In science, words matter

Terms such as ‘red tide’ and ‘global warming’ are catchy but lead to misconceptions.

Words matter. Take the term “red tide,” which is the popularized way of talking about blooms of harmful marine algae. This common terminology is a misnomer because the blooms are not always red and their movement is largely unrelated to tides. Also, many species of algae that cause red discoloration are not harmful.

A relatively new issue catching public attention is “ocean acidification.” “Ocean acidification” is a term used to describe changes in seawater chemistry due to increasing amounts of CO2 being taken up by the ocean. When CO2 from the atmosphere dissolves into seawater, a series of chemical reactions occurs that effectively lower seawater pH. But while ocean pH is definitely decreasing, the ocean is not actually becoming acidic — just less basic. The world’s oceans are not predicted to drop below a pH of 7.0 (neutral on the pH scale).

That doesn’t mean we should downplay the severity of changing ocean chemistry. Extensive research has shown that even a slight reduction in pH, down to 7.8 from the current average of about 8.1, could have devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. Many types of organisms, especially those with calcium-carbonate shells like corals and shellfish, will have trouble surviving in lower pH waters. Although it is important that the crucial nature of the issue be translated to the public, we must be careful with terminology.

People don’t like to hear bad news. They’d prefer that the oceans were healthy and that rapid shifts in climate were not occurring. That’s why scientists and the media must avoid hyperbolic language when describing crucial environmental issues. The use of more colorful terms may make for catchier headlines, but the terms can also invite disbelief.

There is a need, of course, to make complex scientific issues understandable to nonscientists. But in trying to do so, we must also be careful to be absolutely accurate in our descriptions.

Elizabeth Tobin, Los Angeles Times, Opinion. 2 April 2012. Article.

1 Response to “In science, words matter”

  1. 1 Jean-Pierre Gattuso 7 April 2012 at 10:26

    I refer Elizabeth Tobin and readers to the FAQ document on ocean acidification ( See excerpt below.

    The ocean is not acidic, and model projections say the oceans won’t ever become acidic. So why call it ocean acidification?

    Ocean acidification refers to the process of lowering the oceans’ pH (that is, increasing the concentration of hydrogen ions) by dissolving additional carbon dioxide in seawater from the atmosphere. The word “acidification” refers to lowering pH from any starting point to any end point on the pH scale. This term is used in many other scientific areas (including medicine and food science) to refer to the addition of an acid to a solution, regardless of the solution’s pH value. For example, even though seawater’s pH is greater than 7.0 (and therefore considered “basic” in terms of the pH scale), increasing atmospheric CO2 levels are still raising the ocean’s acidity and lowering its pH. In comparison, this language is similar to the words we use when we talk about temperature. If the air temperature moves from -40°C to -29°C (-40°F to -20°F), it is still cold, but we call it “warming.” — J. Orr, C.L. Sabine, R. Key

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