The case of the arsenic-lover, or the birth of Blogzilla

On Dec. 2, 2010, NASA held a press conference to announce new research findings published in a peer-reviewed journal – something the agency does quite regularly. This event unleashed a firestorm of criticism, however, from journalists, bloggers, scientists, and scientist-bloggers. Why?

And why does this cauldron of critique continue to bubble away today, more than seven months after the event?

I have not yet been able to pinpoint “ground zero” for the blogospheric speculation about this announcement. I do know that this guessing game began before Science magazine’s embargoed release of the paper to journalists on Nov. 28, embargoed until Dec. 2, and NASA’s Nov. 29 media advisory about the press conference. Speculation spiked across the Internet after the advisory was issued.

Critics knocked the science and the scientists involved in the research, NASA officials, and the peer-review process.

As a social scientist who studies science communication, I’m fascinated with how this “arsenic-life” story is playing out. I’m especially interested in how the story – and it is a fascinating tale – shines a light on the ways in which: 1) the blogosphere is changing both science and journalism, 2) scientists and journalists regard and deploy peer review, and 3) individual and institutional interests and motives drive social actions.

One of my primary research interests is the role that journalists and journalism (and now, by extension, bloggers and the blogosphere) play in the social construction of scientific authority. The arsenic-life story illustrates how the blogosphere and other Internet-based channels of communication allow many more people, “credentialed” and otherwise, to participate in this process.

Is this sort of open dialogue good or bad for science and for journalism? Is the Internet facilitating public engagement in science and journalism? Or is it undermining the authority of science and the credibility of journalists?

For as long as I’ve been watching (more than 25 years), NASA has routinely held press conferences to brief the media about interesting research findings. It’s also routine for NASA to issue press releases about the subject of these media events when the event takes place, especially when an external embargo is imposed on the news (as it was, by Science, in the case of the arsenic-life paper).

“NASA Science Updates” – press conferences such as the one held Dec. 2, 2010, to announce the arsenic-life findings – take place periodically to brief the media about new research that has been supported by NASA. (While their work was supported by NASA, none of the authors on the arsenic-life paper work for NASA.) My understanding is that NASA decided to hold a press conference to inform the media, and thus the public, about the findings, as follows.

When I say “NASA,” I’m referring not to a monolithic entity but to a chain of individuals and groups within the agency. In this case, the manager of the program that funded the research (astrobiology) found the results to be published in Science: 1) were interesting and possibly ground-breaking, 2) had the potential to contribute to the program’s goals and objectives, and 3) thus were newsworthy. This potential news was then submitted to review and approval by the senior communications officer for space science, the director of the Planetary Science Division, the head of the Science Mission Directorate, the head of the Office of Communications, and various officials in the NASA Administrator’s office including the Administrator and Deputy Administrator themselves. This description of the chain of decisionmaking is, of course, simplistic and incomplete, revealing nothing, for example, about individuals’ interests and motives.

It is my understanding that the headline of NASA’s Nov. 29 media advisory, “NASA sets news conference on astrobiology discovery; Science journal has embargoed details until 2 p.m. EST on Dec. 2,” emphasized the Science embargo primarily to remind journalists and bloggers and scientists – because the Web was so lit up with their speculations about the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life – that a Science embargo was in effect. I say that this is my understanding because I did not write the headline. It may or may not reflect other motives.

The media advisory stated: “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. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”

I am not unbiased, as I work with people in this field. That said, I’d like to note that, for the past 50 years, NASA has been openly engaged in searching for evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system – that is, extraterrestrial life. The term “extraterrestrial” means, simply, “beyond” or “outside” Earth. It is more precise and less likely to be interpreted as sensational than, say, “alien.” Though some journalists and bloggers, at least with regard to the arsenic-life story, have deemed the use of the term “extraterrestrial” misleading, I would argue that it is, rather, accurate.

The Internet is, indeed, facilitating public engagement in science and journalism. Whether and how this broader engagement affects the authority and credibility of science and scientists and journalism and journalists remains to be seen. Just as some scientists deem the peer review process troublesome but better than the alternative, this social scientist deems the democratization of science and journalism troublesome as well, but better than the alternative.

The arsenic-life case is ripe for analysis. I‘ll continue to follow it, and I hope that other social scientists will join me.