit almost always is in these situations: the damn headline writer. Sure, the release itself starts with the outsized claim, "NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth." But then it immediately makes clear that the new life form is "able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic." That, in my opinion, is a far cry from the reality touted in the headline: "NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical." At the very least, it should be "NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Capable of Rebuilding Itself With Toxic Chemical."

To go back to Gizmodo: Yes, "This changes everything." But not quite so massively as it would have if they actually "discovered" (instead of, more accurately, "built") "
a completely new life form" that, when the experiment started, was a completely ordinary life form with an intriguing habitat and a possibly novel biochemical ability.

My guess is that it started with the misleading NASA headline. How many times do we have to make that mistake? Editors: please, please, please, let your writers suggest the headline. Doing otherwise is just asking to embarrass yourself...and to dash the hopes of excited science geeks.

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