Tuesday, January 11, 2011

JAMA commentary proposes adding emotion and passion to scientific articles

Some medical journals such as JAMA and the Annals of Internal Medicine occasionally publish emotional articles that convey the human side of medicine. Many journals, NEJM notable among them, also weigh in on political issues. Appropriately, the emotional and political content is clearly compartmentalized from the scientific content. A commentary writer in the December 8 issue of JAMA seems to think that may not be a good thing:

What if science were presented in the same passionate, emotional style as in those accounts of personal experiences that moved the physician who wrote them? Instead of requiring a science article to have the standard introductory, methods, results, and discussion sections with a certain number of words and a certain number of tables, science articles should perhaps include cartoons, pictures, or emotional images that contain meaning and require the use of both the right and left brain. Perhaps permitting the personal would not degrade the scientific process but rather increase the likelihood that the information contained in the journals would actually be read, absorbed, and used.

Apparently the author, Robert H. Brook, MD, of the Rand Corporation, thinks the dispassionate language of scientific papers is too dry to be useful. Earlier in the paper he wrote:

...scientific articles are written in a manner that, in many instances, adopts a bland, somnolent tone. The language has no passion, conveys no emotion. The words stimulate no visual image. Physicians have been taught to present their science in what is called a “flat manner”: let the facts speak for themselves.

That's what Dr. Brook thinks is wrong with scientific articles. What nonsense. Steve Milloy, in his book Junk Science Judo, wrote, on page 46:

...keep the slow, steady ho-hum scientific method in mind. Boring? Sure. Tedious? You betcha. Slow and deliberative? Be grateful.

Dr. Brook seems to start with a faulty premise: that the purpose of a research article is to persuade. Wrong. Persuasion is an art which almost by definition introduces fallacies. That's what Aristotle laid out in his textbook on Rhetoric. He described the three elements of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos. Scientific papers confine themselves to logos. Bring in the other two elements and you introduce all sorts of emotionally driven fallacies such as appeals to fear, passion and belief. More than that, allowing an author's emotions and passions in a scientific paper would deliberately permit and even introduce bias.

It's true that doctors need to be persuaded to incorporate the best evidence into practice. But please, not in original scientific papers. There are other appropriate places and methods to accomplish that. Imagine if clinical investigators passionately spun the results right in their own research articles! It would make a joke of scientific journals.

As an aside I note this little gem of an observation Brook makes midway through the paper:

However, the world of communication has changed. Today, the Internet, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all sorts of connected devices allow humans to immediately share photographs, emotions, thoughts, and passions. It is difficult to imagine a young physician growing up in this communication environment, trying to focus his or her brain on science studies that seem to be written in a language as foreign as medieval English would be to modern inhabitants of the British Isles.

Here Brook comes dangerously close to saying that social media has dumbed down science education for a whole generation of students! Could it be? I'm not sayin'. U r free 2 read n 2 that what u want 2 LOL.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe we could compromise - publish the research article as a research article. Add a little blurb about the author complete with cartoons, pictures and anectodes. Persuade me to like the author; let me judge the research on its own merits.

Would that work?