Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

PWR 2MO: The Rhetoric of Scientific Controversies

Main content start
Dr. Formato discusses theme of PWR 2MO.

In 1913, when the physicist Niels Bohr first proposed a quantum model of the atom, many of his colleagues criticized it as an inelegant and implausible fantasy. In 2014, when the Dover Pennsylvania school district passed a resolution mandating that public school students be instructed in the gaps in evolutionary theory and that biology classes avoid any discussion of the origins of life, parents sued and the case was taken to court. In February of 2015, Senator James Inahofe threw a snowball on the senate floor to punctuate his skepticism about the existence of global warming.

While we sometimes think of scientific theories as clear-cut descriptions of the natural world, each of the examples above demonstrates how science can provoke fierce debate—controversies about what counts as a scientific fact, how science should be taught in school, and how it should influence policy are all around us. In this course, we will explore the oral and written communication choices made by scientists, politicians, lawyers and others as they engage in debate about scientific findings and policy. Along the way, our research will be informed by readings from historians and sociologists of science like Naomi Oreskes, Michael Gordin, and Robert Proctor who use scientific controversies and accusations of pseudo science as sites for understanding the social and cultural stakes of scientific theories.

You will examine a specific scientific controversy and the different media and communities in which it unfolds. Previous students have focused their research on controversies such as the GMO food Golden Rice, geo-engineering as a solution to climate change, legal approaches to mandated vaccination, and the contested role of corporate funding in public health research. The course assignments ask you to translate your research questions and findings for different audiences through written work and oral presentations. You will have the opportunity to hone your oral communication skills through several ungraded oral presentations and in-class workshops on presentation organization, body language, and slide design.

Major Assignments

Research Proposal

(5 minute oral presentation; written text of 600-1200 words) You will propose a topic for a research-based argument that examines a scientific controversy. Your proposal should identify a specific controversy, relevant scholarship and primary sources, and pose research questions.

Genre/Mode Assignment

(600-900 words or 2-3 pages) This thick description assignment is a more creative opportunity to focus on a specific moment or person in your controversy and show it to your reader in vivid detail.

Written Research-Based Argument

(3000-3600 words or 10-12 pages) After presenting your proposal, you will pursue research on your topic and craft a convincing and well-researched academic essay. Your essay will draw on analysis of primary sources and relevant secondary source to support and contextualize its argument.

Delivery of Research

(10 minute live oral presentation with appropriate multimedia support) You will then translate your research-based argument into an oral presentation, which you will deliver at the end of the quarter.