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.


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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