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Is it Science or Is It Opinion—or Is It Both?

Kevin Moore’s New Course on an Emergent Genre
Dr. Kevin Moore and his PWR 91 KR class.

A.I. COVID. Climate change. Big data; data privacy. CRISPR, space travel, autonomous vehicles, sustainable energy— 

It seems that issues, problems and controversies involving science and technology fill the news these days. A look at the opinion sections of major traditional news outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle) confirms that these problems are very much on the minds of the news-reading public. Experts are continually called upon to share their knowledge and to provide guidance with their scientific opinions. Here at Stanford we are all engaged in training the next generation of experts in many scientific and technological fields. In Kevin Moore’s Advanced PWR course, PWR 91KR: Scientific Opinion Writing, these experts-in-training are guided through the process of developing an op-ed article on a scientific subject of their choosing, pitching the article to a publication and perhaps even seeing the piece published. 

Why op-eds? Kevin explains that the op-ed is a manageable genre, one that can bring together a student’s interest in a particular area of science or technology with a desire to craft a particular argument, to employ the tools of rhetoric to persuade readers to view the issue in a particular way. He proposed the course in 2023, drawing on his years of experience teaching scientific writing at UC Santa Barbara. Recent events had lent the genre of scientific opinion writing something of an edge: COVID had wrought change in many areas of life and public policy, leading to discussions in the class concerning when it might actually be dangerous for an expert to express an opinion—dangerous to their career, dangerous to the public (note the article in the February 21, 2024 Washington Post about the burgeoning business of online misinformation about COVID, its treatment, origins and prevention); dangerous to their very life. (Remember when Dr. Fauci and other public health officials received death threats?)

As Kevin explains, many students have already arrived at a certain level of expertise in a technical field. The next step is to find the right angle from which to express an opinion. How is this opinion to be framed? Who would be the anticipated audience? To what outlet should it be pitched? Traditional rhetorical concerns clearly play a role here, in the service of advancing public discussion of complex but vital issues. 

A forerunning example of this is the work of Kevin’s former PWR 1 and PWR 2 student, Annie Ostojic, (previously featured in this newsletter article on student writers finding a wider audience) who in 2022 published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on the burgeoning dangers of “deep fakes”—video and images generated through A.I., deliberately intended to deceive. Quoting prominent philosopher, Regina Rini, Annie argued that such high-tech fakery had begun to corrode the “epistemic backstop”; the assurance of reality we had previously derived from photography and medical imaging. Seeing, it appears, is no longer believing. Or at least it should no longer lead so naively to believing. Through her op-ed, Annie sounded an alarm about the decreasing trustworthiness of information we rely upon to make important decisions.

Op-ed author and Stanford master's student Annie Ostojic and Dr. Moore on the day of her class visit. 

Kevin observes that there are both exigent concerns, such as deep fakes or the many challenges posed by the COVID pandemic, and “evergreen” topics for scientific opinion, such as public health in general. Students are not expected to present fully worked-out solutions to the problems they focus on; in many cases a clear articulation of the problem itself can be a very workable example of the genre.

Genre is a key concept in approaching the writing of these opinions. How does opinion differ from a write-up of research results? How do we distinguish opinion from activism or advocacy? How do these various forms of writing relate to the scientific enterprise as a whole? An op-ed stands apart from the more selectively-targeted forms of writing (about) science inasmuch as it aims at a more general readership: non-scientists, living their lives, doing their jobs, taking care of their families, should not be expected to keep up on all the specialized reporting of the latest scientific discoveries and debates. But as Leon Trotsky is said to have said about war (and this kind of quote-chasing might even count as some kind of pre-digital deepfake), you may not be interested in science, but science is interested in you. These latest discoveries and debates affect everyone. COVID does not care how much you understand about immunology; deep fakes depend on our taking things at face value. A well-written op-ed can explain the basics of a complex topic, draw our attention to potential dangers, and make clear what we all have at stake in the debate. 

As Kevin points out in his syllabus, working on this genre of writing can help students become more discerning consumers of scientific journalism. For example, how do we tell the difference between a public-spirited writer calling attention to potential risks of new discoveries on the one hand, and someone engaged in mere brand-building on the other? The walls of the laboratory have become ever more permeable, as scientists take note of their audiences across both traditional and emergent media (such as podcasts, TikTok and social media). When does a scientist become an influencer? Is that necessarily a cause for concern? Most people would have little problem with a figure like Dr. Fauci exercising influence in his professional capacity (it was, in fact, an important part of his job during the pandemic). The Washington Post article referred to above traced the prodigious fundraising attained by purveyors of misinformation relating to COVID: a group headed by outspoken vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. took in $23.5 million in 2022 alone—eight times as much money as it collected in the year before the pandemic. Even if Kennedy remains a long-shot in his ambition to ride this influence all the way to the White House later this year, he could easily pull enough votes away from either mainstream candidate to affect the outcome. At first glance, such a campaign would appear to be small-d democracy in action: let the candidates debate, let the public decide. But how well is democracy served when flat-out counterfeit science is passed off as genuine coin in these debates? The consequences of scientific questions go far beyond basic comprehension of the science; important matters of public policy can be profoundly affected.

The op-ed intervenes in the small-d democratic space of general readership, addressing topics of shared concern, bringing everyone into the picture as stakeholders. Even weather reporting has taken on a new valence in this era of increasing awareness of the consequences of climate change. Among the guest speakers Kevin has invited to share their knowledge with the class is Hannah Hagemann, the Weather Science Editor of the SF Chronicle, who addresses precisely this development and the work of her influential team. 

SF Chronicle weather editor Hannah Hagemann and student in PWR 91KR classroom.
SF Chronicle Weather Science Editor Hannah Hagemann visits PWR 91KR. 

Science and technology affect—and are affected by—everything, and if you don’t have time to read every new issue of Nature cover-to-cover, you will find yourself reading the op-eds as you try to keep up with both new discoveries and the decisions we face in connection with them. And it may well be that some of the opinions you are reading will have come out of Kevin’s course!