Friday, March 29, 2013

#Globalwarming: An Official Style Critique

In a generation where scientific research, new discoveries, and remarkable innovations are occurring all around us, we often remain very unenthused, even unconscious to the work that goes into these new discoveries.  We, I included, are so familiar with this momentous growth in science and technology that we often expect it, rather than be surprised by it.  For example: When is the new iPhone coming out?  Why is global warming happening/ does going “green” really help?  Are the polar bears really dying?  (Don’t pretend like you haven’t been impatient about things like this).  We do not often go out seeking our own up-to-date information in these cases, but wait for popular news outlets and social media to keep us up to par on the newest experiments and research.  We live in a world now where we are apart of constant activity systems at all times.  We are always plugged into social media and news sites therefore they become the most accessible sources for our information.  I mean, who actually reads a scientific journal (no offense to those that do), when we can easily and clearly see that global warming is trending and learn our facts via twitter?

That question leads me into the world of Official Style, a term coined by Richard Lanham, as a style of writing that comes with a formal tone.  Lanham comments that often, legal, medical and scholarly documents find use in Official Style, but I am convinced that scientific reports can tip their hats to Lanham as well.  Although many science-based articles filled my Google search page, “Volcanic Aerosols, Not Pollutants, Tamped Down Recent Earth Warming” caught my eye.  The title within itself uses Official Style (use of appositive and strong diction: will explain later).  It is a science-based article that can be found on numerous scientific websites.  I chose to critique this article based off its evident use of jargon, yet upon further analysis pinpointed numerous tactics of the Official Style.

The article on the very surface is a conclusive summary of a study done on the chemicals released by volcanoes and how this could effect global warming.  I discovered that The University of Colorado Boulder originally published the article.  There is no by-line given, only a contact name for Ryan Neely, whom was found to be the Director and Research Associate for the Environmental Science Department at UCB.  When I originally had located the article it was on Science Daily, but it can be found on numerous science related sites like the government funded site, The National Science Foundation, a website that offers scientific as well as medical research.  The content within these sites seems targeted towards individuals within medical and scientific fields, not the general public.  Reasons for this belief is that after analysis, many of the articles were targeted to a reading level of 10th or 11th grade, some, like the analyzed one, even higher.  The average reading level for individuals in the United States is that of a 7th grader, making these texts far superior to their comfortable reading ease.

Readability statistics for “Volcanic Aerosols, Not Pollutants, Tamped Down Recent Earth Warming” as followed:

Readability Formula
Average Grade Level

The article relies on a very fact-based tone, that uses a lot of number findings, references to other research experiments/experimenters, and uses many acronyms for scientific groups and foundations.

A paper on the subject was published online in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. Co-authors include Professors Brian Toon and Jeffrey Thayer from CU-Boulder; Susan Solomon, a former NOAA scientist now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Jean Paul Vernier from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.; Catherine Alvarez, Karen Rosenlof and John Daniel from NOAA; and Jason English, Michael Mills and Charles Bardeen from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

That paragraph taken from the website offers absolutely no information on what the article is actually about, rather uses science jargon to name drop other scientific research regarding the volcanic issue.  Although these inclusions make the article seem more credible in a way, for a random public consumer, this entire paragraph holds no relevance and only becomes beneficial if we take the time to look up these people and their research contributions.  The entire article, in fact, uses this deferring tone, that never really concisely tells readers exactly what was discovered, nor how this benefits public consumers at all. In a fast-paced world, as stated in my introduction, consumers want immediate information, we want to know, who, what, where, when, why, and how, in less time than physically possible to answer all of these questions.  This article uses scientific jargon every other line, while implementing many other of the Official Style approaches and really does not give a clear nor brief idea about anything.

The study results essentially exonerate Asia, including India and China, two countries that are estimated to have increased their industrial sulfur dioxide emissions by about 60 percent from 2000 to 2010 through coal burning, said lead study author

Ryan Neely, who led the research as part of his CU-Boulder doctoral thesis.

The above sentence holds more than 40 words.  It is the very first sentence within the article, and already begins to confuse.  “Exonerate” is a scholarly way of saying “to exempt” or “to take blame off of”.  Not being familiar this word becomes hazardous, because when continuing to read the sentence, it claims that the countries increased their emissions.  Because of this, on first glance at this opening sentence, it made me think exonerate meant the exact opposite.  Without knowing what “exonerate” meant, I thought the article was blaming Asia, when in fact it was definitely not.  This sentence also has many appositives. Appositives are often used within official style and can be defined by Purdue Owl as “a noun or pronoun—often with modifiers-- set beside another noun or pronouns to explain or identify it”.  As you can see, the above sentence is filled with them (in bold).  The use of appositives relies heavily on presenting more and more information within the sentence.  Often this helps further explain ideas, yet other times it only jumbles words and makes text harder to comprehend. The author could have simply said:

The Earth did not warm as much as expected in 2011.  The study showed that volcanoes are the reason.  Surprisingly Asia was not to blame for this.  China and India did burn a lot of coal between 2000 and 2010, and could have put a lot of sulfur dioxide into the air, but according to Ryan Neely, this is not enough to point fingers at these countries for the temperature drop.  

(This was my own way of changing that opening sentence into plain style, making it much more easily understood, in my opinion.)
            As earlier promised, the title would be explained:

Volcanic Aerosols, Not Pollutants, Tamped Down Recent Earth Warming”

In this case, the appositive is “not pollutants”.  This appositive does not seem overly hard to understand, but in conjunction with strong diction, (word choice) such as “tamped”, can often add to the scholarly and often confusing passive tone.

            As one can see through only a short analysis, uses of Official Style are apparent within this article.  In a way, this makes a lot of sense.  Although some outliers may exist, many of the people, within this scientific activity system, regarding this article, would have some formal training within this field or some scientific background.

The use of Official Style makes perfect sense in these instances, because scientific jargon, strong diction, etc., are common amongst departments like this.  I am aware that in a way I am accusing articles like this as being worthless to general consumers and am prepared to further my argument, if so be it, but it only makes sense that articles written like this, be solely for people within the field.  And this definitely could be the case; maybe these articles have no intent to satisfy the common-folk.  But in the case that they are trying to reach out to average readers, as I stated before and will restate now, our generation is constantly in a high-speed mode.  We prefer information to be neatly packaged for us in a concise, easy to read, and easily accessible manner.  Outlets such a scientific journals, seem much inferior than quickly checking into twitter, or turning on the news.  Richard Lanham’s Official Style is beneficial in many cases to many activity systems, yet in this case; to normal web-surfers coming across this article (like myself) it just does not work.   These scientific journals make no apparent purpose to keep information classified, for it is easily found online.  Maybe they do not care, and maybe they should not, but these are the kinds of texts that consumers gain no insight from.  They are simply to far out of a common activity system.  I, and can assume that many others, would find it much more beneficial to simply look up #Globalwarming.  But to each, their own. 

By: Hannah K.

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