The Professor and The Search Engine

Nov 19, 2012

A professor at Cornell is at odds with a major internet search engine: he accuses Google of helping the gas lobby support hydraulic fracturing.  Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Dave Lucas looked into that allegation...

In a 2011 Cornell University study, Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology Robert Howarth warned that extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale via hydrofracking could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal.  Howarth's findings were published in scientific journals as well as The New York Times.'

The search results as of 12:50pm November 19, 2012 continue to display the ANGA ad above Dr. Howarth's information.
Credit Google Screenshot by Dave Lucas

Howarth's paper was also noticed by the gas lobby and ANGA, Americas' Natural Gas Alliance. ANGA used advertising on the search engine Google, allegedly to discredit Howarth and his work.  The ANGA ad was tailored to appear as if it were the top search result whenever Professor Howarth's name was typed into the Google search page.

Some called the ad "unethical" - Howarth says he tried to avoid confrontations at first by "sticking to his science" but after several months he found the ad might be harming his reputation.

Robert Sumner,The Director of Communications for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, responded to a request for comment with an emailed statement, -quote-

"Dr. Howarth’s study has been discredited by numerous institutions and highly credible experts...    Howarth’s work has even been rebuked by his own colleagues at Cornell University. ANGA is committed to having a fact-based, science-based conversation about the safe and responsible development of natural gas as a critical component of any forward-looking domestic energy policy. Dr. Howarth’s work fails to meet this standard.”

Professor Larry Brown chairs the department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell: he co-authored a paper that found flaws in Howarth's work. Howarth made several attempts but was not able to connect with anyone at Google - Howarth calls the experience "new terrain".

Do search engines like Google and Bing have any responsibility to the public to consider the way certain interests can leverage search results to their own advantage? Fred Dintenfass is an SEO strategist at Path Interactive in New York City... he gives his point of view.

Professor Brown defends Howarth's right to publish his work.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.