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PWR 91KR: Scientific Opinion Writing

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Whether our interest is proposing solutions to climate change, setting public health recommendations in the context of a pandemic, or exploring the potential of generative AI, more than ever we engage with scientific opinion genres to determine policy as well as in our personal decision-making. 

In this course, we’ll work together to become astute  interpreters as well as writers of scientific opinion. As students studying scientific communication at the university, and perhaps as aspiring scientists ourselves, we’ll ask: how do we know which scientists to trust when they advise the public with an opinion, and which forums are the most trustworthy? In what kinds of traditional publications do scientists contribute opinion—such as legacy newspaper opinion pages and or a JAMA Viewpoint—and how does this writing differ and for that matter complement their “official” research? We’ll explore how emergent genres and media open up possibilities for scientific opinion, for instance science podcasts, TikTok videos, and scientists’ Twitter accounts. How might one build what we might even call a “brand” as a scientist? Can one be involved in marketing and self-promotion and still be committed to an evidence-based research agenda? As we work to identify and cultivate reliable as well as innovative scientific opinion communication strategies, we’ll also work to differentiate earnest commentary from publicity-seeking grift and propaganda.

In “Scientific Opinion Writing,” you’ll explore and write about examples of scientific opinion and you’ll research and create your own opinion commentary for a real publication. You will learn how to pitch an op-ed, and at the end of the course you’ll actually submit a pitch for an article to a suitable publication of your choice. We’ll start by working together to curate an archive of examples of scientific opinion writing on topics of interest to us. Building upon the rhetorical analysis skills you cultivated earlier in your PWR career, you’ll write a genre analysis essay, where you’ll choose a scientific opinion genre—for instance wellness podcasts—and explore 2-3 examples of that show us how your chosen genre aspires to convey meaning, including its values, objectives, formal and technical conventions, audience, as well as potential limitations. You’ll have an opportunity to share your opinion specimens and interpretations with your classmates in a short, informal presentation. Then, we’ll turn our focus specifically to the genre of the 800-1200 word op-ed of the sort you might pitch to a legacy newspaper or digital publication. Our course will feature visits from Stanford students and alumni who have successful published op-ed essays in major venues. We will make a class visit to San Francisco to chat about pitches and content selection with the Opinion Section Editor at the SF Chronicle headquarters. We’ll also have a class visit from a scientist to discuss how and why they choose to write in opinion genres. Your work will culminate in researching, drafting, and finally pitching a science op-ed on a topic of interest to you to a real publication. The course will also ask you to keep a reflective journal documenting our adventure into the wilds of scientific opinion.

Major Assignments

Genre Analysis Essay

(2000 words, 3-4 pages) For this assignment, you’ll choose a scientific opinion genre of interest to you, for instance a wellness podcast, and identify 2-3 examples of the genre. Then you will draft and revise an essay documenting and evaluating your examples’ advantages, limitations, technical features, and intended audience.

Scientific Op-Ed

(800-1200 words) Here you’ll research and write an 800-1200 opinion article on a scientific topic of your choice, for instance a warning about the dangers of biomedical deepfakes. At the end of the course, you’ll actually write and submit a pitch to a real publication.                                                                            

Reflective Blog Journal

(Total 2000-3000 words, graded on completion) During this course, you’ll also be asked to keep a reflective blog journal, where on a weekly basis you will keep track of your growth as a science opinion writer and engage with the work of your classmates.


Prerequisite: WR-1 requirement or the permission of instructor

Grade Option: Letter (ABCD/NP)

Course Feature: Science Communication Track. This Course does not fulfill the WR-1 or WR-2 Requirement

WAYS: Creative Expression