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Arsenic bacteria and climate disruption: a comparison

Four weeks ago, a press conference at NASA presented the claims by Ms Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al. who argued that during their searches in the Californian Mono Lake, they had found a bacterium that was able to replace phosphorus by arsenic (which is abundant in the lake - for natural reasons, which is why no one talks about this interesting lake) in its vital molecules, including the DNA that is normally built around a phosphate backbone. The paper eventually appeared in Science:

A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus (full text PDF)
During and right after the press conference, your humble correspondent believed that the claims were likely to be true - partially because Ms Iron Lisa Wolfe-Simon was cute (I am not 100% immune against such things) and there was nothing "obviously wrong" with it. Arsenic is right beneath phosphorus in the periodic table and there was no reason why a random young passionate yet naive scientist and a former performance oboist couldn't have discovered such a new life strategy.

During the very press conference, critics argued that the arsenic compounds were much less stable than their phosphorus counterparts which made it impossible to use them in the DNA and other molecules and these critics turned out to be right.

Mr Steve Benner has pointed out that arsenate-based DNA would hydrolyze in water within 10 minutes (see also Mr Alex Bradley) - a claim that Wolfe-Simon et al. seem to agree with. That's not a good way to store the genetic information and indeed, building life around a similar unstable "memory" would be similar to building the Library of Alexandria - an eternal storage of human wisdom - with books out of sand. You know, this defect is pretty hard to "compensate".

Wolfe-Simon replied with some vague slogans about her claimed stability of As-DNA but her qualitative arguments are almost certainly wrong.

Ms Redfield vs Ms Wolfe-Simon

Now, when the paper in Science is available, it seems almost obvious that while the bacterium can survive in high concentrations of arsenic (unlike us), it doesn't actually use this element to grow. Instead, the bacteria used phosphorus from their ancestors and other biological contamination that wasn't under control. Ms Rosie Redfield (the lady with the rosie red hair on the picture above) offered the key viewpoint that had convinced me that there existed no evidence that arsenic was actually used by the bacteria anywhere.

By now, there is a widespread consensus that the paper hasn't demonstrated its key claim. As diverse people as your humble correspondent and people from the Real Climate blog agree. See also articles that mentioned Ms Redfield's points, a meaningful summary of the criticisms in the Slate, and MSNBC blogs.

Meanwhile, despite the growing perceived certainty that her paper is wrong, Iron Lisa remains an Iron Lady. Her paper has to be right, she says; the critics are wrong, only people who manage to pass through or fool the peer review process just like her have the right to think, and she will bring us new proofs - maybe even the E.T. himself will arrive to endorse her and her team (which includes physicist Paul Davies). ;-)

Also, she has never intended the paper to be hyped, we learn; she only attended the NASA press conference while she was boiling water for a coffee and someone told her to buy a new kettle in a mall - and it turned out to be the evil NASA people who forced her to participate at the press conference. :-)) (I am just popularizing her amusing claim about the lack of her desire to be very famous.)

What was the original evidence all about? Ms Wolfe-Simon claimed that the bacteria couldn't possibly survive with phosphorus only because she has had reduced the amount of phosphorus they could use - below the normal amount of phosphorus that the bacteria like to consume.

Now, this argument is of course bullshit - and because it was the only argument that arsenic was actually incorporated into the molecules of life, it instantly throws the whole paper to the trash bin. Why is it bullshit?

Well, if you normally drink 2 liters of water per day, it doesn't mean that you have to be a supernatural being or a dead body after a week when you could only drink 1 liter. The average consumption is not the same thing as the minimum consumption needed for survival. Chances are that arsenic wasn't included in a single viable molecule of life they studied. The new evidence is zero and the old theoretical evidence suggests that phosphorus can't be replaced.

It's clear that the paper shouldn't have been published - in a prestigious journal or otherwise - and NASA shouldn't have given it so much visibility because it was standing on one piece of evidence that had a self-evident bug in it. But if they couldn't have canceled the press conference, then during the press conference, they should have at least shown what was the actual evidence that the arsenic was incorporated - because viewers like me concluded that there had to be some real evidence and I feel cheated now.

However, on the other hand, NASA should be praised for having included a senior critic of Wolfe-Simon's conclusion - Steve Benner - at the press conference. He reviewed some old lore - a priori reasons to be skeptical. However, he didn't really address the positive evidence presented in the paper in any detail.


The Real Climate Hockey Team compares the arsenic fiasco with the global warming hoax. You don't have to read their article - it's too talkative and redundant. The Real Climate people are junk scientists and they suck as communicators, too: they suck at so many levels.

They argue that the arsenic fiasco teaches us three lessons:
  1. Funding agencies deliberately pay studies that challenge the prevailing scientific opinion
  2. Scientists are also eager to overthrow the "consensus"
  3. Scientists like to distance themselves from flawed research because their credibility, and not funding, is at stake
The overall message of the Real Climate article is that "the institutionalized science works" which is why you shouldn't ever dare to challenge the consensus about the climate disruption ;-) or even pay for the research of skeptics - and why you should never be afraid of your credibility when you decide to endorse preposterous statements and predictions by the climate crusaders.

Whether this message is consistent with the three partial lessons above is left to the reader. :-)

(I like Holdren's new term "climate disruption" because it allows one to accurately say that it doesn't exist - the claims about its existence are rubbish; one can't be so unambiguous about the terms "global warming" and "climate change" because some phenomena that could deserve these names exist - although they're something totally different than the catastrophes we often hear about.)

In principle, I agree with the three lessons. When science works, possibly revolutionary insights are preferred both by scientists and their sponsors. On the other hand, wrong revolutionary statements are more damaging which is why scientists distance themselves from extraordinary claims that are wrong according to the available evidence.

However, when institutionalized science doesn't work, it doesn't work. In the case of climate science which has become a totally corrupt field of science, the first two lessons above are pretty much right - for an interesting reason you will see - while the last lesson has to be modified a bit:
  1. In the context of climate science, funding agencies only pay for research that disagrees with the previous established insights of science, including the fact that there is absolutely nothing threatening about the ongoing or foreseeable climate change; studies that build on well-known facts or the proper scientific method are no longer funded
  2. Pretty much all scientists paid from such funds are indeed constantly trying to overthrow this consensus about the harmlessness and natural origin of climate change which is why they permanently invent ways to scare scientifically illiterate laymen and outsiders
  3. These corrupt pseudoscientists primarily care about their image among hundreds of similar corrupt pseudoscientists who decide about their careers, not among proper scientists or other honest and well-informed people, which is why they distance themselves from all the valuable research that analyzes how things actually work instead of how they could work to increase the funding
Every sane person has understood the actual dynamics of the global warming hoax by now.

But I want to spend more time with some other, related lessons of the arsenic fiasco. First, Real Climate's lesson 3 says that what matters is the scientist's credibility and not funding. This is a very subtle claim. For ideal scientists such as your humble correspondent, this could be the case: an ideal scientist doesn't care about the funding too much. But the scientists in the real world of institutionalized science almost always care about the funding. It's just their job. They measure their credibility by the funding. It's completely preposterous to suggest otherwise.

Even Al Gore puts his money where his mouth is - as he often boasts - which means that other people have to put their mouths where Al Gore's money is, by the third Newton's law.

In disciplines whose organizational hierarchy works and hasn't been corrupted, the difference between "care for image" and "care for funding" is mostly immaterial because these two considerations produce very similar outcomes, or at least outcomes that are significantly and positively correlated. But in the climate science, it is not so.

There probably doesn't exist a single champion of the climate panic who could be said to have some significant scientific credibility left. As far as I know, pretty much all of them have been active players in the dishonest manipulations with the data, including ad hoc adjustments, cherry-picking, and overemphasis of possible conclusions of the research that could lead to an increase of the funding. Some of them have added blackmailing, harassment of inconvenient colleagues, and behind-the-scenes alliances with environmental terrorists to achieve their goals.

Those people don't care about their moral image - primarily because there are almost no powerful mechanisms in the society that would force them to care. In many corners, it is almost politically incorrect to insist that people such as Michael Mann who have fraudulently obtained the taxpayer money should return them, and/or be arrested. Scientific integrity should have much higher standards than the conventional human honesty - but in the context of climate science, even ordinary old-fashioned fraud involving stealing millions by producing untrue claims is not prosecuted in any way - so far. So the immoral bottom of the human society numerically dominates in the field of climate science.

Indeed, the main lesson of the arsenic fiasco is that the scientists and sponsors may be expected to have an inherent bias, trying to look for sensationally new claims that will make them famous. This is true both in the case of Ms Felisa Wolfe-Simon as well as in the case of the climate crusaders.

There is one additional lesson that hasn't been mentioned; I would call it lesson 4. Wolfe-Simon admitted that she was planning to find arsenic-consuming organisms from the very beginning; in her words, it was a directed search. Well, at the end, she did claim that her search was successful except that the research wasn't right. The same is happening in the case of the climate disruption. The lesson is:
4. If a researcher claims to have found something that he or she has planned and wanted to find from the very beginning, one should realize that such a researcher was biased and the probability that the evidence supporting such a predetermined conclusion is wrong, cherry-picked, or even fabricated substantially increases.
Needless to say, virtually all of the officially funded "climate research" is based on the plan that the researchers want to find something shocking - some new kind of a threat or mechanism. That's surely the case of Alexander Ač and 149 other crackpots who are now funded by EUR 25 million "CzechGlobe" project of the European Union. For a person who is looking at the field from a distance, it's another reason to think that the claims about the climate disruption are analogous to the claims about the arsenic life forms.

Finally, let me add two more lessons of the arsenic story that is relevant for all of science, including climate science:
5. As long as a new scientific discovery remains incompatible with some previously established insights, i.e. until all the inconsistencies in the overall picture of science including the new discovery are cured, one has to appreciate the possibility that the empirical evidence supporting the new discovery is flawed

6. Unless a rock solid proof of a new hypothesis has already been obtained, one should only decide about its validity after a fair comparison with alternative hypotheses; in this fair comparison, one shouldn't be biased in favor, or against, the alternatives that look more sensational
And that's the memo.

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