How to write a crap essay/paper in bioethics – or how to write bioethics to be published in medical journals…

I’ve been considering writing a reflective piece about the general quality of bioethics papers in medical journals, focusing on how the medium (the audience and the severe word limits) impacts on the message and its quality – possibly as a bit of a moan since I’ve not yet managed to get a medical journal to accept one of my papers (my favourite rejection from an editor yet being “nice try, but too philosophical – maybe try the journal of medical ethics?”). Furthermore publication pressures tend to select for particular styles of pieces – I’ve remarked to people in the past that the way to get published in the BMJ is to write a piece critical of research ethics review – preferably with an anecdote  Then this morning on twitter I saw this lovely funny piece by James Lenman of the University of Sheffield on how to write a crap essay in philosophy which contains gems such as:

 “Whenever in any doubt as to what to say about X, say, apropos of nothing in particular and without explanation, that X is extremely subjective.

When that gets boring, try saying that X is all very relative. Never say what it is relative to.”

And I decided to just borrow and extend the idea in this piece. So take James’ rules as given and add these rules to enable the reader to write a crap piece of work in bioethics:

1. Unreflectively copy a piece of work by a philosopher. If they wasted time qualifying their view or noting it only applies in a limited situation make sure you strip that out.

2. Remember if you are a doctor you don’t need good arguments – you have authority… Remember if you are a philosopher you don’t need to know the context to write authoritatively about it.

3. Never use an argument where an anecdote will do. A homily is worth a thousand arguments.

4. Instead of making an argument, say “I will argue”. Then don’t, an assertion will do. No one will notice.

5. Don’t ever make a modest claim when you can make a bold assertion. Only extremes can be correct.

6. According to the OED it is important to define your terms using the dictionary not how they have been defined in the relevant literature.

7. Please do begin your paper with a vaguely relevant quote from “Literature” this shows that you are well read and thus quite clearly correct. As D’Israeli said: “The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, may be preserved by quotation.”

8. If empirical evidence is relevant to your paper make sure you either don’t find any or you just run a google search and then cherry pick the evidence to support your case without considering its quality.

9. Remember the is/ought problem is a philosophical problem not a bioethical problem so you don’t need to worry about it when making grand assertions from tiny bits of empirical evidence.

10. Ad hominem is a valid argument structure.

11. All slopes are slippery. If its bad and it is remotely possible let us assume that it will happen.

12. There are no principles/theories but the four principles.

13. Obviously the four principles approach is the only one worth considering. Make sure you refer to all four principles (but nothing other than them) especially if several of the principles are irrelevant to the situation you are discussing – before concluding that autonomy trumps the others.

14. Remember the more arguments/assertions you can give the better – why waste time on critical reflection and depth when you can squeeze in more arguments/assertions. Especially ensure that there is no methodological or theoretical consistency about the position you advance.

15. If your argument gets into trouble you can save it by referring to Nazi Germany and implying that your opponents view would have been looked on kindly there.

Please suggest more rules in the comments…  

  • Alex Broadbent

    16. Be up to date: distinguish the past from the society of the present, which is highly complex, stratified, interwoven, multifactorial, and the product of gene-environment interaction. Then move swiftly on, without labouring the point. (It would be an insult to the intelligence of your readers to remind them that in the past society was simple, flat, linear, monofactorial, and the product of genetic and environmental factors operating in isolation.)

  • 17. Make ample use of the phrase “our postmodern society”. You don’t know what it means, but don’t worry: noone else does either.

  • 18. Arguments are hard. Save yourself the trouble of making them by liberal use of the word “Surely”.

  • John O’Malley

    Totally agree that doctors do not need arguments and that is why I will be handing in my thesis 2 1/2 years early entitled ‘Because I said so’.
    OK ,

    1/ Mention lots of European philosophers and add -esque to their names assuming what you think they said is what they actually said. Oh…worth trying listing the entire West German team of 1966 and thinking you will get away with describing them as a school of Dirigible thought with Dylanesque/ Cartesian overtones.
    2/ Expanding on 7, mention novels you haven’t actually read and use them to illustrate issues they really can’t be applied to……..and yes Iain , I have kept all your comments on my old MA essays and I did read ‘The Third Policeman’……. not that I ever bear grudges.
    3/ ‘It may be said’……. who the hell said it if it may be?
    4/ Anyway mentioning novels means you are keeping some semblance of sanity and have a life.
    5/ Repeating arguments in a different way cf 2 and 4.
    6/ cf 1/ Assuming , because you are interested in ethics, you may have read Aristotle in the original Greek or that you have decided to risk certain frontal brain rot by reading cover to cover the ‘classics’.
    ….. I need to lie down

    • I wish I could remember why I mentioned The Third Policeman in feedback. I should do it more often.

  • David Hunter

    Thanks chaps I have a few more now from other social media.

    19. Assuming that because something is legal that it is ethical.

    20. Googling on a topic and using whatever comes up first as a reference to support your view without reading the paper. (My paper in the JME which argues against proportional ethical review has been cited as a reason why proportional review is essential by a paper in a medical journal).

    21. Not qualifying the context or the country and just assuming that what is the case in your context applies in all contexts.

  • Ruth

    Here’s a philosopher + here’s a problem = here’s what that philosopher would say about this problem = bad/good = must prevent or must do = paper. Boom!

    • David Hunter

      Oh yes excellent point. Especially – base your view on what that philosopher would say about it not by actually reading that philosopher but instead on what others have said about them. Or alternatively selectively quote one bit of their writing and ignore the context and the rest (happens all the time with Mill On Liberty)

      • Ruth

        And Kant!

  • 3. Never use an argument where an anecdote will do. A homily is worth a thousand arguments.
    Actually, it may work 🙂

  • Well, I found those recommendations very useful. I study science and those tips will definitely help, even during my ordinary writing classes.