Tangled Up In Words

By Daniel de la Calle

In an LA Times article titled “In Science, Words Matter” oceanographer Elizabeth Tobin refers to the often talked about controversy that terms like the “great Pacific garbage patch”, the algae “red tide”, “global warming”, “Ocean Acidification”, etc tend to be hyperbolic, inaccurate and in occasions simply wrong.  She is worried this imprecise and exaggerated language probably aimed at providing “catchier headlines” could invite disbelief in the general public.
To a small, basic extent I can share the essence of this repeated argument:  words are important, should be handled with care and taken seriously.  But several aspects of the “Ocean Acidification is a lie” rhetoric I find somewhat irritating:  the first one is that nobody dares offer an alternative to the term.  I have talked in the past about how some of the scientists we met and interviewed for the documentary did not like the term “Ocean Acidification” either and wanted to come up with something easier to say and remember (“acidification” is anything but catchy and is not really getting many headlines so far, I am afraid), something that was closer to the reality, the phenomenon it tries to represent.
But I will even disagree with the idea that “Acidification” is the wrong substantive for these basic oceans. Should it be “de-basification”, or “neutralization”?  The neologism “debasification” would even raise more brows than poor, tongue-tiring Acidification, “neutralization” would be a lie as well, as we will never reach neutral sea waters either. And why would “Acidification” be wrong if what it does is describe the direction a dropping pH is heading?  Because it is hyperbolic?  But aren’t the consequences of Ocean Acidification the same on calcifying organisms as what you see happens to chalk when immersed in vinegar?
Put any term under the same lens and see if it stands such scrutiny.  What should we think of “Evolution”, of the “Second World War”, of “Democracy”?  You can have a very thick set of hair and witness you are balding, there is no need to wait until there are three hairs left to say it.  
I do not  like “Acidification” much, but the real contribution and challenge is to come up with better alternatives.

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