A Rhetorical Comparison Between Scientific Papers and Popular Science Articles

Jean Pierre  Published on 20 Mar 2017


Every day we are exposed to information in the forms of different media and genres. Depending on the purpose and targeted audience of the information, authors may drastically vary their rhetorical techniques, which may significantly influence the way we perceive information. For instance, popular science articles, a type of genre that is highly relevant to ordinary people’s lives, take information from scientific research papers that are usually too technical for the general public and communicate these pieces of information to the public in an easily understandable manner, usually with figurative language. This process, however, may or may not precisely present the information in the research papers. For that reason, a comparison between Anahad O’Connor’s popular science article “Coffee May Protect Against Cancer, W.H.O. Concludes” (published on online New York Times) and “Carcinogenicity of Drinking Coffee, Mate and Very Hot Beverages,” a report published on The Lancet Oncology written by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, an agency under World Health Organization, WHO) on which Mr. O’Connor’s article is based, should be a good indication of the quality of popular science’s presentation of scientific findings. The comparison will illustrate how Mr. O’Connor’s popular science article accurately represents the information in the academic source while maintaining attention of the readers by maintaining neutrality, properly framing language for the audience, and adjusting the focus of his presentation.

The rhetorical comparison reveals that both authors maintain a high level of neutrality in their writings. For academic writings, neutrality is a crucial characteristic as personal bias can adversely affect the accuracy and reliability of academic research. Thus, IARC invests tremendous efforts to avoid bias in drafting this report. It declares all the conflict of interest at the side of the report and explains that the Working Group that composes this report consists of “23 scientists from ten countries” (877). It also highlights the fact that they have evaluated “a… database of more than 1000… studies” (877) to emphasize the diversity of the research team and research materials. IARC is also cautious in framing its conclusion, using phrases including “lack of carcinogenicity” (877), “inadequate evidence” (877) and “unclassifiable as to its (coffee’s) carcinogenicity” (877), which avoids too assertive or decisive conclusions. According to Ken Hyland, a researcher at University of Hong Kong, this cautious and neutral stance helps to create a “space for readers to dispute interpretations” and implies their “recognition of alternative voices” (123). Mr. O’Connor very well grasps this impartiality. He states that “the [working] group did not give coffee a ringing endorsement” and emphasizes the level of certainty given in the report by using “unlikely,” “associated with lower risk,” and “inadequate” to avoid personal bias for coffee industry. Mr. O’Connor is not obliged to obey neutrality; but still he has demonstrated a high-level neutrality by emphasizing the fact that IARS did not endorse coffee drinking despite some evidence for the benefits of coffee drinking. Therefore, the neutrality in Mr. O’Connor’s writing can be evidence for the high accuracy of his presentation of IARC’s work.

This popular article also frequently uses paraphrases and explanations to translate highly technological languages of the report while not misrepresenting its information. For instance, IARC concludes that there is an “inverse association” between “uterine endometrium and liver [cancer]” and drinking coffee (877). This conclusion was paraphrased by Mr. O’Connor as being “it was associated with a lower risk of uterine and liver cancers.” IARC also explains the effect of coffee by asserting that “[c]offee promoted apoptosis in human cancer cell lines” (877), which is accurately told by Mr. O’Connor as “it promoted the death of cancer cells.” In addition to accurate paraphrasing, Mr. O’Connor also explains some of the terminology he uses to help audience understand the information. For example, he states that coffee is classified by IARC in Group 3 that also contains “toluene, a solvent used to make nail polish.” The academic nature of IARC’s report determines that it must demonstrate precise usage of academic terms, which, according to Mr. Hyland, achieves “proximity” to its academic audience who are usually highly specialized in the field for a long time (121). However, people without previous knowledge in natural science and statistics may not fully understand the terms “inverse association,” “uterine endometrium,” “apoptosis,” and “toluene.” To strengthen readers’ understanding, Mr. O’Connor frequently takes advantage of paraphrasing to express the key findings in everyday language which are usually well designed for the knowledge base of his audience while retaining the original meaning to a large extent.

Beyond sentence level, authors of both articles focus on different aspects of the same evaluation as academic and non-academic readers tend to consume different contents. Mr. O’Connor’s focus on the conclusion of IARC’s report gives readers a clear idea of WHO’s stance on drinking coffee while IARC’s report puts more effort on its reasoning for the conclusion. The entire fourth paragraph (which is an extremely lengthy paragraph) of IARC report explains how the database they were studying did not provide enough information for carcinogenicity of coffee. This reasoning part, embedded with highly complicated sentences, is followed by a short conclusive paragraph that states its decision that coffee is “unclassifiable to its carcinogenicity” (877). Mr. O’Connor, however, chooses to mainly concentrate on the conclusion of IARC’s report. In his essay, he clearly states that “coffee was unlikely to cause several types of cancer” and IARC’s decision to classify coffee as Group 3 with “inadequate evidence of carcinogenic potential.” He also successfully communicates the risk of drinking “very hot beverages,” as suggested by IARC in its report. It is thus not hard to note that Mr. O’Connor only selects the most important pieces of information from this process and only spends a few sentences in paragraph 7 and 8 on covering the research methods. The difference in their focuses is in line with Mr. Hyland’s finding that popular science focuses on “object of study” (in this case, the carcinogenicity of coffee) while academic writings focus on process (120). Nevertheless, this difference in focus should not be interpreted as distortion. Mr. O’Connor targets his writing at general public who are interested in the actual effect of drinking coffee on their health. It is therefore reasonable for him to omit large part of IARC’s report, and, as long as he accurately communicates IARC’s conclusion with his audience, which he successfully did, his writing should be considered as accurate.

While accuracy is crucial for popular sciences, the very nature of journalistic articles determines that they must provide readers with contents that they might be interested in. Mr. Hyland calls this “proximity of engagement.” He describes this proximity as “acknowledging [readers’] uncertainties…and guiding them to interpretations” (125). Mr. O’Connor has incorporated many materials in an effort to achieve this “proximity of engagement.” One strategy is that he introduces readers to the major findings of IARC’s report in a sensational way. The title that reads “Coffee May Protect Against Cancer, W.H.O. Concludes” is highlighted and in bald font. Immediately after the title, the author tells readers that “an influential panel of experts” has determined that coffee may “protect against cancer.” In contrast, the title of IARC’s report is plain, impartial and not indicative of the actual results of its study. In fact, the conclusion of the study is not introduced until the methodology is explained. Mr. O’Connor’s title and opening paragraph not only unambiguously states the main idea of the article but also immediately draws the attention of whoever is concerned about the effect of coffee. However, IARC’s title, if used in popular science, would be ineffective in informing readers of what the article is about. This is understandable as the difference in target audience determines that popular science must employ various techniques to ensure readers’ participation. Mr. O’Connor merely changes the way IARC presents its information, and this change should be considered as a reasonable attempt to engage readers rather than distortion of actual content of original report.

The rhetorical comparison reflects both similarities and differences in the rhetorical techniques of the two genres. It is found that both IARC and Mr. O’Connor avoid overly assertive languages to maintain their neutrality. In terms of differences, Mr. O’Connor constantly explains the technological terms and paraphrases overly complicated sentences while IARC has done very little effort in doing so; he puts much more emphasis on the conclusion of the scientific report while IARC lays large portion of the report on the derivation of their decisions; he also employs many strategies to engage readers while IARC did not attempt to do so. Despite the obvious differences, the comparative analysis suggests that Mr. O’Connor simply reorganizes the content of the science report and present them in a manner that is more comprehensible to his readers. The general idea conveyed by Mr. O’Connor is consistent with that of IARC’s report, and thus we can conclude that he has accurately represented the academic writing. This conclusion demonstrates that it is more than possible to portray scientific findings in an understandable manner without distorting them. The comparison result of these two writings is indeed a relief for it shows that we can preserve the accuracy when conveying knowledge in a comprehensible manner. The ability for popular writers to accurately present information has become particularly crucial in an era when the spread of information can drastically change the entire society’s perception on one topic.



Works Cited

O’Connor, Anahad. “Coffee May Protect Against Cancer, W.H.O. Concludes.” The New York Times Well, 15 June. 2016, https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/15/coffee-may-protect-against-cancer-w-h-o-concludes/?_r=0.

International Agency for Research on Cancer. “Carcinogenicity of Drinking Coffee, Mate, And Very Hot Beverages.” The Lancet Oncology, vol. 17, no. 7, 2016, pp. 877-878.

Hyland, Ken. “Constructing Proximity: Relating to Readers in Popular And Professional Science.” Journal of English For Academic Purposes, vol. 9, 2010, pp. 116-127.



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