Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

An arsenic bacteria postmortem: NASA responds, tries to pit blogs vs. “credible media organizations”

with 9 comments

Last week, in the first of my posts on the NASA-Science-arsenic-non-alien-bacteria fiasco, AAAS director of public programs Ginger Pinholster left what I found to be an extremely thoughtful comment. In it, she reports on the findings of her team’s post-mortem (AAAS publishes Science). She concludes: 

In hindsight, what would I have done differently? First, NASA had routed a review copy of their media advisory to us in advance, and we should have flagged the “extra-terrestrial” line, but I’m afraid the abbreviated holiday week meant many of us were preoccupied with deadlines. (As the saying goes, the darned thing about people is, they’re human.) Second, in reviewing the sequence of coverage, I can see that the research (as opposed to teaser stories) had entered the public domain prior to the reporter phone call that ultimately triggered the embargo lift.

That NASA release, to remind you, read:

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

I’d call Pinholster’s comments wonderfully refreshing, and I really appreciated them. We are, indeed, all human — although some might wonder about the proprietor of Embargo Watch; do vampires count as human? — and some degree of imperfections are to be expected. It’s the ability to take a look back and consider alternatives, in a non-defensive way, that’s how we make progress.

So I asked NASA if they had any postmortem comments, and whether they regretted using the phrase “extra-terrestrial” in their initial press release, something to which Pinholster called attention. Dwayne Brown, senior public affairs officer in the office of communications of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, responded:

It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback. However, the statement was accurate.

The real issue is that the reporting world has changed because of the Internet/bloggers/social media, etc. A “buzz” term like ET will have anyone with a computer put out anything they want or feel. NASA DID NOT HYPE anything – others did. Credible media organizations have not questioned NASA about any text. Bloggers and social media have……..it’s what makes our country great—FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

The discussion now is about the science and next steps.

Before I deconstruct that response, take a moment to compare and contrast Pinholster and Brown.


“Credible media organizations have not questioned NASA about any text.” Carl Zimmer may not be an “organization,” but he certainly writes for enough of them, including some upstart newspaper called The New York Times. In short, he’s basically the dean of my generation of science writers, so I’d say he’s “credible media.”

Well, Zimmer didn’t exactly praise NASA’s press release today in Slate, calling it “Sphinxlike” and putting it at the start of a misinformation cascade:

On Monday, NASA released a Sphinxlike press release: “NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Like a virulent strain of bacteria, speculation exploded over the next three days. “Did NASA Discover Life on One of Saturn’s Moons?” asked Gawker, a Web site that does not often ask questions about astrobiology.

And I think Ginger Pinholster is at a credible media organization. In fact, it’s the one that published the NASA study Brown is holding up as solid.

So is it really true that no one outside of bloggers in their pajamas — to quote a trope that I thought we’d abandoned years ago — is questioning that press release language? (Boy, I must really have identity issues. I work at a “credible media organization” and I have two blogs!)

But they’re not only questioning the press release, and NASA isn’t only going to ignore bloggers, it turns out:

“The discussion now is about the science and next steps.” Well, that discussion hasn’t exactly been going well for the NASA finding. Zimmer spoke to a dozen scientists about the paper, and none was very complimentary. One provided his Slate headline: “This Paper Should Not Have Been Published.” (That makes me wonder whether this study will find its way over to Retraction Watch.)

But Brown is consistent. He blames the blogosphere for getting this story wrong, and NASA has decided not to respond to any of those pesky blogger critiques of the paper, according to a story in the CBC, via David Dobbs. In fact, NASA scientists aren’t going to respond to criticisms in “credible media organizations” either:

When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.

You know, why should NASA respond to the critique from Rosie Redfield, some random blogger? Wait, you mean Redfield is a scientist who runs a zoology microbiology lab in the University of British Columbia’s zoology department?

Obviously, I think NASA should take any criticisms seriously, be they from bloggers or credible media organizations, whatever false distinctions those are nowadays. Scientists should welcome challenges so they get the chance to prove they’re right. So should press officers.

After all, bloggers do. Jason Kottke, who may have started it all with this post, was quick to add an update when Alexis Madrigal said the finding wasn’t ET after all.

It’s worth noting that Brown cited freedom of speech, given that NASA last week did the scientific communication equivalent of falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that was unconstitutional.

Please see a new post on whether NASA followed its own code of conduct with this announcement.


Written by Ivan Oransky

December 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Posted in nonalienembargo

9 Responses

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  1. The authors of the paper declined my invitations to address their scientific critics in my Slate article, saying that such an exchange should only take place in a peer-reviewed journal. This afternoon, one of them, Ron Ormeland, gave a lecture at the Carnegie Institution, streamed live on NASA’s web site, in which he explicitly referred to exactly the criticisms raised by the people I wrote about. And then, after his talk, he fielded questions from Carnegie scientists, who asked exactly the same kinds of questions raised by the scientists in my article.


    Carl Zimmer

    December 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

  2. Wow. Really? Wow.

    I thought that the whole thing was handled badly. There was so much speculation (which having seen the embargoed release I could tell was way off course) that someone should have said something to quell it.

    The really sad thing is that by letting everyone get hyped up about the idea NASA had found alien life (yes, I know that is not technically what their press conference alert said), when the real announcement was made a lot of people were let down or dismissed it as dull (or worse, had already moved on from the story). The finding itself is fascinating, I just think the situation has been handled badly.

    The response from NASA genuinely upsets me. It comes across as rude, dismissive and is incorrect. I registered my concerns about the wording and the way the situation played out, as did many other UK science journos. That we did it on Twitter makes it no less valid.

    It also shows a level of naivety to just pronounce that “The statement was accurate”. Yes, it is accurate, but show some understanding about the way that the modern media world works – and for goodness sake, don’t dismiss people who are genuinely
    interested in talking about the stuff you’re doing.

    There are already enough people don’t care about space or science as it is, you should respect and nurture those people who do take the time to read, share and blog NASA-related stuff. Not patronise them.

    Kate Arkless Gray

    December 7, 2010 at 5:17 pm

  3. It’s not just NASA who seems unable to distinguish the medium from the message. Look through the comments in the CBC story, and you’ll see several who assume that the critique on Dr. Redfield’s blog are suspect because it was a blog, and didn’t realize that she is a working scientist.

    Zen Faulkes

    December 7, 2010 at 5:21 pm

  4. Rosie runs a microbiology lab (in a zoology dept).


    December 7, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    • Edited — thanks!


      December 7, 2010 at 6:22 pm

  5. I think NASA’s big mistake is holding a press conference to pump up this paper and then hiding behind “we only communicate through journals” — uh, no, you don’t, you just had a much-hyped press conference. NASA opened the can of worms and now they’re trying to close Pandora’s box. On the worms…

    That said, while Brown’s response was a little attitudinal, I don’t actually read their press release as misleading. Being someone who adds qualifications for a living [journalist, not lawyer], I think “will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” is pretty accurate; in fact, before I learned anything else, I figured that wording meant that the study was indeed about some new kind of extremophile. The hysteria was generated by people inventing some other meaning for those words.

    Ivan, you should add a widget to the sidebar of Retraction Watch: a betting pool for if — and, if so, when — this paper will appear.

    Amos Zeeberg

    December 7, 2010 at 5:45 pm

  6. Though I bought it last week, after talking to a good number of researchers about it I have to disagree with Amos – the reference to extraterrestrial life was totally misleading.

    The reason is, this bacterium doesn’t do this on its own — it’s a lab-made organism that they got to do something cool. People have have made no end of crazy stuff in the lab – from Dolly to glowing frogs, etc. A 1997 study one chemist pointed me to actually described E Coli that had been modified such that it could be evolved to grown in arsenic concentrations 5x those used in the paper. But it was still just E coli.

    Another researcher put it like this: the fact that such a run-of-the-mill microbe can be made to grow in such extreme conditions actually shows that the biosphere we know and love is so adaptable as to prevent the shadow biosphere from arising.

    Alla Katsnelson

    December 7, 2010 at 9:40 pm

  7. You are very mild towards the Science team. Look at the last line of the press summary they provided:

    ‘Arsenic had completely replaced phosphate in the molecules of the bacteria, right down its DNA.’

    And in their ‘Kids news story’ they state: ‘Now, Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues at the NASA Astrobiology Institute have found a bacterium able to completely swap arsenic for phosphorus to the extent that it can even incorporate arsenic into its DNA.’

    These claims are not supported by the research article, as we know now.

    Elmar Veerman

    December 8, 2010 at 4:37 am

  8. If a public company had issued the NASA press advisory, I think that some journalists may have felt compelled to consider the embargo broken because of the nature of the speculation. This is starting to look like science by press release for the purpose of spin and a huge abuse of the embargo system.

    Matthew Herper

    December 8, 2010 at 11:07 am

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