Fuss About Microbes

Just when we were wondering how to make use of the information that a bacterium GFAJ-1 could substitute arsenic for phosphorus in many important molecules in its body, it turns out there’s a thundering dispute in the blogosphere about the validity of the study about the critter.  NASA’s response to critics of its study, as reported in today’s Science Times was to state that it “wouldn’t debate science with bloggers and would stick to peer-reviewed literature.”

This dispute and NASA’s response struck us as a perfect illustration of the now flawed distinction between bloggers and “real experts.”  It is a distinction we used to make too, arguing that responding to bloggers was like arguing with a drunk at a bar.  That condescending view has long since been blown away as serious political and academic discussion has shifted to the convenient high-speed debating chamber which is the World Wide Web.

At this stage in the cycle, the most expert and informed critics of your organization almost certainly have a blog presence and to ignore them because they are “bloggers” is simply leaving unanswered questions out in the open.  Are there still bomb-throwers among the bloggerati?  Yes, but you will know who they are and your fans will do much of the arguing for you.

To be fair, the authors of the paper themselves, according to the New York Times are putting together an FAQ which they plan eventually to post online.  As for peer review?  As one of the blogger critics, a zoologist from the University of British Columbia,  says: “We are the peers.”

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