Felisa Wolfe-Simon Does NOT Get It

June 16th, 2011

Cupcake Kid (see Fig. 1) reminds me that I have yet to comment on the recent developments regarding the arsenic-based life paper.  I feel entitled to do so, as (i) it continues to be a major story in chemistry, (ii) I worked on origin-of-life chemistry as a graduate student, and (iii) this blog ran one of the first critiques of the initial report.

You will recall that the original study was published online in December amidst a crapflood of publicity.  First, the authors and NASA held a preposterous press conference to trumpet their results.  Soon afterwards, they were bowled over by a second wave of press regarding the shoddiness of the study.  This backlash from the scientific community caused Science to delay publishing the paper in print until earlier this month so they could run it alongside eight technical notes with peer-reviewed criticism of the study.

I’ve already talked about the original paper and some of my personal interactions with Dr. Wolfe-Simon.  Now, I’ve also had the chance to look at the technical comments, the authors’ response, and some of the secondary coverage online.  Sadly, nothing has changed.

Elizabeth Pennisi of Science Insider (here) and Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline (here) have already summarized the main arguments in the technical notes and the counterarguments of the authors.  My personal view is that the paper has been so severely compromised scientifically that it is practically worthless.  I’m not saying that there isn’t potentially something interesting about the GFAJ-1 bacterium; there probably is, but discerning this information is going to require experimental work that is more careful than what Wolfe-Simon reported.

Just about the easiest way for my scientific respect for someone to drop to zero is by catching him either (i) acting like he knows something that I know he doesn’t, or (ii) saying something I know to be dead wrong and insisting that he’s right.  It’s like someone trying to bluff you with their hole cards showing.  In this vein, what I find truly ghastly about Dr. Wolfe-Simon’s actions is that she seems to show absolutely no contrition whatsoever.  Practically every critique presented to Wolfe-Simon is met with a riposte.  I expected to see at least a few statements along the lines of “yeah, we should have done that experiment” or “yeah, we should have been more careful.”  Alas, were there any?  And even if all of Wolfe-Simon’s retorts are valid—I don’t believe they are—some of the critiques are so obvious that they should have been anticipated and addressed in the original paper.

I do not agree with the common sentiment that “this is how the system is supposed to work”.  This whole evolution has been a farce, and it is not how the system is supposed to work.  Yes, continued work in a field is supposed to be undertaken to confirm or correct original ideas, but a study as flawed as Wolfe-Simon’s should never have been published in Science in the first place.  The most obvious problems and omissions should have been ironed out by peer review.  For a paper as manifestly flawed (or incomplete—take your pick) as Wolfe-Simon’s to be published in a top-tier journal, something went wrong.  But I’ll agree that once such a mistake has been made, the (informal) backlash and (formal) technical comments are probably the best way to mitigate the damage.

What is also absurd is that in the face of a hurricane of criticism from nearly all of the heavy-hitters in the origin-of-life community, Wolfe-Simon seems to be taking credit for catalyzing how the system is supposed to work and pushing science forward at a faster rate.  Listen to what she told C&EN:

Wolfe-Simon, who works at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., tells C&EN she thinks the controversy has primed the scientific process. “We’ve been able to gain so much because of discussion and collaboration,” she says. “This is moving science forward faster.”

Stop and think about that sentence so you can fully appreciate the stupidity of it.

What planet does this woman live on?  This is like a serial killer taking credit for increasing vigilance in a victimized neighborhood.  Yes, all of the uproar has moved Wolfe-Simon’s study forward faster than she was capable, but only because she shamelessly trumped it up to the point that others felt compelled to deal with it.  All of the attention paid to her study has robbed scientists’ time and attention from more interesting areas.  The uproar has also jerked around the public and the press.

The manner in which Wolfe-Simon has dealt with the media is comical.  First, she participated in a dreadful press conference to promote the work, and the media blitz quickly backfired when it brought with it the magnified scrutiny of the scientific community.  Then Wolfe-Simon decided to lie low and not answer questions from the press, saying that she “wanted to be able to have that discourse in the scientific community, as a record”.  But look at what has transpired in the interim:  She gave a public TED lecture in March and provided extensive commentary for a rising-star advice piece in the June edition of Glamour magazine.   She also appeared in a profile in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  As an excuse to avoid the (unwanted negative) press, she said in December that she “really wanted to get back home and back into the lab”.  But as Rosie Redfield and others point out, Wolfe-Simon’s response to the technical comments contained no new experiments.  Jeez, Louise!

The press needs to stop treating Wolfe-Simon so respectfully and start treating her with the suspicion that she deserves.  She is doing damage to the scientific community and to the public—if not by continuing to promote shoddy science and misinformation, at the very least by wasting everybody’s time.

Sadly, Wolfe-Simon just does not get it.

Photo credit:  Carolyn Patterson

48 Responses to “Felisa Wolfe-Simon Does NOT Get It”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Felisa Wolfe-Simon has a longer wikipedia entry than Ei-ichi Negishi.

  2. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    A straight and candid post and I completely agree. As you noted, the statement that Wolfe-Simon made to C & EN is absurd; sure, publishing incomplete or flawed results always moves science forward, but it’s ridiculous for those who published the flawed results in the first place to take credit for this. Sadly, the TED talk and the Time article indicates that the media is- true to its nature- going to ignore the technical criticism and laud Wolfe-Simon as some kind of scientific mover and shaker. Contrary to Feynman’s wish, truth does not take precedence over public relations.

    As I wrote in a past post, I maintain that this whole fiasco would have been avoided had top journals had a “Speculations” or “Preliminary Observations” section. The criticism would still have been forthcoming, but the authors would not have had the chance to sensationalize and impart a ring of truth to the original paper.

    In Wolfe-Simon’s story I see a classic case of what the skeptic Michael Shermer calls “belief-based reality”. Instead of reality dictating beliefs, you let your beliefs shape your perception of the facts. If someone has been working on arsenic-guzzling bacteria for years and wishes to find evidence of life based on arsenic, we can be certain that they will find this. I think that the arsenic story is a great example of how belief (not to mention publicity seeking) can trump truth and objectivity; it’s actually not too different from certain kinds of religious beliefs shaping your view of reality.

    Shameful. And yet another cautionary tale from the front lines of science.

  3. Carmen Says:

    @Anonymous- you made me smile because I tend to compare Wikipedia entry length to E.J. Corey. (ie, if a video game character has 2- or 3-Coreyslong entry, it makes you think.)

    Paul, I didn’t think responses to technical comments in Science ever included new experiments, by definition.
    But I suppose that one upshot of the press attention to this story is that even if follow up experiments are published in an obscure journal, folks will hear about them and they’ll be dissected.

  4. Paul Says:

    Good point, though that link says these comments are “not intended for publication of new research results meriting a full paper elsewhere.” I’m sure some of the quicky experiments described by bloggers would not merit a new paper and could be included, if the authors so desired. Also, the editors kind of bent the rules in delaying publication by 6 months and running so many TCs…I can’t believe they would have objected to small disclosures of relevant new experiments.

    Finally, if there have been any new experiments that shed light on the subject, FWS and company could just disclose the results on her Web site or to the media. Of course, that would contrast with her MO of having this discourse in print/paper media.

  5. Matt Says:

    I’m a little curious about something …
    Wolf-Simon’s media seemed to follow rather quickly after the discovery was announced, even with all of our (scientific community/blogosphere) hand-wringing on the subject. Does the media still have a taste for “her”? Or are they finished? Is the media’s recent “silence” on this due to the general media cycle, or is it due to the uproar. I would argue that it is general media cycle. I think that her star has faded in the public eye not due to the scientific community, but because the public is done with this novelty. (Does anyone have better insight than my entirely off-the-cuff remarks)
    That said is there any service to the non-scientist to keep writing about this (is anyone paying attention)? Or is the benefit solely for the sake of practicing scientists and those who show a deep interest in current research?

  6. Matt Says:

    … and by recent “silence” I do include the June Galmour (which likely did the interview and prep for this article closer to the release of the research than the release of the mag)

  7. Zen Faulkes Says:

    There are twelve other authors on that paper. They should not be let off the hook, either.

  8. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    I don’t think this episode has changed science as the Slate article’s headline suggests. It remains true that paradigm-shifting claims will come under increased scrutiny and must be backed by the highest standards of evidence. This one played out in the press only because of the increased publicity invited by the authors.

    The Time 100 write-up is particularly unfortunate – convince 2-3 referees and an editor to publish your work, hold an outlandish press conference, and become one of the most influential scientists in the world? Notoriety does not equal influence, except as a case study of how not to behave in the scientific arena.

  9. Chemjobber Says:

    Note that the Time write-up also got the details wrong — FWS proposed the As/P swap in DNA, not proteins.

    (The “some” in “some biologists dismiss” is interesting. I’ve always thought that ‘some’ means a minority (e.g. 20%). I would have written “many” or even “most.”)

  10. Arsenic Bacteria link-dump | A Blog Around The Clock Says:

    […] Return of the Arsenic Bacterium, Felisa Wolfe-Simon Does NOT Get It. […]

  11. Neil Says:

    Check out this YouTube video from Through the Wormhole (Science channel, I think?) featuring FWS, narrated by Morgan Freeman, where she goes through the whole Mono Lake As stuff – in July last year (does this count as ‘prior publication’/talking to the press??).


    She appears from about 2 mins 20 seconds.

  12. Simon Says:

    I would like to have seen the original reviewer’s comments. What was their background? How were they convinced by the data?

    Why didn’t Science just simply ask for a retraction? It’s disheartening to see a serious journal drum up controversy (see also, press) when there is none.

  13. Zen Faulkes Says:


    The most common reason for retraction is probably that there is some problem with the data presented, either through error or malice. Nobody that I have seen has claimed that there is anything wrong with the data itself. People are mostly complaining about missing controls and interpretation of existing data.

    Unconvincing methods and speculative interpretations of results have rarely been grounds for retraction.

    Also, I am not sure Science has done anything to “drum up controversy” besides publish the paper. NASA has more to answer for there with the original press conference.

  14. Simon Says:


    As comments in the Science editorial have pointed out (Csabai & Szathmary), there are undeniable errors with the data reporting, in regards to averaging their raw data. I don’t think a paper that contains major statistical errors and is also riddled with poor controls should be immune to retraction. Whether or not the author’s conclusions/discussion are perfectly sound is another issue. Perhaps you would support a correction (I would, too)?

    On the second point, I don’t believe there is any concrete reason to believe Science is drumming up controversy. I was expressing my opinion: I think that posting editorial comments on a controversial paper- that isn’t even *really* published- does put more press on an issue that, in my opinion, isn’t an issue, because it’s so obviously a paper with moot results. There is no question that Science will sell a few more magazines by addressing the controversy they helped establish. But I appreciate the other view as well, in a sense they have to address it, since it was pseudopublished on their watch.

  15. Andrew Pohorille Says:

    So, everybody is a critic now! In old days information and commentaries were in the hands of journalists. They are bound by professional standards of ethics, which include fact checking and contacting the primary source for comments (unfortunately not all of them follow; Ms. Pennisi certainly didn’t). Bloggers don’t have to follow any standards and this one doesn’t. Does the paper present completely convincing data? We all agree that it doesn’t. Should it have been published in Science in the present form? Probably not. But any author can send a manuscript to Science. It is Science’s job to decide what should be published. So, if there is somebody to criticize it is the Science editorial board. And how is Felisa’s appearance in popular press relevant to scientific issues that are under discussion? Talking about silly – bringing these points is really silly. The author of the post points out that there is no new evidence from Felisa with implied message that she is too busy being a celebrity. This is an unfortunate combination of arrogance and ignorance. First, the Science rules were “no new facts”. But indeed, there is no new evidence. This is not because Felisa is not committed to work hard or get to the bottom of this story, but because possibilities of doing so were, at least temporarily, taken away from her. Fact checking would have been helpful in understanding what’s going on. And what does it mean: “she should be treated with suspicion she deserves”. Have you ever talk to her? I can assure you that she is talented, straight thinking, very reasonable and very committed to science, and I would be very interested in hearing what are well-researched reasons for “suspicion”. In fact, I would like to hear what are redeeming values of this whole post.

    I have 30 years of experience in the origin of life field. Currently I chair the origin of life focus group. Over the years, I have seen much worse papers published by much bigger names. None of this caused an equally aggressive reaction. So why so many people lash out on Felisa? Is it because a simple postdoc with no job and no influence in the scientific community is an easy target? Perhaps it makes us feel better – she might be in Time and Glamour and on Wikipedia, but we are still better than she is. At any rate, congratulations to the author for personal courage, good research and the depth of thought.

    Andrew Pohorille

    P.S. Just that I am not suspected of attacking just a poor blogger, I also sent message to Bruce Alberts criticizing the Liz Pennisi news article. I never heard back from Science. For those who want to see this message, e-mail me at Andrew.Pohorille@gmail.com.

  16. Hap Says:

    Maybe the vituperation is caused by an allergic reaction to “validation of research results by media (over)exposure”?

  17. Special Guest Lecturer Says:


    The appropriate response to this controversy would be to disappear into the lab and produce additional evidence for the claim. Many of the experiments suggested by the technical comments to the Science paper are not outlandish (such as isolating the DNA and obtaining its mass spectrum).

    The authors’ failure to be more self-critical before submitting the paper was their first error. One should not rely on peer review to catch one’s own errors in drawing conclusions (though peer review certainly failed here as well). Had it stopped there, this paper would be one of a number of flawed studies published in Science. The difference between this situation and other flawed papers is the significant attention sought by the authors for their flawed study. It was the authors’ press conference touting the need to rewrite the biochemistry textbooks that brought the full force of this backlash. Furthermore, the coverage given to Wolfe-Simon by the mass media is solely attributable to the fact that she and her coauthors oversold their results.

    I don’t think of Wolfe-Simon as a sinister character or someone who “should be treated with suspicion”. However, I do think she should avoid broadcasting this science in TED talks and other mainstream outlets before she and her coauthors present further evidence of their claims. I don’t think it is the responsibility of the biochemistry and molecular biology communities to drop everything to prove or disprove her claims for her.

  18. See Arr Oh Says:

    @Special Guest Lecturer: I completely agree with your statement above about proof being the burden of the researcher. Now, I’m not going to tell you I’ve ever had a paper published in Science, so I suppose I don’t exactly understand the rigors of the review process there. But you have to believe that one of the 12 co-authors must have thought of double- and triple-checks to perform before they scheduled the press conference. But who knows? Science nowadays doesn’t command the top headlines like it used to, so maybe the chance for all the press was worth having your entire community potentially excommunicate you.

    In the meantime, I keep amusing myself by thinking how things might have been if scientists throughout history had left the proof to the others in their field:

    “No, that apple fell, but I’m sure the next one will hover” – Newton
    “Watson, come here, I need you to make some collect calls” – Bell
    “Wow, that Maitotoxin sure is big…you should try that” – Nicolaou

  19. Mask Says:

    Mere grad student that I am, I am crushed when I see these things. I recall some sayings about extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence.

    Dr. Pohorille, blogs are a mostly tongue-and-cheek conversationalist forum. More of a ’round the campfire area. Typically emotional writing, subjectivity welcomed. Thus you will see a large number of individuals who do go the extra mile verifying the data for their Tet. Lett. submission feel jilted at the seeming carelessness. Respecting your long and storied resume, I question your attempt to place scientific critique solely in the hands of journalists. I demand the same rigor from my colleagues that I myself produce. It is only right. (However I still hope she’s right, against almost all odds. I enjoy novelty in my reality, and I’m sad when enthusiastic people are castrated.)

    Also, this poor blogger has had some interesting interactions with the individual in question.

    I believe this entire situation highlights instead the consequences inherent in expectations of one’s own ideas, especially ones held for quite a length of time. I also believe this underscores a developing reluctance to seriously discuss your current research with a wide audience of peers UNLESS it is published. This trait has seriously disturbed me lately, and I recall the birth of quantum mechanics did not suffer from this malady.

    Unfortunately some poor sap is going to have to grow these in exceptionally phosphorous-free conditions and examine the issue at his own cost. No reason to leave the question on the table, let’s get it over with.

  20. Andrew Pohorille Says:

    Special Guest Lecturer: Let me first clarify two points that most people don’t understand. (1) Felisa can’t go the lab and do experiments, even though she would like to, because for reasons independent of her she has no lab to go to. (2) The press conference was not called by the authors or at authors’ request. It was called by NASA, and it is hard, if not impossible, to say no to your sponsors. In my opinion, the decision to call the conference was unfortunate, but there was nothing evil there; perhaps an error in judgement.
    I am not a fan of doing “science by media”, and apparently neither are you. But in 90% of cases the initiative in on the side of the media, which are often quite inaccurate in their reporting. Perhaps scientists should have the guts to say no. I stopped talking to the media since I discovered perpetuum mobile according to Science News. But in reality there are many pressures from various sources that are difficult to resist. None of us is perfect. How to deal with media, especially in cases of controversial science is a legitimate point to discuss, but the original post that we comment on, and many other blogs, are quite unhelpful in this respect.
    Finally, the issue of peer review. Bob Laughlin once told me that he owed his Nobel Prize in physics to reviewers. The original version of his theory was flawed and only in response to criticism of the reviewers he reformulated it (with spectacular results). If authors were not making mistakes or omissions why have peer review in the first place? The issue is whether the authors had bad intentions in this case, and on the basis of my knowledge of the issue the answer is no. In addition, the work might be that of the postdoc, but the ultimate decision that the paper is ready for publication is always made by senior scientists. So why this anger at Felisa? Also consider this: even though evidence is incomplete there is some good stuff in the paper, especially for a young scientist.
    The tone of the debate makes me sad. it says more about us at the community that about Felisa. And what is says is not good.

  21. Paul Says:

    @Andrew: Your first comment implies that I (i) am not allowed to criticize anything and (ii) did not get the facts right. Your first point is manifestly stupid. As for the second, please cite one example of a fact that I got wrong. One example.

    I cannot agree that Science is the party primarily responsible for the problems here. Yes, Science made a mess of their role, but before anyone else, I expect the authors to be held to account for the quality of their work. Also, Science does not get to exclusively control the criticism of this paper. Anyone should feel free to speak up and defend proper science.

    From your second comment, if FWS has no lab to go to—as you state—then why did she tell Pennisi that she “really wanted to get back home and back into the lab”? And while NASA might have arranged the press conference, FWS has editorial control over the words that exit her mouth. What she said and the way she said it were—in my opinion—not good. And besides that press conference, there are plenty of other examples of cringeworthy interviews present on the Web. Did NASA make her do all of them?

    I am not alone in my opinions. For a more charitably worded assessment of one of her live talks, see here.

    And in saying that the press needs to treat FWS with suspicion, I mean that it needs to stop giving her a free pass. If she is going to decline to respond to (reasonable) criticism about her work, the press should not provide an outlet for her to promote it.

  22. Sonja Says:

    Certainly Science is partly responsible, but they seem to be doing their part in delaying issue publication in order to include commentary/technical notes. @Andrew, no one is saying that blogs are trying to do “science by media”, but blogs have in some cases been tremendously effective and fast mechanisms of post-publication peer review. @Neil, in my world, that video is pushing the line on prior publication.

  23. Paul Says:

    Also, @Matt, I agree the mainstream media is done with this story because it went through the cycle. Most of the science news they cover seems to be brought to them on a platter. When NASA comes by and says that it has discovered extraterrestrial life on Earth and it’s providing the scientists for the outlets to get video, it’s no surprise the story got the coverage that it did.

    The ensuing stories are less compelling…

    “Is peer-review broken? Film at 11.”

  24. Franck M. Says:

    Let’s be clear here. We (scientists) know a lot of people like Felisha Wolfe-Simon, they exist in all fields of science. In astronomy, I can name a few of them who basically based their entire reputation on a false & unverified results and never had the honesty to admit that it was an error or was not yet proven. They are those who could not get attention at schools beside the fact that they were the “geeks” and one day, because the world has changed and journalists pay attention to science can become a celebrity.
    The only way we can face such negative practice in science is by going back to the lab and prove that what they claim is incorrect. What surprise me in the debate of the arsenic-life, is the amount of time scientists who are also bloggers spent writing negative comments about the paper. Why don’t they simply do the analysis that they claim was not done to show that it is not true or possible? It is easy to attack and demolish the work of your colleagues, it seems to be more difficult to prove that they are wrong.

  25. Paul Says:

    Franck, Franck, Franck…you want me to drop what I’m doing and run her experiments? How is that reasonable? Anyway, what you ask for has been impossible…she only made the bacteria available within the last month.

  26. Matt Says:

    @Paul and @Franck,
    This idea of media coverage is certainly a double-edged sword. As scientists we are VERY quick to jump on people who go out and sell their wares to the media. The medial aren’t going to come to us. But the scientists who do this have to really plug away if they want the attention. Most of us (who are unwilling to do this) NEED these people who are willing to go that extra mile. This benefits all science. Now, as has been fully discussed here and elsewhere, if you are going to go the media route, science-wise, you’d better have a pretty full story. But, as long as the media require the level of effort from us, there are going to be those that push their science WAAAYYYY too early as NASA has done with this research. I think that it’s just inevitable. It certainly doesn’t make it right, though.

  27. Stewie Griffin Says:

    @Franck ” What surprise me in the debate of the arsenic-life, is the amount of time scientists who are also bloggers spent writing negative comments about the paper. Why don’t they simply do the analysis that they claim was not done to show that it is not true or possible?”

    You’re joking right? So now the burden of proof is on those that doubt?
    Well then Franck I just finished the synthesis of maitotoxin in 100 linear steps. What’s that you say, some of those steps a bit too sketchy for you? Well too bad! Prove me wrong by going into the lab and redoing my work for me.

  28. Rosie Redfield Says:

    I agree that testing GFAJ-1’s ability to use arsenic is, scientifically, a waste of time, but the large number of people calling out for this has persuaded me to do the test. See the last paragraphs of Thursday’s SciAm guest blog post .

  29. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    Andrew Pohorille,
    I am confused by your suggestion that FWS is currently a postdoc and has no job or place to do experiments.

    I was under the impression (and her own statements assert) that she is in the middle of doing experiments (presumably, not in her garage).

    Can you clarify?

  30. Rosie Redfield Says:

    @NotAnAstrobiologist: I can’t find it now, but a recent article in Science (Liz Pennisi?) reported that that FWS was no longer associated with Ron Oremland’s research group, although her NSAS fellowship still has two more years to run. It also said that she hadn’t yet joined any other lab.

  31. Marcelo Says:

    I’m really glad that Felisa Wolfe-Simon does not have access to a lab. She has made enough damage to research already. Her resources could be put to better use by serious scientists.

  32. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    That’s pretty harsh Marcelo. I would reserve that type of judgment for a scientist who falsifies results.

  33. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    Now that’s a touch silly. I can’t explain her peculiar behavior during this entire affair, but I presume she has published reasonable papers before this (she did afterall, get a degree). Most the of published work out there (in just about any field) is a complete waste of time and money anyway.

    Lets not start counting pennies, the issue here is she has maintained she is right about something, and many of us are sure that she is (trivially) wrong. No one likes being trivially wrong, and many of us can’t help but project especially when the wrongness is obstinate.

  34. Chris Says:

    I wonder what happened to cause FWS to cease her affiliation with the USGS. Her NASA fellowship apparently has a couple of years left on it, so why would she leave one lab without having another lab lined up? (one of the Science articles from June 3 says that she’s now looking for another lab).

    Did she perhaps upset her USGS hosts because of all the negative attention related to the arsenic work? Or might she have found their “lack of support” frustrating and left out of principle? Or is this kind of shift in affiliation more common than it seems?

  35. Marcelo Says:

    @ Special Guest Lecturer
    At best she is a very incompetent scientist. Why should she keep her job?

    @ NotAnAstrobiologist
    She seems to know very well what she is doing. It is a very simple proposition that explains all her peculiar behavior. She is very meticulous when it comes to self promotion. There is nothing trivial about the negative impact that her behavior has on the public image of science.

  36. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    I think the concerns about the image of “science” and the “community” from both FWS apologists and blade wetting critics are just a bit overblown.

    Science is the name we describe to figuring things out step by step in a reproducible way, while we make sure to be as (self) critical as possible. This approach has yielded a lot of neat and useful stuff…it doesn’t have an image, it’s a way of answering a question. Does not understanding the square root of -1 tarnish the image of complex numbers?

    It sounds to me like you are confusing the idea of science with the agencies that fund and employ the method. In that respect I would agree with you (in spite of the size and inevitable self inconsistency of those agencies). I am also concerned by the fact that FWS has directed her arguments to impressionable young children, who don’t know any better.

    But there is no “public image” of a method that you or I need to preserve, it works just fine regardless of what people do…

  37. Marcelo Says:

    @ NotAnAstrobiologist
    I thought it was obvious that i was using he word “science” in a broad sense to include the scientific community, its production, etc, etc. Thanks for educating me about what science actually is.

  38. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    No I think far too often people aren’t clear whether they are referring to the the method or the agency that is funding the work….

    Why not just say she has done a lot of damage to the public image of NASA or NAI? That would appropriately specific, rather invoking than all of “science” and “research”. She hasn’t done any damage to those things, I don’t think the damage NASA has suffered has been to bad either.

    The argument that suggests resources could have been put to better use, is a poor one. If she can find the money she is free to work in a lab or a garage or anything else she would like to do. Virtually all research proposals are complete bollocks as it is, it’d be difficult for me to say that the money would have certainly been better spent on all of the other amazing scientists as opposed to her.

    Sorry but your original comment just comes across as if FWS has committed some sin towards something other than her own character; and counting the pennies that is her stipend and the costs for some gels and culture media doesn’t really make much sense to complain about.

  39. Marcelo Says:

    @ NotAnAstrobiologist
    Most grants and fellowships are awarded by competition. If FWS gets these resources, it means other scientists are not getting them. I’m 100 % sure that any other scientists who could have got these resources would at least know that a phenol-chloroform extraction is not enough to completely purify DNA. The argument that most scientists are incompetent so it’s ok if FWS does bad science is completely ridiculous.
    In a country where 40% of the people do not believe evolution is real, the public image of science could evidently be better and if a scientist misleads the public into believing fairy tales it is damaging for all scientists. In fact, it is only because of bad scientists like FWS that some people think, like you do, that “virtually all research proposals are completely bollocks”. I regularly review grant proposals and some are better than others but actually most of them are reasonable.

  40. JP Says:

    Paul, Paul, Paul…

    *Yes* I want you to drop what you’e doing and run her experiments. What’s more important, maintaining this blog site (and doing whatever else it is you think is important in your little world as a post-doc Fellow) or confirming/refuting, in collaboration with a team of other experts in the field, what could amout to one of *the* most important discoveries in the history of science? Come to your senses, man! Where is your sense of adventure? Now is not the time to rest on your blogging laurels, your work as a scientist is never done!

    I’m amazed that a team of scientists hasn’t already descended on Mono Lake (where you’ll probably find it’s not at all “impossible” to obtain as many samples of the bacteria in question as you wish), based on the potential significance of this discovery. Didn’t any famous scientists in history ever sacrifice their own time, their own money, in order to pursue their research? Or are scientists today too lazy, too unwilling to leave the comfort of their bloggeries unless their research is paid for by someone else? And if money is an issue, can’t you bug NASA or someone else to cough up the cash needed to support your research? True, FWS *should* have done the follow-up experiments suggested by peer review (asking NASA for a lab and/or funding, as needed). But are we to stand idly by, just because she fails to act, and allow this potentially historic discovery to forever remain unconfirmed? Absurd! *You* can be the one to validate or refute her research — then *you* can you have your geeky visage plastered on the cover of Glamour magazine!

    As Arnold Schwarzeneggar would say, “Get your ass to Mono Lake!”

  41. JP Says:


    After reading Rosie’s article (under “What should other researchers do?”), it now makes much more sense to me. Thanks Rosie for stepping up!

  42. Eli Rabett Says:

    Wolfe-Simon was forced out of the Oremland’s USGS laboratory

  43. AC Says:

    I think it’s extremely unfair of you to say the things you have, even if she’s wrong. it sounds like you’re a really pathetic and bitter human being, it’s completely uncalled for to be so harsh just because someone might potentially be incorrect. Sometimes people have incorrect results, but she’s not a full-fledged researcher yet (as you aren’t either) and I think you should have a little more sympathy for someone in her position. After all, if you want to go for personal attacks, I see that it took you 8 years to get your PhD, now THAT’s pretty sad.

  44. AC Says:

    Sorry for the above, I was really angry about the negativeness of your post, I did not mean to go for a personal attack.

  45. Paul Says:

    You got me. I’m a pathetic human being. You, on the other hand, are definitely not pathetic. That is why you left a comment criticizing me for making personal attacks in which you personally attacked me, only to come back 11 minutes later to apologize and state that you didn’t mean to level a personal attack.

    I guess another thing that makes me pathetic is that I actually take time to explain my criticism and then sign my name to it.

    On a more serious note, I hope we are all past the idea that Wolfe-Simon “might potentially be incorrect.” Her paper has been thoroughly eviscerated in terms of its theory and experiments. The whole episode was a complete waste of time.

  46. Reasoned Reason Says:

    Oberlin College where Wolfe-Simon started her scientific studies has a long history of blurring the lines between political promotion and scientific method in many fields. This may have planted the seeds of manipulation (including self-deceptive manipulation) in Wolf-Simon.

    (Before anyone assumes that I must be a “Right-winger”, based on what I just wrote, l’d like to mention that I am Left-wing myself on most issues). I am not against a good struggle for a better world. But I have grown tired, oh so tired, of how much of academia has been hijacked by political crusaders on the faculties of many major Universities–

    Who frequently work from the exact same playbook used by Dr. Wolf-Simon.

    In particular Oberlin College, where she got her start in the sciences, is famous for being an institution of crusaders who have often been sloppy with the facts.

    In reality Wolf-Simon is just a taste, just a spillover, from what has long overwhelmed primarily the social sciences and also much of psychology studies at many American Universities. Yes Wolf-Simon is a self-promoter, but the pattern of “promotion over science”, “promotion over reality”, or even worse– promotion purposed to “make it true” runs through most of the soft sciences now, and was only shot down this time because it sprung a leak into the hard sciences in the form of Dr. Wolf-Simons self-deluded, hyped and manipulatively promoted paper. Thank God for the exacting and fact-based firewall between the hard sciences and the soft sciences in the United States, or we would now all be in even deeper trouble.

    Recent revelations, corroborated at major institutions like UCSD in California, that the vast majority of studies done for example, in the field of psychology in the last 30 years in the USA, were published without ANY careful peer review, and to a very large degree, were then followed with a total lack of corroborating follow-up studies, bear disturbing testament to this trend. Even worse, the “findings” of many such unreviewed, un-replicated psychological studies have been incorporated into textbooks that now train undergraduates and graduates in the field.

    And this goes hand-in-hand with widespread public promotion of such poorly vetted study results, very similar to Wolf-Simons style. Psychology studies are very popular in the media– and the results of new ones are quoted, like facts, almost weekly on major news outlets. Almost all of which have never been peer-reviewed or replicated. Researchers nevertheless are credited in the national news media and even appear on television news and talk shows like jack-in-the-box “experts”, their un-tested studies bestowing added credibility on the researcher while potentially misinforming the public. It’s an intoxicating relationship that never stops feeding on itself.

    The damage has been incalculable. It will actually take a generation to recover from this widespread scientific malfeasance. Multiply Wolf-Simon by thousands of times and you have the state of research in the field of psychology in the United States.

    No one should ever underestimate the potential for highly intelligent, highly educated people to deceive themselves. Understanding how this happens, both individually and on larger scales, should be an area of extensive, careful and exacting peer-reviewed and corroborated scientific study. This kind of study should focus not just on individuals, but also the sorts of organizational patterns and behaviors that foster both good and bad science. So much depends on this.

  47. wayland Says:

    Hi it may take “over a generation to recover”, but I wonder when that will be timed from. When such a recovery may start.

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