The Sciences

Arsenic and old Universe

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitDec 8, 2010 12:58 AM


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Two news updates, both of which are pretty interesting. 1) The arsenic-utilizing bacterium is still in the news... because a lot of scientists are casting serious doubt on the results. Carl Zimmer, biology journalist (and Discover blogger) wrote a very interesting article about it for Slate (and has followups on his Discover blog). The criticism is not mild, either, with words like "flim-flam" being used. Carl approached the investigators who wrote the paper for Science, and they declined to comment -- that's usually an excuse, but in this case I think they're right; they don't want to engage in a scientific debate through the media. But I certainly hope the investigations continue. I'll note I reported the press conference results straight -- at some level, I have to trust the scientists know what they're doing, that the peer-review process is working, and the results reliable. In this case, with a result depending on some relatively complex biological and chemical arguments, I was acting out of trust. This trust may yet be proven to be borne out, or it may not. It's possible the original researchers are correct, and it's possible their critics are. The best way to find out is more science. But when it comes to astronomy news...

2) Last week, a paper made the rounds on various sites that Roger Penrose and a collaborator had found circular patterns in the cosmic background radiation that might point to clues about what happened before the Big Bang*. As soon as I read the synopsis, my spidey-sense was tingling. I had an idea that the statistics they had done may not have been up to snuff; how do we know they aren't seeing random patterns simply by chance? I didn't have the expertise in cosmology or stats to do that analysis myself, so I decided not to write about the story, despite its potential appeal. Turns out that was probably the right idea. Sean Carroll, another Discover blogger and an excellent cosmologist, has written up a post expressing skepticism by other scientists about this story. They were able to do the statistics, and find it likely that what Penrose saw was probably just a fluke of random noise, something of no real statistical significance. Looks like my intuition was correct. Sean's writeup has some cool background (haha) info too. So what does all this mean? I'm not sure; I'm parsing it myself. Clearly, my natural skepticism with astronomy news needs to be better applied when it comes to fields of science outside my comfort zone. I'm fine with that! I try to apply it to everything in life. It doesn't always work, but practice makes nearly perfect. One other thing that's clear is this means science works. Someone claims a result, and someone else comes along, takes a look themself, and says, "Wait a second there, pardner..." Science is a self-correcting process, and sometimes it takes time for those corrections. The media interrupts that process, which I am not saying is a bad thing necessarily -- I think people want to hear about interesting scientific findings, or else I never would've started this blog! -- but it can throw a monkey in the wrench there. And, of course, showing something is wrong will never get the coverage that the initial finding does, but that's human nature. And that's something even science has to deal with sometimes.

^* Someone call Nicholas Rush!

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