news reports on science

It’s really hard to write a good news article on science issues in a way that both instructs the public, and doesn’t manage to raise the hackles of folks who play with science stuff all the time. I am picky, and I end up with some favorite writers, but generally i like blogs on science news because it’s essentially one nerd speaking to the rest of us.

A friend suggested I dig through slashdot for good stuff, which is sound advice. I’ve been off slashdot for ages for no real good reason, considering how much effort i spend trying to keep up with news. This week they linked to an article out of Times Colonist in Canada to talk about causes for algae blooms and eutrophication. My frustration is that they make it sound like scientists had not quite figured out the obvious: more fertilizers = more algae. That’s not the case… people have known that stuff since the early buddings of the environmental movement. People living on Cape Cod are well acquainted with the fact (if they have been there for more than 20 years) that septic systems are part and parcel with the icky algae blooms, though they may not make the connection that those algae blooms have killed off the eelgrass (which is awesome to swim through, compared to super slimy blue-green algae). Activist members of the science community have been promoting the removal of phosphates in addition to changing septic system regulations since at least the 1970s.

No… the real point of the article and the research done in Canada is that phosphorus is the key factor promoting algae growth, and even if you take out extra nitrogen, the algae goes nuts as long as the phosphorus is high. These are both important fertilizers, NPK are the big ones (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), and tracking it down to phosphorus is important because it shows up in things like detergents and other cleaners where it doesn’t necessarily need to be, and that’s something that can be regulated out of those products. Essentially, chemical runoff tampers with a balance, makes the algae go nuts especially in the presence of sun, and then once it gets cloudy for a run of time the overproduced algae gobbled up all that oxygen and it’s a matter of time before everything in the water starts to die, toxins get released, and things generally smell and look pretty disgusting.

I would call this an inaccurate categorization of the issue, but I’m a nerd that way. I’m picky about wording and want things to be as precise and correct as possible. This means that a lot of news science writing gets me all hot and bothered. Given what I know about things like China, the New England region, and beer, it’s safe to say this trend extends beyond science writing and to news writing in general, though people call writers on issues in those topic areas far more often.

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