Tom Clynes on His Pop Sci Profile of Wolfe-Simon

Tom Clynes

Last week I wrote Arsenic is Life and the View from Nowhere, about a long, complicated story that journalist and photographer Tom Clynes wrote in Popular Science about Felisa Wolfe-Simon and the #arseniclife controversy. As my post noted, the story generated a complex reaction in me — and a distressingly oversimplified reaction in many of its readers commenting at Pop Sci. This led me to end up disappointed in a story in which I also found (and still find) much to admire.

While my take on the story remains roughly the same, I am increasingly impressed by the story’s author, Tom Clynes, who in an earlier email to me and a longer one received today and reprinted below, has shown an admirable open-mindedness and thoughtfulness even as has received some fairly sharp critiques from me and others. (A couple days ago he also wrote a different response to Carl Zimmer about Zimmer’s post at the loom.) Extra points for such flexibility and graciousness.

Here’s Tom’s note to me from this afternoon:

Dear David,

Thanks for commenting on my Popular Science profile on Felisa Wolfe-Simon and the arsenic-life debate. And thanks for caring enough about the subject and my take on it to give the story two reads.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that the story is “a view from nowhere,” I do think that some of your criticisms (which you’ve raised in a way that is both convincing and respectful) are worth considering. You contend that, in trying to present a balanced and nuanced look at a complicated situation, the story doesn’t adequately guide the reader to a truly informed opinion.

There’s no question that, with an issue this contentious and complicated, a writer is contending with dueling motivations: On one hand, I want to present a nuanced perspective that lets my readers come to their own conclusions after considering the facts and opinions I’ve dug up and chosen to provide. On the other hand, readers of long-form science journalism are asking the writer to express an authoritative viewpoint, after doing the sort of heavy lifting that we are paid to do: digging deep, visiting scenes, verifying facts, getting to know the major players, mastering the subject…and then, finally, stepping back and presenting definitive conclusions within a readable narrative.

Honestly, with a story like this one—which is, in the end, about a lot of people making a lot of mistakes—I think we’d both agree that it’s difficult to hand the trophy of righteousness to one side or the other. I certainly don’t believe that Wolfe-Simon was simply “a wronged right rebel,” as you put it, nor would I want my readers to come away with that conclusion. Wolfe-Simon may be young and naïve and was in some ways used and then thrown under the bus by other people and institutions. And she suffered because of NASA’s over-hyped and ham-handed approach to publicizing her paper to a press that wildly misconstrued the significance of her findings. But it is her name on the paper and it was her hypothesis. Her data formed the conclusions, and it was her responsibility to conduct rigorous research and then explain the findings and respond to criticisms.

It seems our biggest disagreement is over whether the paper should have been published in the first place. My conclusion—that the paper is not so flawed that it should not have been published—is one you deem “strange” and “astounding.” I would say that it is actually a rather a complicated matter of opinion, and that you and I (who have probably thought more about this than most people) have come to different conclusions.

My take, in a nutshell: In a profession where young scientists are advised to avoid controversy as they build their careers, Wolfe-Simon pushed against a paradigm and attempted to answer to some very big questions. She presented six lines of evidence with the help of collaborators from a broad range of disciplines, and passed through the same peer-review hoops (imperfect as they may be) at Science that other scientists must. Yes, her research was imperfect, and yes she—like many young researchers—overreached. But what is science if not an ever-evolving, ever-building accretion of ideas, borne from the success and failures (mostly failures) of those involved?

Among the scientists who poked holes in the paper, some stuck to the science and made convincing arguments. Far from dismissing these arguments, my story catalogs the major technical criticisms: that the arsenic linkages purportedly holding the DNA of GFAJ-1 together would quickly fall apart in water; that arsenic in the cytoplasm would be reduced to arsenite, which wouldn’t be able to substitute for phosphorus; that mineral salts in the bacterial cultures or other contaminants could have contributed enough phosphorus to meet the needs of GFAJ-1. You also write that my story ignores extensive critiques from Ed Yong—and yet when I went back and reread the story I realized that it is Yong, in fact, who ends up with the longest quote in the piece.

This episode has not been the scientific community’s finest hour. Even if some of Wolfe-Simon’s conclusions are eventually dissolved by further investigation (as is likely), science has suffered far more from the ad-hominem attacks on the scientist herself than it has from the publication of her paper. Critically, there’s no evidence that Wolfe-Simon did anything unethical, which might have justified the harshness and sweeping proportions of the response.

What I’m hoping readers take away from my story—and I really don’t think this is a view from nowhere—is that in the absence of a major ethical breach, no young scientist full of passion for an idea deserves crucifixion for a single professional failure.

The University of Colorado’s Alan Townsend, whom I quote in the story, said it best: “If a paper is flawed, it should be dismissed. The scientist should not.”

Tom Clynes

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *