Two recent newspaper articles reminded me of the importance of clarity when writing about complex topics. In “Our feel-good war on breast cancer,” which was the cover article of last week’s New York Times magazine, Peggy Orenstein tackled the question of whether campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer and urge women to have mammograms do more harm than good.
Orenstein’s reporting of the question’s medical, social, and economic aspects is impressive, as are her fluid narrative and engaging style. She also succeeds in clearly conveying the tricky topic of how risk is assessed and described. Five-year survival rate, I learned, is a potentially misleading statistic.
But to me, what makes her article admirably distinctive is her account of her own experiences with breast cancer. Even though she benefited from the early detection of a tumor, she does not advocate universal early screening. Quite the opposite. Her final paragraph reads:
It has been four decades since the former first lady Betty Ford went public with her breast-cancer diagnosis, shattering the stigma of the disease. It has been three decades since the founding of Komen. Two decades since the introduction of the pink ribbon. Yet all that well-meaning awareness has ultimately made women less conscious of the facts: obscuring the limits of screening, conflating risk with disease, compromising our decisions about health care, celebrating “cancer survivors” who may have never required treating. And ultimately, it has come at the expense of those whose lives are most at risk.
The other reminder of clarity’s importance came in the form of an editorial in Tuesday’s Washington Post. Under the title, “EPA speaks on how much radiation is too much,” the newspaper’s editorial board opined on a proposal, released on 15 April by the US Environmental Protection Agency, to update the agency’s guide to emergency services in the event of a nuclear accident or attack.
The Post‘s editorial board duly weighed activists’ objections to the proposal, yet found in favor of the EPA—but with this sting in the tail:
The activists are right, though, about one thing: The document is a confusing bore. If the EPA wants city, county and state officials to pay attention—if it wants to make the case for practicality over the activists’ hyperbole—the agency ought to rewrite the guidelines in plain English.
My first encounter with the controversy surrounding radiation protection guidelines arose when I was assigned to edit Zbigniew Jaworowski’s article “Radiation risk and ethics,” which appeared in Physics Today‘s September 1999 issue. The article amounted to a long, multifaceted argument against the assumption that any radiation dose, no matter how small, could cause cancer.
The article was easy to edit. Jaworowski had organized the article deftly and made his points directly and with well-chosen evidence to support them. I was gratified to see that it spawned 12 letters to the editor, which were split between the April and May 2000 issues. Whether they agreed with Jaworowski or not, the letter writers had evidently understood his arguments.
Of course, scientists should strive to be clear even when they’re not engaged in controversy. And they should be especially clear when they propose a revolutionary new theory or experimental result.
One of my favorite examples of a clear, bold proposal is the paper that launched the field of chaos theory: Edward Lorenz’s “Deterministic nonperiodic flow,” which appeared in the March 1963 issue of the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences. Here’s a sample of Lorenz’s style from the paper’s introduction:
Lack of periodicity is very common in natural systems, and is one of the distinguishing features of turbulent flow. Because instantaneous turbulent flow patterns are so irregular, attention is often confined to the statistics of turbulence, which, in contrast to the details of turbulence, often behave in a regular well-organized manner. The short-range weather forecaster, however, is forced willy-nilly to predict the details of the large-scale turbulent eddies—the cyclones and anticyclones—which continually arrange themselves into new patterns. Thus there are occasions when more than the statistics of irregular flow are of very real concern.
Although you might get bogged down in the main, technical section of the paper, the entire introduction is accessible. And if that extract has whetted your appetite for more clarity about chaos, I recommend Adilson Motter and David Campbell’s May 2013 Physics Today article, “Chaos at fifty,” which celebrates the half century of research that Lorenz’s paper begat.