The Guardian Gets It Wrong

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 10, 2009 1:04 pm

The Guardian:

Human pollution is turning the seas into acid so quickly that the coming decades will recreate conditions not seen on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs, scientists will warn today.

Say what?! Look, ocean acidification is a VERY real threat to our planet. That said, the seas are not turning to acid! (But gee, way to scare folks into envisioning the demise of the wicked witch!) This demonstrates a lack of taking the time to explore and understand what ocean acidification means–the term is used to describe the way the pH of oceans is becoming less basic as they absorb excess CO2. Yes, it is an enormous and extremely frightening problem because of potential implications for organisms that depend on calcium carbonate like corals, algae, oysters and on… Scientists are already observing changes in survival and behavior of aquatic animals and because we are all connected through trophic interactions, humans will feel the effects too.

Misinformation is no way to introduce a topic as serious as acidification. We need to foster broader public understanding if we hope to change policy and human behavior in order to mitigate the threat. While I would be pleased to see acidification making news, I fear hyberbole and misleading statements are counterproductive. The Guardian can do better.


Comments (10)

  1. Erasmussimo

    OK, so about a movie called “The Day After That” in which a character dives into the water and emerges as an acid-burned corpse? What gory good fun! Later on, we could a single droplet of spray reduce some poor victim to a bubbling puddle of goo. Even more fun!

  2. Dunc

    The Guardian may be able to do better, but I suspect part of the problem may be that the majority of readers (and indeed journalists) lack the basic chemical knowledge to appreciate the difference. Most people simply don’t know what “basic” means in this context. Heck, most people don’t actually understand what “acidic” really means, either.

    It may be high school stuff to you and me, but to most people it’s a complete mystery.

  3. Ken

    @ Dunc

    I don’t know. I give the average person more credit than that. Most who’ve had a fish tank know a little about pH. Have some faith in the intellect of nonscientists. People at large are smarter than we expect.

  4. russ

    Oh come on… might we be any more pedantic or banal… Acid, in this case, refers to a relative concept that being that things are either more or less acid… the concept of more or less basic doesnt convey the message as well and that is the point to get the message across.

    As for science needing to be precise, NIT picking does not define precise save in school and thankfully all but a very few always leave school and grow up.

  5. The idea that oceans are “turning to acid” has become a very popular misconception. There IS a big difference and we have to do a better job at getting the correct information out to the public.

  6. The real problem with this is that such overly broad assertions will end up being more grist for the denier’s information mill, a grand example of how those “scientists” are trying to scare us all into Socialism with their wild exaggerations.

    In the meantime, I have not heard that our wonderfulof-it Senate has dropped the holds on the Holdren and Lubchencho appointments.

    I guess that this is how we “make scientific decisions based on fact and not ideology.”

  7. The last time I dipped a litmus paper into the ocean it turned violet

  8. Dunc

    I don’t know. I give the average person more credit than that. Most who’ve had a fish tank know a little about pH. Have some faith in the intellect of nonscientists. People at large are smarter than we expect.

    And what percentage of the population have kept fish properly? It’s not their intellect I doubt, it’s their education – a completely different matter. It simply doesn’t matter how smart you are if you haven’t received the necessary education. My intelligence may be genetic, but my understanding of chemistry certainly isn’t.

  9. I disagree. Yes, it is a lot more complicated that just “turning more acidic,” but the fact remains that pH is dropping and therefore the oceans are less basic than they used to be, by about 0.1 pH.

    Given how much dumbing down of such a subject is necessary for popular media, I can live with, and do in fact employ, this shorthand. If you have a concise and simple way to explain what’s going on without using the language of pH, let’s hear it.

  10. What is incorrect about this extract?

    * Human pollution is turning the seas into acid

    Well, isn’t it? A very weak acid to be sure, but if it has a PH less than 7, it has free hydrogen ions and is an acid.

    * the coming decades will recreate conditions not seen on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs

    Well, arguably this could mean that “the acidity will be such that it hassn’t been …”, or it might mean “the acidity will *cause* stuff thay hasn’t been seen …”

    But again – what’s actually false about this? I was under the impression that we did indeed face a doomsday scenario where acidity and the shutting down of deep ocean currents will turn the ocean into stagnant acid, and all life on earth except for anerobic bacteria will die.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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