Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 12, 2012

Phosphorus-Replacing Bacteria (with Arsenic) Falsified – Creationists React


About a year.5 ago, I wrote a parody of the response of the creationist, intelligent design, and UFO crowd to the announcement of a paper that had been published – and for which NASA held a large press conference – about the discovery of arsenic-based bacteria. (Note that I had some real responses by the creationist and UFO folks in the comments section of that post.)

I presented the announcement on this blog in the context of creationism and UFO=aliens folks because, after all, the implication (and the whole reason that NASA held a big press conference) was that if there is this bacteria that can replace one of the key atoms (phosphorus) in DNA with another atom (arsenic), it has serious implications for extraterrestrial biology. For example, a perhaps obvious implication is that you could thrive in an arsenic-rich environment as opposed to a phosphorus-rich environment.

At the time, this was a HUGELY controversial claim – as well it should have been (which I’ll discuss more in a bit). Many biologists criticized the study’s authors because they did not do some basic tests that would have made their case more convincing. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe spent nearly half an episode discussing why the original study’s authors did not do as much work on it as they should have.

Perhaps most egregious, the study’s authors were incredibly unprepared for the every expected media frenzy that followed. When questioned, the lead author responded with (paraphrased), “I don’t have those slides with me, I left them at home because I didn’t think I’d need them.” Also, there was (paraphrased), “That’s a conversation that should play out in the scientific literature.” I’m sorry, but that’s a really na├»ve response to someone if you’re in the middle of a press conference about your work.

Not that NASA is not to blame. I would hope that it’s the NASA press office that made most of the mistakes here, but as an organization, NASA should have more safeguards in place for this sort of thing if they’re going to hold a MAJOR press conference about a new study.

Now, time has passed, and new studies have been done on these bacteria, and the end result is what most had thought at the time: The claim was pretty much falsified. This has been shown in several now-published articles in prestigious scientific journals.

Media Reaction Now

Most “mainstream” media outlets are often criticized by scientists and skeptics because they rarely do follow-up articles. It makes sense to their profit margins because the stories that people are most likely to read are the “more interesting” original stories that have the sexy new result — regardless of whether that result turns out to be accurate or not in the end. Three years later if fifty new studies come out that all refute the original, it’s unlikely that it will be reported because no one cares anymore (except us).

With that said, you can probably expect the reaction in the media from these papers: Almost non-existent.

Original Authors’ Reaction Now

I can understand how one would feel if a major paper of theirs’ was later disproven, especially when there was a media frenzy surrounding it and it practically made their career. The original paper’s first author is now on a NASA fellowship, for example. Her public response has been that there was probably contamination in the transport process of the bacteria from her lab to the independent ones, so she still believes her results.

Young-Earth Creationist Claims Now

Meanwhile, creationists are pulling an, “I told you so” with these new papers. It’s another case where the reporting has been reasonably good from the creationists, likely because it’s a result that they think supports their beliefs. Creation Ministries International calls this “A Publicity Stunt Gone Bad” in one of their sub-headings on the new papers.

For background as to why, as I’ve written about before, young-Earth creationists tend to completely reject any idea that life exists off-Earth. My understanding on the reason for this is two-fold. First, it’s because the Bible says nothing about God creating life anywhere except Earth. Second, it’s because Jesus would apparently have had to reincarnate on every planet with life and die for their sins, too, and again the Bible says nothing about this.

So, when the initial study came out, the creationists didn’t like it and reported what the dissent side said more than the press release side. Now, they feel vindicated.

How Science Works

I’m writing this blog post while sitting in a workshop discussion at “The Amaz!ng Meeting” (TAM) 10, and Steve Novella is currently talking about how journalism fails these days because they report on EVERY preliminary study as though it is now THE answer. The lay public gets the idea that, “Oh, this paper is out, there’s a press release, it’s picked up in the media, it must now be what Science Sez.” This is even though, to quote Steve just 15 seconds ago, “Most of the preliminary studies are wrong … not only [are they] mostly wrong, but [they’re] mostly falsely positive[s] … and that’s massively misleading.”

This is more applicable in medicine (what Steve is talking about at the moment), but it’s applicable in probably every field of science. And, it definitely applies to this case.

Science is messy. It is a process that is usually long and involved. It takes time, it takes repetition, and it takes many people doing independent replications of the original work to verify the result (or, often, refute it).

The internet is a wonderful thing for science with collaboration and the ability of scientists to talk directly with the public. That’s what this blog is, in part — I’m a scientist talking directly with you. But it also means that, for one of the first times in history, the average person sees the intermediate science results before they become consensus. They see the mess.

The public is used to scientists knowing what they’re talking about and being The Authority on an issue, and most don’t realize that it’s really a long process that takes time and many different and independent studies. They learn about Newton’s Laws of motion and don’t understand it took years of development and trial-and-error to figure them out. They know about the atomic bomb, but they don’t realize it was a massive effort with many people working and many tests that failed or false leads that never worked out.

That’s really what this is: An example of how science works. It is self-correcting. It may take time, but in the end, it’s self-correcting.

Final Thoughts

And since this blog post is in part about creationism, I do feel the need to point out that Christianity is not self-correcting. That is pretty much the definition of dogma. People may ignore some of its tenants (how many different fibers are in your clothes today?), but those rules and apparent laws and facts are still part of the religion.

Why do our textbooks cost more? Because we revise them in light of new information. Bibles are cheap to produce because they don’t have to pay authors to revise them when new data is available.

That’s what this is: The scientific process in action. A paper was published that suggested a radical departure from what we thought was established, people disagreed with its methods and conclusions, and they did their own independent analyses. Many of those have now been done and are published, and as far as most scientists are now concerned, the original paper has been falsified. The scientific consensus is that we do not have any examples of bacteria that have replaced the phosphorus in their DNA with arsenic. Case 99% closed.

Except for the UFO people and conspiracy people who have incorporated it into their mythos. I’m sure they’ll still be referencing the arsenic-based life paper for years to come.

December 2, 2010

NASA’s Announcement of Arsenic Life: A Parody by Creationists, Intelligent Design, and UFO Crowd


In this blog, I try to be reasonably respectful to the claims made by other people, meticulously breaking down fantastic claims and showing how they do not fit the science, data, observations, etc.

This post is a bit different. It is meant to parody what I fully expect will be done in the next few days with today’s announcement by NASA of the discovery of life using arsenic in place of phosphorus in cells. I’m not going to get much into that and its implications, since practically every science news source is talking about it.

Instead, I’m going to provide three parodied views that I expect will be taken up almost verbatim in the next few days. If you get offended by parody, are a young-Earth creationist, etc., by further reading you are removing me from liability for the bile that may build up in your gut.

Creationist Response

The discovery of a new form of life by evolutionist NASA researchers today shows just how much our glorious Creator can do that Darwin never thought possible. All life that scientists had known of until now operates with a few basic atoms, and evolutionary researchers had thought that substitution of any one of these would be impossible, especially substitution of the poisonous element arsenic.

But in a lake in California, a research team discovered the inconceivable: A bacterium that survives on arsenic instead of phosphorus.

The response from evolutionists is once again to “rewrite the textbooks,” NASA’s astrobiology website proclaiming, “Get Your Biology Textbook…and an Eraser!” A biogeochemist associated with the research calls it “fantastic.”

But as Christians we know that God can do anything He wants. If evolutionists don’t want to constantly be “erasing” words in their textbook, then they should take up the unchanging and infallible Word of our Lord as written in the Bible. It should not surprise us that discoveries such as this will be made because they are only a further testament to the glory and wonders of our Creator.

Intelligent Design Response

Evolutionists are hailing a new discovery today of a microbe named GFAJ-1 that has the remarkable property of using arsenic in place of phosphorus in its metabolism. All life as known before and described by Darwin uses phosphorus — the six elements essential to life were thought to be carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. In fact, in the energy molecule of cells – ATP – the P stands for phosphorus, and the DNA double helix is intelligently designed with a phosphorus molecule.

Arsenic is so poisonous to life because it is easily confused for phosphorus and used in its place by cells, killing them.

Until now. This microbe, of the marine family Halomonadaceae, was placed in a growth medium of arsenate and it thrived, completely baffling darwinists who were studying it.

How could such a system arise with no simpler precursor? The system needed to use arsenic could not have arisen through random evolutionary chance because of the myriad of places in the cell that use phosphorus. The ability to use it in one location in the cell would still be poisonous to another.

In celebrating this, evolutionists are glossing over the fact that it shows yet again how improbably Darwin’s theory really is.

UFO Response

It seems like it’s from an episode of the Twilight Zone, a bacteria that survives on poison. All life from planet Earth uses six essential atoms, but scientists from the space agency NASA today announced the discovery of a strange form that substitutes one of those – phosphorus – with arsenic.

The scientists are claiming that this has huge implications for the field of astrobiology, or at least the civilian one. Of course they completely ignore all the hundreds of thousands of UFO sighting reports, cattle mutilations, crop circles, government coverups, crashes like Roswell and Bentwaters, and abduction stories that we know prove alien life already exists.

But at least this is a first step. The “red rain” from India was apparently not convincing enough, but now the scientists are embracing the idea that this is unlike any life they have discovered before. This is just a small step in the road to full disclosure.

Final Thoughts

Well that was fun. I hope you at least laughed a little. If not, I apologize for my unrefined parody-ing skilz. And, by the way, if you do find any print reports from any of the crowds I identified above in the next few days about this event, feel free to post links in the Comments section. I’d be interested to see how well I did. Though I will note that I purposely went a bit overboard on all of them, or at least tried to.

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