Cause and defect

Popular Science recently published an interview with Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the notorious geobiochemist whose controversial study made her famous but nearly destroyed her career. Wolfe-Simon led a research team that claimed the existence of a bacterium in Mono Lake that relies on arsenic, rather than phosphorous, to survive. Their claim was astounding and had potential to disrupt decades of science—phosphorous is vital to every biological creature or substance, and the study threatened to change the way scientists classify the chemical composition of life. After Wolfe-Simon’s findings went public in December of last year, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, NASA sensationally announced the results as an indication of life forms in space, but other scientists were rightfully skeptical of her research methods—her control group seemed weak and unregulated, and many extraneous variables went unaccounted. Wolfe-Simon skyrocketed into celebrity, but the professional science world reacted negatively to the study, and the backlash was immediate. Wolfe-Simon’s research abilities, professional and personal motives, and entire wealth of knowledge came under fire. Other researchers composed harsh attacks shared on public blogs and the ethics code of professional scientists was debated in length. While much of the personal criticism was uncalled for, it exposed the dark side of the elusive world of professional science and made the public reexamine who we consider experts.

Wolfe-Simon’s study is under scrutiny, and many scientists are replicating her process to determine if the evidence she published is accurate—which is what should happen with research that makes major claims that contradict much of what science has long accepted as truth. With the recent media attention for the CERN experiment, claiming that neutrinos (neutral subatomic particles) can travel faster than the speed of light, scientists and the general public are finally acknowledging that science-shattering news should be taken with a grain of salt.

This is especially important for breakthroughs in health and the environment. Studies that prove the existence of “miracle fruits” that can cause quick and painless weight loss, or a particular gadget hailed as “organic” and “eco-friendly,” should be closely and critically evaluated by other scientists and especially the public most directly affected by the marketing of these studies. But skepticism is different than an outright denial of facts that have been proven repeatedly with empirical data, such as climate change or evolution. For everyone, research is a process.