Assignments: Wiki Article

Technical Writing

Learning Goals

In performing and completing this assignment, you should:

    • Learn to collaboratively pose, and take a position on, a question involving a scientific or technological controversy;
    • Learn to develop an argument, using evidence, to support a position;
    • Learn to write and revise for a web-based medium.


Groups will select a scientific or technological controversy on which to pose a central question, take a singular position on the question, and collaboratively author an article that will be posted to the wiki.

Defined broadly, a scientific or technological controversy is a "sustained, public debate" (taking a cue from Egger and Carpi) on issues involving, and arising from, the funding, research, development, distribution and social consequences of activities associated primarily with science or technology. Examples include the controversy over anthropogenic global warming, whether or not animals can use language, or whether the U.S. federal government can, or should, use certain technologies in the routine surveillance of its citizens.

Scientific and technological controversies require us to examine the place of science and technology in modern culture. The contexts for the dispute can be wide ranging — economic, political, environmental, personal, methodological, philosophical, spiritual, historical and statistical. During a scientific and technological controversy, many basic assumptions that we hold regarding, for example, clear communication, what counts as evidence and knowledge, and boundaries between public and private interests, come under scrutiny. The purpose of this assignment is to have you examine, from both a practitioner's and a layperson's perspective, the roles science and technology play in public discourse.


The Wiki Article assignment consists of three stages, the: 1) Informal Proposal; 2) Wiki Article; and 3) Wiki Response.

Groups will determine how to divide the labor of researching, drafting, writing and revising the article. Please keep in mind this article will be published online on a publicly accessible wiki. Online readers expect a direct, concise, jargon-free style and, at a minimum, links to citations (where applicable), significant resources and other media (when appropriate — YouTube offers an endless array of video resources.

A primary concern in how group's produce their articles is that you divide the labor equally and equitably. If problems arise during the process, please let me know immediately. Also, you will have an opportunity to assess the group's effectiveness.

I am asking the group to take a singular position on the controversy selected. However, at the end of the day, you may not agree with the group's position. While I ask you to collaborate with the group and support its position, you may append a minority report or statement. A minority report or statement is a separate report or statement presented by members of a group who disagree with the majority. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has examples of reports that append minority reports or statements of dissent. The report or statement will be posted on the wiki. The author will determine the statement's nature, length and form.


In part, our Technical Writing wiki serves to bring disputed issues regarding science and technology to interested, general audiences. Readers of, and participants in, our wiki want to read and talk about the problems and arguments arising from questions regarding scientific research and technological innovation.


Each group will develop a 3000-3750 word article (I assume a roughly 750-word contribution from each group member) for the wiki. While articles will deal with the scientific or technological controversy the group has selected, each member of the group may approach the controversy from a unique context or perspective of interest. Let me offer an example:

    Let's say that a group decides that its wiki article will examine the controversy surrounding a proposed national site, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for burying America's nuclear waste. On doing some preliminary research, you decide to pose a central question on the controversy surrounding Yucca Mountain: Should the United States continue to develop, and use, Yucca Mountain as a central site for disposing of nuclear waste?

    The group takes the position that yes, in fact we should dispose of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

    Now, assuming your group is comprised of four members, each member will choose a context or perspective at which to look at your position on the controversy. Perhaps one group member is interested in history. This person may want to examine the controversy from an historical perspective. Another group member may be interested in the civil engineering problems raised by building the facility at Yucca Mountain. Yet another group member may be interested in environmental policy and the policy issues raised by the controversy. Finally, a group member may be interested in transportation. What issues are raised in transporting the nuclear waste to the proposed facility? Given your context or perspective, you will argue for the position taken by the group. For example, you will argue that based on an economic analysis and evidence, Yucca Mountain provides the most feasible plan for disposing of nuclear waste. Or, if you are interested in environmental issues, you may argue that Yucca Mountain provides the most environmentally sound solution to the problem of disposing of our nation's nuclear waste.

For any controversy you choose, a context or perspective in which you are interested can offer the basis for an argument. I encourage each group member, then, to choose a particular context or perspective which will be the focus of their analysis.


The audience for the wiki generally, and for your article, specifically, is a well-educated and diverse audience unfamiliar with the specific aspects of the controversy. To appeal to this audience you must offer a compelling argument within the framework of non-technical discourse. You must, then, avoid, or clearly define, scientific and technical jargon while lending relevant details within a clear argument. Finally, to encourage the audience's participation on the wiki, you wish to write in such a way that the audience finds the controversy interesting, follows the argument you map out, and learns something about a controversy that may have a direct or indirect bearing on their personal welfare (addressing the "so what" question).

Suggested Topics

Contemporary controversies often appear in the The New York Times, online magazines such as Slate and Salon, The New York Review of Books, and The Skeptical Inquirer. In previous courses I have used Thomas Easton's Taking Sides as a jumping off point (the table of contents might be a helpful place to generate ideas and is available as a pdf). In addition, "Letters to the Editor" sections in journals such as Science and Nature provide summaries of on-going controversies.

Controversies are also addressed in the disciplines in which you are studying. For example, proposed changes in, and the ensuing debate over, the Endangered Species Act will affect practices in forestry, biology and environmental science. Evidence concerning the possible harmful effects of technologies (from genetically altered crops and animals, to cell phones, to high voltage power lines) and the liability of designers and engineers are topics taken up in many of your classes.

You may choose to research any one of the examples included in the following categories, but feel free to pick another topic -- perhaps a controversy within your discipline. But please choose a topic about which the group members have a shared — and hopefully passionate — interest.

In her edited volume Controversy: The Politics of Technical Decisions (1992, 1984), Dorothy Nelkin identifies four general contexts in which controversies occur (please note that these categories are not mutually exclusive):

    1) Efficiency Versus Equity. State, local or community concerns with costs, benefits and justice. Examples include building or modifying airports, power plants, highways, public parks or landfills; local environmental policy, mining, zoning regulations, and public works projects. Questions of efficiency and equity also occur on national and international levels, the Microsoft antitrust case for example, and with regard to the funding of "big science" projects. For instance, what benefits does society get from "big science?" Couldn't the money be better spent elsewhere — on social programs for example? Examples include the Large Hadron Collider, Missiles and Missile Defense Systems, the Human Genome project, the Human Proteome Folding project, the Hubble Space Telescope, the international space station, and missions (manned and unmanned) to Mars.

    Examples of local (Southwest Virginia) controversies include: wind energy, growth controversies in Blacksburg (e.g., road, infrastructure improvement, the new high school, the old middle school), the widening of I-81, the use of coal-fired boilers at Tech, the "Smart" Road, the environmental and labor policies of the Pittston Coal Company, the Greenbrier Pipeline, the construction and path of I-73, and whether transmission of electricity should be handled by nonprofit or for-profit companies.

    2) Benefits Versus Risks. Fear of potential health and environmental hazards. Examples include global warming, alternative (to oil) energy projects (e.g., wind power), developing nanotechnology, nuclear waste disposal (e.g., Yucca Mountain), use of growth hormones or synthetic drugs in making animals more productive, genetic alteration of crops and vegetables (e.g., Amflora), occupational health standards (e.g., with what chemicals can people work and for how long), damming, rerouting or using waterways for irrigation, the results of the human genome project or developing chemical and biological weapons systems.

    3) Regulation Versus Freedom of Choice. Restrictions of freedom of choice by the government. Supporters of government defend regulation; opponents want less government interference. Examples include lack of immediate availability of certain drugs (e.g., experimental cancer treatments), oil drilling in protected areas, federal risk assessment procedures, regulation of the Internet (e.g., net neutrality), intellectual property rights (e.g., downloading and sharing music and movies), federally mandated safety regulation on technologies — cars, cell phones, powerlines, construction materials and methods, household technologies — environmental protection legislation and federally mandated immunization programs.

    4) Science Versus Traditional Values. Controversies over research procedures and science education in the public schools. Examples include the controversy over teaching Darwinian theory and/or "Intelligent Design," human and animal cloning, stem cell research, biomedical research, the use of animals in experiments, doctor assisted suicide, and the problems, causes and effects of transferring technologies and methods produced by industrial countries to developing countries.

    I would like to add a fifth context in which to examine controversies:

    5) Science Versus Pseudo-Science. Controversies over whether certain phenomena actually exist and cause particular effects, and the uses of empirical evidence to validate or invalidate given claims. Examples include debates over the existence of: a rise in the rates of autism, extraterrestrial visitation (e.g., the Roswell, New Mexico "incident"), the greenhouse effect, the efficacy of psychoanalysis, subliminal persuasion, the methodological problems of studying other cultures (e.g., explaining Captain Cook's death at the hand of Hawaiian natives in the late 18th century, Carlos Castaneda and "new age" anthropology), room temperature (cold) fusion, the rise of Satanism in the late 1980's, a relation between celestial phenomena and personal destiny, an afterlife as evidenced in near-death experiences, repressed memory syndrome, and facilitated communication. Included in this category are debates over scientific hoaxes such as Piltdown Man, N-Rays, evidence of "alien visitations" (e.g., crop circles), and a "missing link" in the fossil record.

Project Structure

Due July 5 by noon:

A 3000-3750 word article that:

    • Provides an abstract no longer than 10% of the entire article's length;
    • Poses an explicit central question about the controversy selected;
    • Takes a singular position on the central question;
    • Provides an introduction and background to the controversy for an audience unfamiliar with it;
    • Develops an argument and analysis, based on evidence, that supports the group's position on the central question;
    • Offers findings and a conclusion based on evidence and argument;
    • Gives citations and links to resources (MLA citation style suggested).
    Optional: A statement of dissent or personal statement.

Please publish your article on our Technical Writing wiki.
Please provide fill out a group evaluation.
I will use this grading rubric (document file) to evaluate the assignment.


    • Pose a central question that the group's project will address. Examples, taken from Thomas Easton's Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Science, Technology and Society include: "Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe to Eat? Should the Internet Be Neutral? Is It Time to Revive Nuclear Power?";

    • Select, once the group has determined a topic, a particular event or case on which to focus. For example, if the topic is nuclear waste disposal, the group should then select an example or case which exemplifies the elements of the controversy to be analyzed. Consequently, the group may want to look at (given the above example) the controversy surrounding the proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The selection of a case (or cases) is the key to this assignment. Articles typically descend into vague generalities when addressing a broad topic (e.g., the controversy over genetic engineering) about which several books have been written;

    • State clearly the argumentative claim of the article. Let the reader know the specific position for which you wish to argue;

    • Determine the participants in the controversy and define their views about science and technology in the context of the debate;

    • Analyze the arguments, evidence and terms presented by groups and individuals in the controversy;

    • Evaluate, given your analysis, and draw conclusions about the positions presented in the controversy.


    • Map out and identify the constituencies involved. What groups or individuals are participating in the controversy? What is the agenda of each of these groups? Do all the members of a certain group agree? About what issues do they disagree? Examples of constituencies include consumer advocacy and safety groups, unions, professional societies and associations, manufactures, lobbyists, scientists, engineers, educators, government representatives (on national and local levels) and the lay public.

    • Provide a history of the specific controversy — not a general history of the science or the technological artifact. When did the controversy arise? Under what circumstances? What other historical and social factors contributed to the controversy? Do the groups and individuals in the debate see and tell the history differently? What is significant about these differences?

    • Show how evidence is used to make a particular group or person's case. How is experimental evidence interpreted? Do groups and individuals interpret experimental results in the same way? Why or why not? How are statistics and polling data used? If experiments have been performed are they sound? Have experiments been replicated?

    • Analyze how scientific communication (defined broadly) and language is used. What types of documents make appearances in the debate? What role does technical jargon play? How are visual representations used? What role does the media play? How do the participants try to convince opponents, or one another? What rhetorical appeals (to, for example, freedom, choice, economic gain, expertise, truth, objectivity, democracy, autonomy, knowledge) are used in the debate?

    • Examine the use of experts in the controversy. Who are the experts? How did they achieve their expertise? Why should one listen to experts? Do experts agree? Can agreement among experts bring the controversy to a close?

    • Determine if the debate can be, or has, ended. Did overwhelming scientific evidence convince all of the participants? Can an experiment, or technological invention, bring a controversy to an end? How does a scientific or technological controversy achieve closure?

Final Suggestions

Groups may divide the work any way they choose. The group may wish to outline the article's structure and assign work accordingly.

From past experience, dealing with on-line vagaries will be time consuming. Plan for possible delays by starting early. To avoid last minute hair pulling, make sure the duties of each group member are clear by meeting — virtually or physically (if possible) — on a regular basis, by having a set timetable (see the Informal Proposal assignment), and by reaching a clear consensus on who is doing what. Remember — it always takes longer than it takes (a version of Hofstadter's Law). I am available for consultation at any time during the process.