On science blogs this week: Coverage

Oil covers animals, journalists, EPA, scientists, and Florida. We're Number 1 in health care! Is blogging the future of science writing?


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OILY AND OFTEN. What are bloggers going to write about when BP finally gets its Gulf oil gusher stanched for good, cleans up the ghastly mess, and seeds the bayous with new-hatched flocks of oil-free pelicans?

Oh, right. I forgot that by then today's bloggers will long since have passed on to the big Cloud in the sky.

OILY ANIMALS. Researching a piece on deep-water animals that live on oil and gas seeping naturally from the seabed, the New York Times's William J. Broad asked himself just how much oil was doing that seeping, and how did the volume compare with, say, the Gulf oil spill.

Writing at Green, he cites a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report that estimates those natural seeps at about 600 kilotons, 47% of the total oil dispersed into the seas in a year. The report estimated average oil-industry releases, including accidental spills like the Deepwater Horizon, at only about 3% of the annual total.

Nobody knows what the eventual total for the Gulf oil spill will be, of course, but Broad says that even the worst-case scenarios suggest that it won't be significant compared to natural seeps. What a relief.

Broad's post is accompanied by a portrait of gorgeous pink cnidarians at an oil seep. At the Artful Amoeba, Jennifer Frazer worries about the fate of the cold-seep tube worms. They live on oil and other hydrocarbons, but will a much bigger oily meal from the Deepwater Horizon harm them? She links to a marvel of a slide show.

OILY JOURNALISM. So this week the New York Times's Felicity Barringer blogs at Green about how she and a colleague have been turned away from spill-related sites, even ones they had formal permission to enter. Commands for transparency issued from the top don't always translate into access, she says. Apparently not everyone lower in the hierarchy got the memo about transparency.

Maybe it was transparent.

At the Columbia Journalism Review's Observatory, Curtis Brainerd notes yet another poll — this week it's from the New York Times and CBS — showing that Americans want new energy policies but are experiencing the usual cognitive dissonance about which ones. He notes:

The poll, which drew limited coverage after it was released on Monday, also found that Americans are unwilling to pay higher prices for gasoline to subsidize the development of new fuel sources. Public opinion about energy is rife with such contradictions, according to multiple surveys. Americans strongly favor increased funding for research on wind, solar, and renewable power sources, spending more on energy efficiency and mass transit, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But they also want to expand the use of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Brainerd urges energy journalists to engage in less commentary and analysis. They should spend more time on local reporting of energy issues:

If this country is ever to get past the decades-long cycle of talk-and-inaction, the press needs to bring energy issues home, keeping them front-and-center in readers' minds with sustained attention that hits all the stops, from the economy to security to the environment.

OILY ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY. "Does the EPA know what it's doing when it comes to dispersants?" asks David Biello at SciAm's Observations. He concludes that

the EPA does not know the relative toxicity of various dispersants available on the market and pre-approved for use, and never accurately knew their toxicity prior to the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now that 5 million liters of the stuff have been used, EPA has a crash program to do toxicity testing on dispersants. The agency hopes to have the results in a few weeks, Biello says.

WHAT OILY SCIENTISTS ARE DOING THIS SUMMER. The EPA may be doing research, but its effort is one of many. If you want to know what scientists are doing about the spill, the answer is a lot, although their projects don't always get much public notice. Katie Kline provides a handy roundup of several at EcoTone, the Ecological Society of America's blog.

These include efforts by the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Science Foundation's rapid research grant program, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, and ESA itself. Also the Society of Wetland Scientists. Who knew there was a Society of Wetland Scientists, but of course there must be.

Kline notes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has put its oil-spill related data online and the US Geological Survey has put some up too. The US Department of the Interior is collecting data on oil flow.

Kline has kindly provided links, so I don't have to.

Just as it was inevitable that there come into being a Society of Wetland Scientists, it was inevitable that someone would create an iPhone app related to BP's oil spill. Or perhaps the first of many.

The point of MoGO (Mobile Gulf Observatory) is to help you alert wildlife rescuers when you spot wildlife in need of rescue. Snap a pic, says Tom Simonite at the Technology Review Editor's blog, and MoGo sends it and the location to a database maintained at the University of Massachusetts automagically.

If you have eaten the Apple and want the app, Simonite provides a link. He doesn't explicitly say it's free, but surely.....

OILY FLORIDA. Sheril Kirshenbaum, at The Intersection, links to the Ocean Conservancy's grim photos of the oily goings-on on the Florida Panhandle. But Greg Laden sheds no tears for Floridians, said to be weeping over their oily beaches. They are only getting what they deserve, he says, for their role in throwing the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.

Not much is being said about it now, but I'm convinced that the Era of Faux Regulations, the eight year period when regulatory agencies were internally told to shut down many of their operations, will ultimately be to blame for the BP oil spill. Florida is as responsible for those eight years as any other factor. Floridians, this oil is yours. Enjoy it.

Many commenters, and they take issue.


Not that this is news, of course. But the latest confirmation comes in a report from the Commonwealth Fund, which also confirms that, as usual, the US ranks dead last, or nearly so, in all other measures: quality of care, access to care, efficiency, and — which is the whole point — citizens who lead long, healthy, productive lives. The comparison is with a handful of other developed countries: Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK.

Tami Dennis notes at the LA Times's Booster Shots that the report says part of the problem is the US's lack of universal health care coverage, Things may improve as the new health care reform legislation is implemented and more money for uncovered groups is available. But the report also points out that money isn't everything.

At the Washington Post, Ezra Klein describes how the Commonwealth Fund collects its data, which is based on experiences reported by patients and providers. The poor US outcomes are due not only to lack of universal coverage, he says, but also to an underperforming delivery system.

BLOGGING AND SCIENCE WRITING; BLOGGING AS SCIENCE WRITING. This violates my rule of trying to stick only to recent blog posts. I named this thing On Science Blogs This Week partly as an organizing principle and partly as an attempt at not going gaga trying to keep up with the entire historical blogiverse. But I just bumped into a June 3 post from Bora Zivkovic that has given me much to think about. So I am passing it on to you, but whether it's a public service I cannot say.

Zivkovic's June 3 post — he called it "Why is some coverage of scientific news in the media very poor?" — is at his well-known A Blog Around the Clock; he's a chronobiologist and blogs there under the name Coturnix. He also writes the Weekly News and Blog Round-Up for the open-access journal PLoS One. You may know him already as a blogger who's thought long and deeply about blogging — an authority, in short.

Zivkovic has devised quite a bestiary of types of science writing, and he has cogent and subtle things to say about them all. What struck me most on first and second reading, though, is this: With a few exceptions, he claims, MSM writers do a much poorer job with science than bloggers do. He's got quite good reasons for this claim. For example, he notes that science bloggers tend to be experts in the fields they write about, and because they have no space constraints they can explain and explain, and put a new finding in context. He also points out that most science journalists are imprisoned by the conventional news story format, which demands that they write short and then clutter what little space they do have with [unnecessary] human interest angles.

I urge you to read his post and think about how he sees the present — and future — of science-writing. I don't know whether he's right, of course, but he's discombobulatingly persuasive.

Jun. 25, 2010

Biedler Price for Cancer Journalism