Just as important as the experimental confirmation of long-theorized particles like the Higgs Boson or the elusive neutrino (from decades ago) are those discoveries that, well, turned out to not be discoveries after all. Take, for example, some experimental results from back in 2010 that suggested that some forms of bacteria could use arsenic as a source of food in the absence of phosphorous – which is currently understood to be a key building block of life. Such a discovery would go great lengths to expand our definition of life as we understand it.
Because of such implications, the response by the scientific community was pretty strong … though unfortunately not in a good way. Iit was pretty roundly attacked for its “shoddy science, credulous authors, and poor reviewers.” Well, it’s been about a year and a half … enough time for some new research into this claim, and some new results are in:
[…] two separate studies find that Wolfe-Simon’s medium did contain enough phosphate contamination to support GFAJ-1’s growth. It’s just that GFAJ-1, a well-adapted extremophile living in a high-arsenic environment, is thrifty, and is likely capable of scavenging phosphate under harsh conditions, helping to explain why it can grow even when arsenic is present in its cells.
[…] “The basics, growing the bacteria and purifying the DNA, had a lot of contamination problems,” said microbiologist Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia, in February. Redfield is the author of one of the newly published Science papers.
Again, this is not a science blog, but one that points out the negative results of religion’s interference in public life. I do, however, occasionally write about some of the discoveries of the scientific community in response to those who consider “God” to be, as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance” to show that He just got a little smaller.
Also, this points to an odd belief held by some fundamentalists who are convinced – regardless of all of the evidence to the contrary – that the scientific community is some sort of unified, hive-minded collective body that shuns and ostracizes those who don’t toe the party line. I’d bet good money on the fact that most scientists in the fields of biology, chemistry, and genetics would love to see evidence that the range and variety of life is far greater than what we currently understand, especially if it results in a greater probability of life existing on other planets.
(The general consensus in that regard is that the probability is pretty high it exists somewhere else, given the number of stars in the universe and the fact that we’re finding planets around a significant number of the small sample population in our own neighborhood Combine that with the fact that we know life happened at least once, and there we go.)
Anyway, my point is that I am pretty sure the scientific community actually does want some of these discoveries to be true because it would move some of the dreams we have about the universe even closer to reality. But the reality of the situation is that we just can’t say that yet. Instead of covering up the shoddy science and experimental error to make the results conform with some preconceived notion about the natural world – or something that would make arriving to that conclusion a little more convenient – the mistakes were almost immediately brought to light for scrutiny and criticism. The Internet lit up … letters were drafted … additional experiments were conducted … and in the end, the conclusions were refuted. Because that’s sometimes the way science goes, whether we like the answer at the end of the day or not.