Wednesday, May 27, 2015

E M Forster on Merck's mis-use of scientific writing

E M Forster is a name you pretty well have to come across  if you have ever been formally taught how to write better sentences, paragraphs and articles ---- and today that includes virtually all of us with a high school education or better.

Even senior scientists and academics. When those two deliberately ignore what they've been taught for decades, you should always expect foul play is afoot.

If we recall Forster at all,  is is mostly because in his classic 1927 university don-oriented work, Aspects of the Novel, Forster gave such a simple but apt example of the difference between most students' initial writings and how they really should write that writing teachers everywhere seized upon it and most of us writing students can still recognize his phrases decades later.

"The Queen dies and the King dies" is not even good enough to be called a story, Forster points out --- it is simply misleading, because in point of fact, the King died first.

Give it an "F" for failure.

In the correct chronological order, "the King dies and then the Queen dies", is at least what we might call a story.

Give it a passing "C".

But if we write "the King dies and then the Queen dies of grief ", we have a full blown plot.

Give it at least a "B-".

Or to use a phrase that even scientists might recognize - now we have determinacy - cause and effect.

Every time I try to read the text of a 1980 scientific article called  "Wartime Industrial Development of Penicillin in the United States" while also trying to connect that text to the chronology of the footnotes below, I get a massively painful headache.

Because all I get is a huge jumble of unconnected facts presented out of correct chronological order- just one dam thing after another.

If I was a writing teacher, I would be forced give scientists cum academics WH Helfand, HB Woodruff, KMH Coleman and DL Cowan a big fat collective "F".

That's a pity, because this is a truly invaluable article, just full of earnestly documented dates,places, people and events from the early days of the American development of wartime penicillin - stuff  that one can't find gathered together anywhere else.

But the exciting and conflict-filled cause and effect of the actual wartime penicillin 'plot', apparent if the fulsome footnotes are separated and re-assembled in their correct chronology , is totally obscured in this peer-reviewed scientific article's text.

I am left feeling that this was quite deliberate : 75 years later, we still can't admit that wartime penicillin wasn't all 'hands across the water' lovey-dovey allies working in full cooperation.

In this case, the article was also designed to better conceal Merck science advisor A N Richards' curt decision to abandon Merck's pioneering natural penicillin efforts and then to gild Richard's later career as the head of America's wartime medical science efforts, when he supposedly championed natural penicillin to the hilt.

In fact, Richards and Merck-the-company were always chemistry obsessed and always chasing the profitable, exclusive patents that come from the manmade chemical synthesis of natural products.

So in reality, they left effective, available natural penicillin to fallow - at the height of wartime's millions of dying and wounded - to chase the profitable mirage of synthetic penicillin.

They never got commercial synthetic penicillin - 75 years later no one else ever has either - and a much smaller and much less respected company called Pfizer made almost all of WWII's penicillin by natural means.

Pfizer got all the money and all the glory and Merck has been smarting ever since and is still ever intent to re-write penicillin history to minimize their errors and gild their few successes.

This parson's egg of an article is just part of that eternal effort ....

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