Bad writing about white oral sex

A while ago, using George Orwell’s classic essay on language, I opined that:

Good writing = clear thinking + courage

with the implication that

Bad writing = confused thinking

or, more interestingly,

Bad writing = clear thinking + cowardice

Well, I was thinking about this today when reading a phenomenally badly written article in the Science section of the New York Times. It is a case study not only in writerly cowardice but its more petty form: squeamishness.

The article starts meekly enough with the headline that

Findings May Explain Gap in Cancer Survival

The background is a genuine conundrum, which is that

  1. cancers of the throat and neck have been increasing and
  2. whites survive more often than blacks.

The obvious question is: Why the difference? It could be late diagnosis for blacks, lack of access to health care by blacks, different treatment for blacks or something else.

Well, it’s something else! And this ought to be the big, screaming headline of the article, except that the article never says it! Since the article does not, I will write the simple, plain-English sentence that is missing:

Whites have more oral sex than blacks, and therefore get infected with a virus that causes more of them to have cancer, but of a less lethal sort.

There you have it: The two most explosive subjects in America, sex and race, both in the same sentence. Naturally, any editor of the New York Times will seek cover. I say: Cowardice! Squeamishness!

The result is some cryptic and off-putting verbiage that buries the central insight underneath impenetrable code. It is exactly the sort of intentionally obtuse language that George Orwell mocked.

Look at how the hints are buried in the text:

The virus can also be spread through oral sex, causing cancer of the throat and tonsils, or oropharyngeal cancer.

Or:

The new research builds on earlier work suggesting that throat cancer tumors caused by the virus behave very differently from other throat cancers, and actually respond better to treatment. And the new research suggests that whites are more likely than blacks to have tumors linked to the virus, which may explain the poor outcomes of African-Americans with HPV-negative tumors.

The research does actually establish the crucial link, but you would hardly know it from sentences such as this:

The results were striking: the TAX 324 patients whose tumors were caused by the virus responded much better to treatment with chemotherapy and radiation. And they were also overwhelmingly white. … While about one-half of the white patients’ throat tumors were HPV-positive, only one of the black patients had a tumor caused by the virus, Dr. Cullen said.

Towards the end, the writer dares venture the following hypothesis:

This suggests that the racial gap in survival for this particular cancer may trace back to social and cultural differences between blacks and whites, including different sexual practices, experts said.

Excuse me. “Social and cultural differences … including different sexual practices”?!

This would not happen at The Economist. If I wrote such claptrap, I would get laughed out of the room.

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16 thoughts on “Bad writing about white oral sex

  1. The writer of the NYT piece is obviously an academic, and so has written in academese – the language necessary to write in, in order to get a Phd and be published in academic journals.

    So the writer knows on which side his (her?) bread is buttered.

    You, as a writer at the economist, write English – the language not to write in, should you wish to get a Phd and be published in academic journals.

  2. Sir,

    Re: a genuine conundrum

    I think they’re all sinners (see Leviticus).

    Seriously, I think there’s a loophole. Let’s see a show of hands (whiteys). Who’s having more oral sex than ever? I know I am. I barely have time to get any work done.

  3. Don’t know what to say here to Mr. Crotchety based on your report above. If all of this stimulation is happening, why are you crotchety?

    Andreas,

    Your catchy headline will now drive many to this blog. Very clever, indeed. Watch Top Posts for the next 6 months. There will be more searches for oral sex than for Hannibal.

    But nice move here…get everyone who is interested in oral sex to read about success/failure/ Hannibal/Scipio and the like.

    Very clever, Mr. Kluth.

    My blogpost of last year, entitled,Cleavage, Tattoo, Pierce, Buttcrack, and Thong, has been my all time most popular post. Very disappointing. Most are not interested in any of my posts that are academic.

    Oh well. In all seriousness, you make an excellent point about race here. The New York Times is full of this type of hooey.

    Except, your upcoming book review by Malcolm Gladwell. That will not be hooey.

    • Cheri, I just noticed that the-most-viewed article during the the last seven days at The Guardian (guardian.co.uk) has the title, “Philanderer Suffers Superglued Penis.” Ahead of Kim Jong Il? Go figure. I couldn’t bring myself to read the article.

  4. Hi Andreas – it is amazing (and frightening) how often political correctness (oxymoronic term and treacherous notion) trumps scientific correctness (i.e. the best available data)

    Of course we know you would never be guilty of allowing power to speak over truth. However apparently your employer is not always so guilt free:

    From Wisdom of Whores by Elisabeth Pisani
    (btw a great book on public health and the Aids-Industrial-Complex)
    http://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Whores-Bureaucrats-Brothels-Business/dp/0393066622#reader
    You can use the Amazon see-inside search to read the last para on 152 and first para on page 153. Pisani claims The Economist didn’t run a story on differences in sexual behaviors between Africans, Asians and Europeans for fear of appearing racist.

  5. “This would not happen at The Economist. If I wrote such claptrap, I would get laughed out of the room.”

    I can now claim (just a tad) that I know exactly what you mean above (which had me laughing). My editor asked me to pare my 800-word draft down to 120 words and start over in a new direction altogether. Why? Because I “divulged” the most important part of the story in the fifth paragraph. Guess what. The first four paras were promptly deleted and in the end, we had a nice 500-odd word post instead of a longish gobbledygook. (But when compared to oral sex, my subject was less engaging. It was about Mumbai elections.)

    The feedback from my editor was also to-the-point (and not squeamish). He said, “I’m being brutal. It saves time… You need to be more ruthless at taking out fluff and making the argument very clear to the reader. The first para is boring – if it is uneventful then don’t bother telling the reader. Happy to talk through this but I would rewrite this into four paragraphs. (instead of eight)”

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