Should science bloggers stick to popularizing science and fighting creationism, or does blogging have a wider role to play in the scientific discourse? Howard Wolinsky
ast December, astrobiologists reported in the journal Science that they had discovered the first known micro organism on Earth capable of growing and reproducing by using arsenic (WolfeSimon et al,2010). While media coverage went wild, the paper was met with a resound ing public silence from the scientific com munity. that is, until a new breed of critic, science bloggers, weighed in. Leading the pack was rosie redfield, who runs a micro biology research lab in the Life Sciences centre at the university of British columbia in Vancouver, canada. She posted a critique of the research to herblog, RRResearch (rrresearch.fieldofscience.com), which went viral. redfield said that her site, which is typically a quiet window on activities in her lab got 100,000 hits in a week. this incident, like a handful before it and probably more to come, has raised the profile of science blogging and the freedom that the internet offers to express an opinion and reach a broad audience. yet it alsoraises questions about the validity of unfettered opinion and personal bias, and the ability to publish online with little editorial oversight and few checks and balances.
to do more cleanup and controls.” She also opined on why the article was published: “i don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NaSa’s ‘there’s life in outer space!’ agenda.i hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been over ruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a highimpact publication.”
“… you’re able to pass judgment on papers instantly. You don’t have to write a letter to the editor and have it reviewed”
Despite the fervor and immediacy of the blogosphere, it took Science and Felisa WolfeSimon, thelead author on the paper, nearly six months to respond in print. Eventually, eight letters appeared in Science covering various aspects of the contro versy, including one from redfield, who is now studying the bacteria in her lab. Bruce alberts, editorinchief of Science, down played the role that blogging played in drum ming up interest in the controversial study. “i am sure that the number ofletters sent to us via our website reflected a response to the great publicity the article received, some of it misleading […] this number was also likely expanded by the blogging activity, but it was not directly connected to the blogs in any way that i can detect,” he explained. Bloggers, of course, have a different take on the matter, arguing that it was another example of a growing number ofcases of ‘refutation by blog’. the blogging commu nity heralds redfield as a hero to science and science blogging. By now, more traditional science media outlets have also joined the bloggers in their skepticism over the paper’s
claims, with many repeating the points redfield made in her original blog response. Jerry coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the university of chicago in the uSa,writes the blog Why Evolution is True (why evolutionistrue.wordpress.com), which is a spinoff from his book of the same name. He said that bloggers, both professional scien tists and journalists, have been gaining a new legitimacy in recent years as a result of things such as the arsenic bacteria case, as well as from shooting holes in the 2009 claims that the fossil of the extinct primate Darwiniusmasillae from the Messel pit in germany was a ‘missing link’ between two primate species (Franzen et al, 2009). “[Blogging has] really affected the pace of how science is done. One of the good things about science blogging, certainly as a pro fessional, is you’re able to pass judgment on papers instantly. you don’t have to write a letter to the editor and have it reviewed. [redfield] is a good...