Professor seeks input from climate change deniers

| News Reporter

Biology Professor Ursula Goodenough’s year-and-a-half-long experience as a science writer for NPR’s 13.7 blog gave her unique insight into how atmospheric climate change is debated in the blogosphere.

Goodenough, a professor of cell and molecular biology at Washington University, started the 13.7 blog with a colleague from the University of Rochester. NPR soon indicated interest and eventually absorbed and expanded upon the original concept.

The blog focuses on the science-culture interface and is staffed by writers who are academics in disciplines ranging from astrophysics to philosophy. The name of the blog refers to the estimated age of the universe, 13.7 billion years.

Goodenough said that she enjoyed writing for 13.7 but she is relieved to have retired from it. Although she does identify as a climate scientist, she said that her work as a biological scientist is still relevant to the climate debate at large.

On May 26, 2011, Goodenough centered her 13.7 blog post on the issue of climate change and a single question: “What motivates a denier?”

She was referring to someone who denies climate change.

The post soon received 859 comments and 6,990 Facebook shares. A large number of commenters did not identify themselves as deniers and instead chose to discuss what concerned them about climate change. The deniers often defended their positions on what she described as strongly religious, political or emotional bases.

“I guess I was surprised at their level of vitriol,” Goodenough said. “If you’re gonna do this online blogging thing, you’ve got to develop a thick skin.”

She sorted through many of the responses and posted a follow-up blog post the next week discussing her findings.

The semantic issues that arise in the climate debate within the scientific community were also present in the blogosphere.

As a scientist, Goodenough has been trained to use the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming.” In her first blog post, she used the phrase “climate change deniers,” but it was soon pointed out that the preferred term is “climate change skeptics.”

Goodenough pointed out her reluctance to use this latter term.

“You’re skeptical of your own data, you’re skeptical of other people’s data and you say ‘now how could this be wrong?’ That’s how we’re trained,” she said.

Some comments also denounced the term “skeptic.”

“They pointed out that people who were self-announced skeptics but who then said all 5,000 scientists in the international union are lying—that is not skeptical. You have to say, ‘On what basis are they lying? What about their findings was false?’” she said.

Some users’ profiles indicated background credentials in fields such as engineering and atmospheric science. This is more in line with the nature of the scientific debate over climate change rather than the generally more open, anonymous nature of blog commenting, Goodenough said.

“That’s the way the scientific community works in general. We pay a lot of attention to the credentials and training and respect what people have when they’re talking about their science, and we assume that they’re doing the best they can,” she said.

Goodenough’s current research focuses on Chlamydomonas, a green alga, and she is interested in how it makes lipids that could be used for biodiesel.

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