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October 29, 2017 / jpschimel

A different solution to Example 9.9: undermining your conclusion

I suggested in Writing Science that example 9.9 was a really egregious example of undermining the conclusion:

Ex. 9.9:  To conclude, 3-methyl-ambrosia offers a new approach for thyroid carcinoma therapy. Our data provide evidence on safety and in vivo activity of this compound in patients with this condition, although the proof for clinical benefit remains to be established in future clinical trials.

I’d argued that the solution to this was to move the constraint up front to leave the real conclusion (this chemical looks like it works) as the concluding statement.

Ex. 9.9b:  While further clinical trials will be necessary to establish the full benefits of 3-methyl-ambrosia as a therapeutic agent, our data provide evidence that it is safe and shows in vivo activity against thyroid tumors. 3-methyl-ambrosia.

But at a workshop I was just running in San Diego, a participant noted that this could equally be turned into a powerful “question-based resolution.” The problem isn’t that it ends by suggesting clinical trials—it is the language used to make that suggestion. The original language is a definite “undermine” because the language suggests “we don’t know whether it works.” But the authors could equally have written:

Ex. 9.9c:  To conclude, 3-methyl-ambrosia offers a new approach for thyroid carcinoma therapy. Our data provide evidence on safety and in vivo activity of this compound in patients with this condition. We therefore recommend that 3-methyl-ambrosia be taken forward into clinical trials to evaluate its potential as a thyroid carcinoma therapy.

That makes a clear conclusion statement—it looks like the chemical works (and uses the original language to do so). But the follow-on statement about clinical trials no longer undermines that conclusion—rather it builds off it. It suggests that a new and different line of work is needed (clinical trials) to follow up on the findings of this project and specifies, concretely, what follow-on work is needed. Hence, this would be an effective way to end this example.

This also shows that the original authors’ version (unfortunately the one that was actually published) is, in fact, the worst of all three possible ways of writing this! With two possible good structures for the final paragraph, they picked the third, crappy structure. Oh, well. I guess I should just say thank you for providing me with a great example of what not to do!

P.S. I also wish I’d written my version a little differently. I should have written the first sentence as: “While clinical trials will be necessary to evaluate any benefits of 3-methyl-ambrosia as a therapeutic agent…” No clinical trials have been done so why did I add “further”? I have no idea. And, I could have qualified it better by saying “evaluate any benefits.” That removes the implication that they exist, which we don’t know yet. When I wrote that I was aiming to hammer the original and hammered harder than necessary—a slightly softer hammer would be more accurate and still leave a strong conclusion.

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