Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arsenic and New Life

Last week there was quite the hubbub (for a science story) over the reported discovery of life in a form unlike ever seen before. Specifically it was said that microbes were found that can use arsenic in place of phosphorus in its molecular structures.

I bring up this issue here because it provides a good demonstration of why one should not get carried away with some isolated, new, hyped tidbit that supposedly overturns much established understanding. Unfortunately those inclined toward disbelieving climate science do that rather frequently. Some people will trumpet whatever they think implies that global warming is not real, not driven by human activities, not really a problem, etc.

The first problem is that uninformed hype, speculation and reading only headlines can give a very false impression. This "arsenic life" report is nothing out-of-this-world, and similarly often what some people think is or is being sold as evidence against climate change is anything but.

The bigger issue is that discoveries that purport to overturn what had been considered well-understood often do not actually pan out. In the case of the "arsenic life" it looks like the evidence is actually very weak. Continually there are unwarranted bleats of, 'Look at this - it proves global warming is no worry!' Even with the information is not being misinterpreted by non-experts, the support for such foundation-shaking claims regularly falls apart.

There is nothing wrong with scientific claims that would change our thinking nor that those usually fizzle out. That is all part of how science works. For any number of reasons subsequent work, study, and research typically shows scientists with a new idea just got it wrong. It is quite rare that the many scientists working for many years are wrong and the small number reporting a new finding a right.

Though it looks unlikely, this "arsenic life" claim may hold up with time and not be shot down. For now though the prudent approach is to hold a skeptical view of the claim. The evidence has potential serious flaws, and it would be a rather shocking discovery. Likewise, the prudent view on climate change is not to think that decades of research by thousands of individuals has not been fundamentally offbase while a few naysayers have it right. That, not blanket disbelief, marks true skepticism. Science will continue to hone our knowledge. Perhaps we will find those naysayers have it right, and somehow everyone else has long been wrong. But the overwhelming weight of the current evidence gives no real reason to assume that.

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