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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Bad Science or Bad Journalism? (Or Both?)

Yesterday my eye was caught by this headline on the front page of the Weekly Press: "Hiding Pollution Behind Science." The article is about how a group of agricultural scientists are allegedly defending an inappropriate method of estimating safe levels of manure use to put nitrogen in soil. I wrote the following comment:

Tom Horton's approach does a disservice to readers and insults our intelligence.

He never explains why he considers Water Stewardship more credible than SERA-17. Nor does he even explain what the harmful consequences of "excess" phosphorus are supposed to be -- and neither does the executive summary nor the introduction to Water Stewardship's report. Instead, he seems to think a couple quotes lifted out of context will suffice to convince us that SERA-17 is biased, without even suggesting what possible motive they would have for preferring farmers at the expense of the environment.

Of course this problem, if problem it is, would be moot if we weren't supporting factory farms with our meat-heavy diet. Environmental debates aside, it appears beyond dispute that these industrial facilities create a hellish existence for the animals, which is reason enough to avoid supporting them.

I don't pretend to know who is right in this dispute, and there's unfortunately nothing unusual about a piece of advocacy journalism that insults the critical-minded reader's intelligence. But my attention was siezed by the headline, which is inappropriate even if the author's view is correct. If pollution is being hidden, it's being hidden by bad science, not by "science" as such. Of course that may be the editor's fault rather than Horton's.

Eric Hamell

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