Annals of Bad Science Writing: Lab-Worn Doctor-Lady [sic]

By Carl Zimmer | January 13, 2009 10:32 am

 I…I just don’t know where to begin with the opening to this article in the latest issue of Esquire. “Pretty lady”? “The new poor part of town”? A noxious martini of mixed metaphors topped with an olive of ridiculous hype. (Forget it–I can’t compete with this stuff.)

If we science writers want to defend our old-fashioned craft against its critics, how do we defend stuff like this?

First thing that happens when you have a heart attack, an unlucky part of your heart turns white. The blood’s stopped pumping to that spot, so it becomes pink-speckled bloodlessness, coarse and cool like grapefruit gelatin.

This is the moment when, if they could think, these heart cells in this new poor part of town would go, “Well, shit.” Mortal things have a godly way of knowing when they’ll die.

Next comes the back-alley bruise of organ death. The cells turn from white to black, all shitted up like a body pit in a war, two weeks after. Suddenly, soldier, this part of your heart is dead, only it’s still in your body, attached to the good section — the 90210 ventricle — and the good part is smirking, it’s saying, “Come on, rebuild yourself, man!”

But the dead part can’t fix itself. And the healthy part can’t throw it a bloody rope. So the whole heart begins to die — 650,000 American deaths a year.

But now look here, a woman. She is a pretty lady of Pakistani heritage who highlights her soccer-mom layers, which you don’t expect from a lab-worn doctor-lady. And she’s got ideas. Wild ones. Hina Chaudhry believes she can do what the body can’t: fix the dead parts.

Update, January 20: 3quarkdaily just picked up this little rant. They accompanied their post with a picture of  Dr. Chaudhry. That juxtaposition made me a bit queasy–let me just make clear that I was not criticizing Dr. Chaudhry, just the article about her. Dr. Chaudhry is doing what scientists should: running experiments and getting her results published in peer-reviewed journals. Here’s a free link to a 2007 paper of hers on regenerating heart tissue. It’s up to us science writers in turn to find a better way to describe a scientist than as a pretty lady

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Comments (30)

  1. Michael D.

    That brass-knuckle prose just left a back-alley bruise on my brain…

  2. Someone got paid to write that? Good lord…

  3. Robin

    And the stem cell debate is a “kitten-faced controversy.” One could go on and on. I’m not surprised you stopped after quoting only the lede. It’s dreadful, really, to hear the writer grinding away so hard at WRITING. Especially when the result is that the reader ends up mystified, understanding less about the science rather than more.

  4. I was sure this had to be a joke, but then I clicked the link. The horror…

  5. Benjamin James

    That is the sexiest science writing I have ever read. Obviously not peer-reviewed.

    I know this post was not directed towards the research, which is thorough and well studied, but I have studied this subject throughout my thesis work and it seems that releasing the breaks on cell cycle in the heart has some pretty serious implications outside of being beneficial to tissue regeneration. Is cancer common in cardiac tissue? I would assume that it would be incredibly rare based on the fact that the tissue is relatively senescent. From what I understand, any sort of enlargement of the heart tissue is “bad”, even healthy tissue. As I am merely a naive postdoc, I am sure my logic is flawed, I just would be cautious to use a gene therapy approach to induce, what seems to be, unfettered proliferation, especially in an organ that is so sensitive to even the slightest change in tissue architecture. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong.

    By the way, if the post by Jonathan Gitlin is the same Jonathan Gitlin that was at Wash U then I have to say that I was one of the many students you taught and was a big fan of your work.

  6. D. Fishman

    Consider the armadillo….
    (with a nod to Lori O. and all the reporter/researchers in 1989. )

    [Carl: To clarify David's cryptic nostalgia--he and I were cub reporters at Discover long ago, and our editors always warned us against writing openings and transitions with words no sane person would ever utter. Which we epitomized as, "Consider the armadillo."]

  7. Amos Kenigsberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Discover nostalgia — love it.

  8. Jen

    Well it IS Esquire. At least they pointed out that its a pretty lady who will conquer the pink-speckled gelatinous mass of grapefruit.

  9. Alisa

    That actually caused me physical pain. Oww.

  10. Jen

    For surely no homely doctor-lady soccer mom could fix something all shitted up inside a chest cavity….

  11. “Consider the Armadillo” would make a great name for a blog.

  12. Robert Frederick

    Please, don’t *try* to compete with this stuff. Whew!

    Sending it off to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker might be an interesting way to respond, though that could just be passing the buck.

  13. johnk

    I found the colors interesting. And textures. Grapefruit gelatin – I’m not quite sure what that is. And “cold”. The dead cells gets cold. You can learn a lot from reading.

  14. Mrs. Grackle

    What you don’t want to do is click on the “more from this author” link and read “The Case for Jessica Simpson”.

  15. neo-anit-luddite

    With some minor editing, that could win the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest….

  16. Does “Consider the Armadillo” have any relationship to “Consider the Lobster”?

  17. Miriam: My brother, the netymologist, tells me he’s on the case.

  18. I was going to try to defend the piece. The level of detail and type of analogy used should change based on who the audience is. But even given that, this still sucks. This isn’t just bad science writing but bad writing as a whole. Having read through Lisa Taddeo’s entire article, I have no choice but to laugh. “And the healthy part can’t throw it a bloody rope. So the whole heart begins to die — 650,000 American deaths a year.” That’s barely English. If a 9th grader wrote that for an essay they would get a bad grade. And the whole piece is like that. The last sentence approximation of a sentence is “This is serious, as a heart attack.” Does the author mean “This is as serious as a heart attack?” This is so far from English that I have trouble understanding what the idea is. This doesn’t just need better science writing. This needs basic editing. I knew that Esquire was full of poorly written, poorly thought out, superficial junk but this is just appalling.

  19. HP

    First thing that happens when you have an armadillo, an unlucky part of your soil gets dug up. The grass’s stopped growing in that spot, so it becomes brown-mottled grasslessness, damp and grainy like used hazelnut-flavored coffee grounds.

    This is the moment when, if they could think, these ants and grubs in this new poor part of town would go, “Well, shit.” Mortal things have a godly way of knowing when they’ll get eaten by an armadillo.

  20. gruebait

    Unconscious, her bodice ripped asunder, she lay helpless while the thoracic surgeon loomed ominously, relishing the moment before he plunged his blade…

  21. Oh my. I feel almost personally responsible for this, for it was I, after completing degrees in both magazine journalism and geology, decided to go with geology instead. I apologize profusely.

    But…surely someone can come up with a random science writing generator based on this?

  22. Man, I stopped reading fiction to avoid garbage like this. Don’t ruin nonfiction for me!

  23. Oh, my. I’m teaching a graduate class in science writing this spring, and I think I’ve found my “What Thou Shalt Not Do” example for the semester!

  24. Monte Davis

    In the primordial days at Discover c. 1981, such stuff was labeled “too much [micro-pause, mild grimace] writing.”

    I think of Angier, Overbye, our Gracious Host CZ, and a few others — not all Discover grads, but a suggestive sample — as working the right side of that line.

  25. Jumblepudding

    I’m trying to get my head around this article. I believe the writer was trying to appear hip, suave and bohemian but succeeded only in sounding like a particulary creative and sheltered 8-year old who has invented her own moon-language.

  26. Jules

    To be completely fair, I think that this writer is not a native English speaker. Some of the sentences in that article are astoundingly bad and my only explanation is that the article was either translated clumsily from a different language or that the author doesn’t have a complete grasp over English sentence structure.

    I think I’ll keep telling myself that.

    As a young aspiring science writer, however, this makes me feel a LOT better about embarking on the field. Thank God I can string two sentences together without sounding like a challenged seven-year-old.

  27. Yet another Discover grad — 1983-4 for me — to chime in that there was a conscious effort to back away from the then-Time Inc. owned heritage of the old Luce days when “backward ran the sentences until boggled the mind,” but the Esquire stuff referenced above is beyond parody. What bothers me most, in some sense, is if this kind of crap were tried on some less overtly “hard” beat — food writing — no editor would feel to insecure to throw the flag: fifteen yards for unnecessary roughness/blow to the head. But because it’s science, it seems like those who should QC are too scared to do so.

    But Esquire is capable of better — Alan Guth has come to my class a couple of times contrasting Esquire’s coverage of him (along with Discover’s btw) with an Easterbrook train wreck in Wired. (see http://www.esquire.com/features/copernicus-galileo-hubble-guth-1199)

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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