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Term talk: politics, advertising, and technical phrasings.

Politics, Advertising, and Technical Phrasings

I recently read an article about certain chemicals which contained the statement that these "materials are potentially hazardous." I don't recall the exact substances being discussed, but they were compounds that you really wouldn't want to be exposed to. Perhaps the author was simply too close to see how the sentence could be read, but because of the clearly toxic characteristics of the compounds, this sentence came across as an equivocation of the hazard.

Think about it. Chemicals are known as hazardous when they can injure living things. Whether the author's statement was intended or simply careless, it was certainly inaccurate. There is no potential hazard involving such chemicals--the hazard is actual, it exists, inherent in the material. The only potential involved is that people may or may not be exposed, a potential that is greater or lesser depending on how the materials are handled or packaged.

This writer combined terms in the wrong way, taking two things that are true (the hazard and the potential for exposure) and putting them together in a way that creates a statement that is not logically valid. Scientific and technical writing, particularly on topics as publicly sensitive as hazardous chemicals, needs a more careful presentation than this. Loosely worded statements that can be taken as unwarranted minimizing of risk can create poor public relations for scientists, engineers, and their disciplines. Furthermore, such statements can lull people into thinking the wrong way about safety--that is that hazardous materials might be dangerous instead of are dangerous and thus that they have to be handled with care sometimes, rather than whenever they are used.

The not-exactly-accurate character of "materials are potentially hazardous" is similar to that of the statements that politicians make regularly, statements that make things sound better than they really are; the public relations people call it putting the desired "spin" on an issue. Scientific and technical prose must avoid statements that even appear to skirt forthright disclosure of all relevant factors; such statements diminish the credibility of the authors or speakers and reflect poorly on the research community at large. Surely scientific writing can be maintained on a much higher level than that of political propaganda--can't it?

Within the Literature

Even within the experimental literature, which isn't intended for the general public, authors sometimes have difficulties in making forthright statements. Two examples come to mind.

In a study of industrial effluents, several concentrations of chemical were introduced into the water occupied by some fish to determine the effects on the survival of the fish. In the journal article describing the study, a plot of survival vs. concentration showed clearly that more fish survived when exposed to higher concentrations of effluent than did fish living in uncontaminated water.

Now this certainly is counterintuitive, and I expect that before publishing such unexpected results, the researchers repeated the experiment to ensure that this was not the result of some obvious flaw in procedure or a gross statistical fluke. And yet, assuming the data shown in the figure were indeed confirmed, why could the authors do no better in the text than to provide a dissembling statement like--

The results appear to show that more fish exposed

to effluent survived than did the control fish.

There is obviously some embarrassment in reporting something you can't explain, yet a researcher's confidence in the experimental procedures and in the resulting data should demand a more straightforward wording than appear to show. If that confidence isn't there, perhaps the study isn't ready for publication. On the other hand, if the results being reported are the best information available, fundamental scientific integrity requires a head-on confrontation with the unexpected result, perhaps with a wording such as--

Our results show that more fish exposed to effluent

survived than did the unexposed fish. Xxxx repetitions

of the study have not exposed any flaws in

experimental design or data analysis. We are unable to explain

these results at this time.

The second example emphasizes the importance of reviewers in the process of scientific publication. I once edited a table which showed that the results for experimentally treated groups and untreated controls were identical. The manuscript went back to the author with a query about whether some of the table's values were wrong, but the query was unanswered when the manuscript was returned to me.

I found one of the authors and asked if there was some mistake in the table, and he told me no, there wasn't; those were indeed the results they had obtained, but they couldn't explain them. When I pointed out that they had no statements in their discussion about this obviously curious result, his reply was that they did not intend to call attention to it. When you get these sorts of answers, you have to hope that the journal reviewers do critically read the articles they are called upon to evaluate. Have you noticed that politicians also tend not to call attention to things they'd rather not try to explain?

Titles or Headlines?

A 1990 article in Nature by Rosner [1] called attention to the trend, particularly in the biological sciences, of making the titles of research articles into sentences that state a definitive conclusion. Such titles are surprisingly common and, too often, misleading. It isn't hard to find such titles--for example, "Compound pqr disrupts the metabolism of protein xyz"--which the text of the article rephrases from this unqualified statement to something like

Our evidence suggests that compound pqr may

play a role in disrupting the metabolism of protein xyz.

The wording of these two statements is hardly equivalent. The title carries with it a sense of the type of pressure found in advertising to get a message across with flair, but with less concern for getting it across accurately. Rosner's Nature article says it well: ". . . [assertive sentence titles] trivialize a scientific report by reducing it to a one-liner," and that one-liner, notes Rosner, is a statement often unprovable given the evidence available or one that may in the future be proven false.

Given today's pressure to publish (whether with an eye toward tenure or toward future funding), it is not altogether surprising--but always disappointing--to see in research articles a tendency toward phrases that are eye-catching at the expense of being precise. Yet the commonality between such statements and the phrasing of advertising and of politics is an unfortunate association that cannot possibly benefit the reputation of science of engineering. It is, I hope, only legislative irony that many legitimate research articles are required to contain the following paragraph:

The costs of publication of this article were

defrayed in part by the payment of page charges. This

article must therefore be hereby marked "advertisement"

in accordance with 18 USC Section 1734 solely to

indicate this fact.

Can scientific and technical authors and editors ensure that this will always be a solely administrative requirement, unjustified by the style and objectivity of the document so designated?


[1]Judah L. Rosner, "Reflections of Science as a Product," Nature 345 (10 May 1990): 108.
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Title Annotation:misleading statements have no place in a technical report
Author:Nadziejka, David E.
Publication:Technical Communication
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1992
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