Assignment: Wiki Article

Learning Goals

The purpose of this assignment is for you to work individually and collaborative to analyze, and make cogent arguments regarding, a scientific controversy.

The assignment's learning goals:

• Pose collaboratively, and take individually a position on, a question involving a scientific controversy;
• Develop an argument, using evidence, to support a clearly defined position;
• Consider the reciprocal relationship of science and society.

Please refer to the Debates assignment.


From the Mapping Controveries website:

In modern societies, collective life is assembled through the superposition of scientific and technical controversies. The inequities of growth, the ecological crisis, the bioethical dilemma and all other major contemporary issues occur today as tangles of humans and non-humans actors, politics and science, morality and technology. Because of this growing hybridization complexity, getting involved in public life is becoming more and more difficult. To find their way in this uncertain universe and to participate in its assembly, citizens need to be equipped with tools to explore and visualize the complexities of scientific and technical debates.

Our Science Controversies wiki serves, in part, as a forum to enable our selves and others to explore the complexities of scientific debates. Whether or not you believe in anthropogenic global warming, for example, the issue brings together a host of scientific, political, technical, moral, and economic concerns. These concerns readily exhaust our patience and overwhelm our ability to develop satisfactory positions and arguments. Often, in response, we rely on our well worn political inclinations or lethargy to resolve the intellectual tension wrought by scientific controversies. In this assignment, we will push past our programmed responses to examine some of the most pressing issues of our day.

Scientific controversies require us to examine the place of science in modern culture. The contexts for a scientific dispute can be wide ranging — economic, political, environmental, personal, methodological, philosophical, spiritual, historical and statistical. During a scientific 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.

Suggested Topics

Contemporary controversies often appear in The New York Review of Books, the Times Higher Education Supplement, The Skeptical Inquirer, and the science section of The New York Times. On-line magazine such as Slate and Salon often track controversies. "Letters to the Editor" sections in journals such as Science and Nature provide summaries of on-going controversies. Sunday editions of many major newspapers can also point you in the direction of current controversies. Finally, Easton's Taking Sides may serve as a more or less direct starting point.

Controversies are also addressed in academic disciplines with which you are familiar. For example, proposed changes in, and the ensuing debate over, the Endangered Species Act will affect practices in forestry, biology and environmental science. Scientific 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. In any case, 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 the science (e.g., use of enviornmental studies or other scientific evidence) that surrounds 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 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, the Human Genome project, the Human Proteome Folding project, the Hubble Space Telescope, the international space station, and missions (manned and unmanned) to Mars.

    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 the science surrounding the development of 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. Scientific evidence is used to support both positions. Examples include lack of immediate availability of certain drugs (e.g., experimental cancer treatments), oil drilling in protected areas, fracking, federal risk assessment procedures, 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, and doctor assisted suicide.

    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

While all of the articles will deal with the scientific controversy the team has selected, each member of the team will approach their position on the controversy from a unique context or perspective. Let me offer an example:

    Let's say that the team decides to examine the controversy surrounding a proposed national site, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for burying America's nuclear waste. Your central question: Should Yucca Mountain, Nevada serve as a facility for burying America's nuclear waste? Now, assuming your team is comprised of four members for the debate, two of you have answered "yes" to the question, two of you have answered "no." Given your answer, each team member will choose a unique context or perspective from which to defend your position. For example, perhaps one of you is interested in history. You may want to examine the controversy from an historical perspective. You might argue that nuclear waste should by buried at Yucca Mountain because the history of this policy initiative indicates that the government has worked through the most troubling contingencies. Another team member may be interested in the civil engineering problems raised by building the facility at Yucca Mountain. Yet another team member may be interested in environmental policy and the policy issues raised by the controversy. Finally, a team member may be interested in transportation. What issues are raised in transporting the nuclear waste to the proposed facility? For any controversy you choose, a context or perspective in which you are interested can offer an analytical framework. I want each team member, then, to choose a particular context or perspective which will be the focus of their analysis in answering the central question.


    • 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? 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 a 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 your 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. 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, 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.


Due: By 3:05 17 December.
Structure: Posted to the wiki.

    Logically ordered pages and links to each of the project's major elements (an on-line table of contents);
    A 250-500 word introduction providing a concise overview of the controversy and of the project's content;
    Each group member will contribute an article of 1000-1500 words. Each article must:

      • Give a title and byline.
      • Provide an abstract no longer than 10% of the entire article's length (100-150 words).
      • Take a position on the central question posed by the group on the controversy.
      • Develop an argument and analysis, based on evidence, that supports the position on the central question.
      • Offer findings and a conclusion based on argument and evidence.
      • Give appropriate, well-chosen in-text links to citations and external resources. Embedded resources are optional.

    A 250-500 word conclusion synthesizing the team's view on the controversy in the wake of the collective research performed.
    A combined list of works cited and consulted from each team member. Use MLA (Modern Language Association) format.

Feedback: To give me feedback on the process, please provide a team evaluation.

Science Writing