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I’m not sure what’s more interesting – that arsenic-based life may potentially exist, or the spectacle of its announcement (and, of course, the eventual fallout). As one who is excited about the prospect of a shadow biosphere on Earth and how it may relate to the possibility of  life elsewhere in our solar system and galaxy, I want the science to stand at the forefront of discussion. But you gotta admit – human reaction to this story is equally worth the mention (and, perhaps unfortunately, is far more relevant with respect to how we progress scientifically as a species. Flying cars, anyone?).

Good reading:

As implied, my own reaction is one of amused fascination. The science I see when doing a term paper or collecting information for my undergrad thesis is so far removed from the public discourse that it’s actually quite enjoyable to see people grinding it out in a public arena.

Of course, there are the obvious questions: Does this event represent the sensationalizing of research findings, and if so, do events like this cheapen science as a whole? Do scientists and scientific instititions run the risk of alienating an already overly-cynical, non-specialist population if the research is shown to be false or invalid? Does specialist criticism in blog-form circumvent or negatively impact the peer review process? Do scientists have a responsibility to disseminate their findings to the general public, or conversely, preserve the rigid strictures of specialist debate?

My gut reaction to these questions on all counts is, “no” “maybe”; but I readily admit I am unable to evaulate that position in any meaningful way. What I can relate, however, is my own disappointment with the story overall as a function of the media structure that brought it to my attention in the first place. It reminds me of the recent skepticism surrounding Gliese 581 g, following the initial media frenzy about having a habitable planet in the near galactic neighbourhood (~20 light years away). You get stoked only to realize your excitement was premature (and whose fault is that?).

Are we developing a trend of rushing out big headlines before the actual research is ready? It’s one thing for scientists to bicker about controversial claims, as they understand the process and realize that uncertainty is a good thing, but it’s quite another for the general public. Yes, we in the western world follow the democratic process, but it’s also worth pointing out that the process doesn’t mitigate stupidity. I’d argue that this kind of messy, scientific discourse in the mainstream media creates the opportunity for it to be maligned and exploited by any manner of creationists, conspiracy theorists, or assorted kooks with money and political pull.

I don’t think it’s a good way to conduct the debate, and I don’t think it helps; especially when so many news outlets run stories of pure fiction about NASA finding extraterrestrial life.

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