It is a time for reflection on what was the biggest Canadian science story of the year in 2010, and in that vein I have a somewhat eccentric candidate to put forward.
Let me start with an anecdote. On Dec. 3 the University of British Columbia ecologists and evolutionary biologists held their annual Christmas party, where professors are gently satirized in skits. The person playing Professor Rosie Redfield was asked, "What’s a blog?" The joking answer which came back was: "It is like a publication nobody reads — not even reviewers."
The reference was to Redfield’s passion for blogging. She has seven of them.
They range from descriptions of what’s happening, to the latest on her lab’s research — a recent example is a rant against FedEx for not letting some bacteria she was sending to colleagues in London, into England. Then there are the personal letters she writes her Aunt Lucy in Saskatoon (she writes them as a blog, she says, because if she doesn’t she just never gets around to writing Aunt Lucy at all). And there are links to papers people can access without subscribing to journals, outlines of her course material and other things.
The reason for the Christmas party dig is that her most-read blog, the one which describes her lab’s workings, might on a very, very popular post, get 100 readers. "Frankly, I can barely get the people in my lab to read my blog," she told me over the phone.
So with that in mind she blogged on the fourth of December about a paper published Dec. 2 in Science Magazine. The paper purported to show that bacteria immersed in arsenic-rich mud found in Lake Mono in California were able to not just survive but thrive. And even more astounding, it appeared that arsenic had replaced phosphorus as one of the chemical struts of the bacteria’s DNA.
NASA, where the lead researcher worked, was so excited it held a press conference which referenced the findings' importance in exobiology. That is, the arsenic link seemed to imply that living matter could evolve in places that lacked Earth’s basic chemical building blocks. This would significantly increase the maybe/perhapsness of life existing elsewhere in the universe.
Redfield’s critique was both highly technical and — the word is used over and over again to describe it — scathing.
"Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information," she wrote. "The mass spec measurements may be very well done (I lack expertise here), but their value is severely compromised by the poor quality of the inputs. If this data was presented by a PhD student at their committee meeting, I'd send them back to the bench to do more cleanup and controls."
And then: "There's a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true."
Ouch, ouch, ouch.
She tweeted about the blog to her one Twitter follower and expected not much response because, as she later added, "I wrote this post on Saturday, Dec. 4, mainly to clarify my own thinking. I didn't expect anyone other than a few researchers to ever read it."
Wrong in spades. The next day there were more than 20,000 hits on her website — nearly 18,500 of them first-time viewers. There have, to date, been more than 135,000 hits on the site. She was referenced in nearly 400 other blogs and referred to in hundreds of print publications.
What Redfield did is not just disagree with the arsenic-eats-bacteria paper’s methodologies — others did that as well — but she disagreed in a passionate and literate fashion.
'Suddenly all of us could view how the scientific community made up its mind.'
"Holy crap I wish I could write like Redfield does," opined one tweet.
However, there was also something fundamental about what she did. Suddenly the usual griping and doubting and second-thinking which follow the release of controversial results was no longer restricted to the domains of a well-mannered scientific elite, but was online for entire world to see. Suddenly all of us could view how the scientific community made up its mind.
For example, Redfield’s critique was also critiqued in the 252 comments she received on her blog. Her grammar and spelling were thrashed. "Typos are common everywhere. But how do you expect anyone to take YOU seriously if you can't even write your name?" wrote one respondent. More seriously there were corrections of her calculations about the errors in the original paper.
This led a few days later to her posting a letter raising her formal concerns, which she was also sending to Science for print publication. The letter itself turned into a collective enterprise on the blog, as 50 commentators made suggestions as to how to improve the grammar and content. Again we watched how internet peer review works.
Ultimately Redfield herself reflected on what had happened when the blog that almost nobody looked at became the blog whose page views exceeded the print circulation of Science Magazine itself.
When print ruled, she said, "researchers did the research, wrote the paper, submitted it to peer review, made changes, and published it. Other researchers then evaluated this information, using it to guide their own work, and discussed its strengths and weaknesses when they cited it in their own papers.
'Suddenly all of us can see the great debates in science because the scientists have begun debating them openly and instantly. We ordinary people can understand how much and how often scientific findings aren’t seen by other scientists as The Truth, but rather a tentative step toward such a truth.'
"Published papers were also discussed less formally with colleagues, both before and after publication, face-to-face and by mail and phone, and in journal-club presentations and seminars. The ideas from these discussions were incorporated into the formal papers drawing on this work, but they weren't available to anyone but the direct participants. Now that we're all online, published papers are also being discussed more publicly, in blogs and other places. Such discussions are extraordinarily valuable for the progress of science — they're written public evaluations, drawn from a wide range of expertise, and usually greatly enriched by comments from and links [to] other researchers."
She then went on to suggest that what should happen in the future is that the blogosphere should formally become part of the science communication process. Accordingly, all journals should link their papers to discussions of them.
For its part, NASA replied to the criticisms by arguing to CBC News that the agency didn’t feel it was appropriate to debate peer reviewed material using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believed that this only should be done in scientific publications.
This brought not so much a hail as a volcano of criticism.
"This is a call to pre-Enlightenment thinking. Brown [the NASA spokesperson] is telling us to judge utterances not by their content, not even by the integrity, reputation, and experience of the individuals who deliver them, but by whether they're delivered from the proper place in the proper building — in pre-Enlightenment days, the Church of Rome; in Brown's post-arsenic days, the Church of the Peer-reviewed Journal," fulminated David Dobbs in Wired Science. "It's an extraordinary dismissal. Rosie Redfield is a full-bore member of the academy and a researcher in the field under question. She is — to extend the metaphor — a priest. But though Redfield wears the proper robes, Brown wants to dismiss her because she's not standing on the proper altar."
And that is precisely why I think Redfield’s blog is the Canadian science story of the year. What she did, almost by accident, is illustrate dramatically that the methodology of scientific evaluation has changed.
Suddenly all of us can see the great debates in science because the scientists have begun debating them openly and instantly. We ordinary people can understand how much and how often scientific findings aren’t seen by other scientists as The Truth, but rather a tentative step toward such a truth.
Suddenly we can see, because blogs tell us, new findings and old doubts warring. We can see it, and dare I say the scientists can see it much clearer themselves, because the internet lets that vision appear openly to all.
How this will all play out I cannot say, but I believe Redfield’s sarcastic, biting and likely truthful voice will go down in history as marking the point at which nobody could ignore science blogs anymore.
And so, it seems, do the skit members who kidded her. On Dec. 14 they issued the following retraction notice: "On the fourth page of the Huts Skit 2010 the writers made an erroneous joke in regards to the reading (or, rather, non-reading) of blogs, specifically with regard to Dr. Rosie Redfield's blog."
"In light of recent developments, the skit writers wish to formally retract this joke, and apologize to all parties involved. We stress that this error was made in good faith. Furthermore, we wish to congratulate Rosie Redfield on her recent success."
And to that I would add that all Canadians should echo those congratulations.