6 April 2011

Dealing with online criticism: What’s a scientist to do?

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Guest post by Amy Draut, U.S. Geological Survey research geologist. Amy currently works on the effects of dams on river systems, the sedimentary and tectonic history of subduction zones, and any other topic that involves fun adventures in fieldwork.

”]There’s an old saying that all publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right. Those of us in Earth science who work mostly out of the public eye usually enjoy the occasional attention our research receives from the world at large. Even though my name is often misspelled, I too like my work to be noticed by someone other than my co-authors. But what to do when publicity turns ‘bad’—when your science is misrepresented or criticized publicly? After a couple of encounters with negative online commenters, I’ve come up with a way to avoid a public clash with critics, but still set things straight when my science gets misrepresented online. More on that below.


Back in graduate school, I participated in a paleoclimate study of the Pliocene warm period, the longest recent interval of greater global warmth than today (with global surface temperatures about 3 degrees Celsius higher than in pre-industrial times). We published the results in Paleoceanography, concluding that the warm interval (which happened 3.1 to 3.3 million years ago) had been one of relative climatic stability, without the strong millennial-scale fluctuations that characterized colder intervals. A year or so after the paper was published, I discovered that a web site espousing creation science and climate-change denial was touting our study as “proof” that “global warming is nothing to worry about”, claiming the world would be better off in the future being warmer but without high-frequency climatic variations. Never mind all the ecological upheaval of a warming world, or that our paper made no such claims about lessening the seriousness of 21st century climate change—according to this bit of non-mainstream misinterpretation of science, the Draut et al. study showed we could all stop worrying about climate change.

Although alarmed, I felt it would be fruitless to jump into a discussion in that setting, and did not respond to the post. Fortunately the web site is now defunct, but for a while it was one of the first hits that turned up in a Google search of either my name or the Pliocene warm period.

Several years later, I ran into a different sort of unwelcome discussion of my science. Since 2003 I’ve worked on the Colorado River, studying how Glen Canyon Dam operations affect sediment downstream in Grand Canyon National Park—the artificial flow regime and greatly reduced sediment supply in the dammed river have substantially altered sedimentary and biological systems in Grand Canyon. After a controlled flood in 2008, an article about related USGS research appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. Dam operations and Grand Canyon management are often politically contentious, but still I was dismayed when a member of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, without revealing his affiliation, posted a public comment below the online story criticizing and disputing my findings about the dam’s impacts (the comments are no longer available in the archived version of the story). Again, I refrained from responding; it felt unprofessional to argue via a public news site with someone whom I see regularly at meetings.

Without engaging in frustrating, inappropriate online debates, what would have been the best response to either situation? By saying nothing, I missed opportunities to educate some fraction of the public on important Earth science problems—climate change and human impact on the environment. Polls such as a 2009 Pew Research Center survey show great disparity between how scientists and the public view evidence for human-induced climate change, indicating that scientists must work harder to communicate our results effectively to the public on this and other topics. The opportunity to educate even a small number of readers by an appropriately crafted response should override the irritation and embarrassment of seeing one’s science misrepresented or criticized in public. To that end, I’ve developed a detailed web page that summarizes all my current research in fairly non-technical language, framing my work and its implications in just the take-home message I want to convey, with links to publications.

I now consider that the best response to situations like those would be to post one short comment on the offending web sites directing interested readers to my web page for more information. This takes advantage of the educational opportunity while staying clear of unproductive arguments—turning bad publicity into good. Especially if you spell your name right.

— Amy E. Draut, Research Geologist, U.S. Geological Survey, Santa Cruz, California