Monday, December 05, 2005

More full frontal nerdity


Another glorious spring day in South Western Australia. The sun is shining, the sea breeze is in, the lorikeets are rustling in the lilly pilly tree, and the methadone clients are sunk in torpor upon the lawn.

And I've been thinking about medical journals.

Not about reading them - God, no. To be honest, I very rarely do. There are too many of them, for a start, and I don't have the oomph to read them, and there's so many other things'd rather read, and truth be told I don't understand most of them... but the main thing is most of them are mindrootingly boring.

I remember when I first got into medical school. I decided to go down to the library to read up on "medical stuff". It took me half an hour just to decide how to look at the papers - did I want to proceed via organs (Heart? Brain? Blood?)? By pathologies (Cancer? Stroke? Hypertension?) Or perhaps countries (The Scandinavian Journal of Anaesthetics?). In the end I just gave up and settled on "stuff that looked interesting".

The ones I remember were some forensic medical journal, and an article on the history of werewolfism. The forensic medical journal included the unfortuanate case of a man found guilty for indecent exposure because he walked back and forth on his balcony stark naked - while fast asleep. He was apparently found guilty because he knew he was prone to sleep walking but didn't wear pyjamas.

And there was also a case of an elderly farmer found battered to death, alone in his paddock in the early hours of the morning, surrounded by nothing except the tracks of his sheep. The culprit was eventually found to be... (and here you had to turn the page...) his prize ram, a beast the size of a Pleistocene mammoth who a month earlier had assaulted a postman and now had turned upon his master.

John Donne wrote a poem about this, which does not actually mention murderous sheep, but you get the idea.

Anyway, medical journals - deliberately, almost exultantly boring. Why does the New England Journal of Medicine not have a single bloody cartoon? Why can't we read an ongoing serial in the pages of Annals of Internal Medicine? Why are there no letters to the editor in the Scandinavian Journal of Tourette's Disease, no recipes for scones in Diabetes, no celebrity gossip in the Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections, no centrefolds in Emerging Infectious Diseases?

Come to thik of it, why are the titles and articles tehmselves written so badly? Which smart guy (and I will take any odds on a bet it was a guy) decided that when teh most powerful intellectual apparatus in human history spoke, it should speak in the past tense and the passive voice, not so much first or third person, but non-person.

Look at this - the title and first few lines of a recent paper published in the Journal of Pineal Research, by Rocchitta G., Migheli R., Mura MP., Esposito G., Marchetti B., Desole MS., Miele E. and Serra PA.

"Role of endogenous melatonin in the oxidative homeostasis of the extracellular striatal compartment: a microdialysis study in PC12 cells in vitro and in the striatum of freely moving rats."

A capillary apparatus for in vitro microdialysis was used to investigate melatonin and ascorbic acid effects on dopamine (DA) autoxidation or nitric oxide (NO)-mediated oxidation in suspended PC12 cells. Following high K+ (KCl 75 mm) infusion, secreted DA underwent a partial autoxidation or peroxynitrite-mediated oxidation when the potential peroxynitrite generator 3-morpholinosydnonimine (SIN-1, 1.0 mm) was co-infused with KCl....

Verbal oatmeal, isn't it? The frustrating thing is, science itself, the findings, the intellectual battles, the bravely "thinking where no one has thunk before"... that can be very exciting stuff. But the writing seems designed to conceal, rather than reveal.

Would it kill anyone to allow the use of the first person and the active voice? "We did" rather than "this was done"? Permit, if even for a moment, the idea that science was done by (gasp) people?

Look at Who magazine. Even its writers and editors know it's about crap. Nothing in the magazine matters at all. But people buy it. Because it's interestingly written. So why don't science and medical journals go that way?

"Tom slams Nicole: endogenous melatonin has no role in the oxidative homeostasis of the extracellular striatal compartment - and there's nothing you can do to change my mind!"

There was one paper back in the seventies, mentioned in "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity", which was titled something like "A decline in moral standards amonst the Lepidotera.". The Leidoptera, you will be reassured to know, are the butterflies and moths, and apparently some of them are gay.

Anyway. I should actually do what I'm paid for. See you all soon.

Thanks for listening,

*Not the good ones. Science, Nature, NEJM, things like that are all good.


Anonymous Camilla said...

I totally agree. What is it about the non-person, passive voice that is so loved by the scientific community? Why can't they just say "I think" instead of "It is proposed"? It's frustrating that so much exciting stuff is couched in bone-dry text.

When I switched from science to humanities, it took me AGES to get out of the habit of science writing and actually allow myself to have an opinion.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Camilla said...

ps actually ... it gives me an idea for a silly writing exercise. Translate something scientific into a narrative, and a passage from a novel into scientific prose.

pps I agree with those of your readers who have been encouraging you to consider putting this stuff into a novel. I would buy the novel! And not just to get your autograph either :D It's brilliant stuff.

ppps Mind if I pass on the link for your blog to Arni's sister? She's a second year medical student.

7:18 PM  

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