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Why is Retraction Watch not what we hoped it would be?

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A recent entry is “A decade later, it is not too late to retract a paper” but when you look at the story …

Many of us hoped Retraction Watch would provide us with some refuge from sheer nonsense in science.

But nonsense seems to be settling in, with Retraction Watch co-operating.

Have a look at this:

An anniversary has prompted this reconsideration of the revolution in biochemistry that wasn’t: the “arsenic bacteria.” Just over 10 years have passed since an infamous Dec. 2, 2010, NASA press conference, which promised the revelation of “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Of course, nothing of the kind occurred. The carefully curated moment was less informative for its scientific value — in effect, nil — than for what it says about how years of attention-seeking and speculation in biology can drive an agenda. Equally concerning, despite the intervening decade in which other researchers debunked the overhyped result, is that the journal involved has yet to retract the article in question, allowing it to live in a zombie state.

David Sanders, “Why one biologist says it’s not too late to retract the “arsenic life” paper” at Retraction Watch

But why retract? They may have been honestly wrong. But so what? Lots of people are honestly wrong.

Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon offers,

There was nothing either inethical or innaccurate in it. The conclusions were wrong. This is true of over 50% of papers in the literature. Further papers show why the conclusions were wrong. No one retracts a paper because the data was interpreted improperly. For example, Newton’s conclusion that the universe was unstable. Einstein’s conclusion that a cosmological constant could stabilize it.

Yet this paper draws that reaction. Why?

What Felisa did, was to grow in the lab, arsenic tolerant bacteria found in a lake in California, using Fischer scientific reagents for food, but which did not have phosphorus in them. Observing them thriving, she concluded that these bacteria had substituted arsenic for phosphorus in their DNA.

Later work showed 2 things: the Fischer reagents had trace amounts of phosphorus. And these bacteria scavenged phosphorus from dead life so efficiently they recycled nearly all of it.

Yet many people demand the paper be retracted for improper protocols–not using more expensive reagents with even lower phosphorus trace amounts. I just don’t see that being a valid argument. She carefully stated what she did and why. It just turned out to be insufficient. But we wouldn’t know that fact if she hadn’t tried.

So why the witch hunt?

It turns out the OOL community has a hidden agenda–you are not allowed to find life on Mars, and you are not allowed to find “non-Darwinian” life on Earth. Or they burn you in effigy.

And, while we are on this topic, did Retraction Watch ever seriously oppose the stupid war on those profs who were forced to retract their own paper on mentors in science?

The profs found that male mentors were better for careers than female mentors. But that’s common sense. The higher up your mentor is, the better off you are. If a guy-dominated system is older, well then… But a vicious Twitter mob made the topic undiscussable by reasonable people. And it was all okay with Retraction Watch?

If we can’t talk about stuff like that, what can we talk about?

Either we need Twitter hatestorms to tell us what to think, not Retraction Watch, or we need new systems altogether.

Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent and The Long Ascent, Volume II

3 Replies to “Why is Retraction Watch not what we hoped it would be?

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    There’s no point in hoping for anything remotely resembling truth in “professional” publications. They all serve the same master. We have to make our own direct observations of Nature and find our own beacons of truth.

  2. 2
    martin_r says:

    off topic, but mentioning Retraction Watch,

    i like this one:

    “”Definitely embarrassing:” Nobel Laureate retracts non-reproducible paper in Nature journal”

    “A Nobel Laureate has retracted a 2016 paper in Nature Chemistry that explored the origins of life on earth, after discovering the main conclusions were not correct. ”

  3. 3
    mahuna says:

    KNOWING that an answer is WRONG, and WHY it’s wrong, is VERY useful. Ya don’t wanna HIDE info like that. This is especially true where a wrong answer is a tempting (and potentially cheap) solution. “Hey, fellers, WATCH THIS! We just mix A with B to get C!” (Boom) “Now whodda thunk it would do THAT??” (All great Red Neck disasters start out “Hey, fellers! Watch THIS!”)

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