Category: Articles

“A Frank Statement” about Climate Change

By Professor Paul M. Dombrowski

University of Central Florida

I have always been intrigued by the interplay between ethics and rhetoric—language and argument in the service of the good and of the not-so-good.  In my technical communication classes I cite a wide range of examples of both.  One of the most striking is a famous nationwide advertisement by the tobacco industry in the mid-1950s countering the rising awareness of the health risks of smoking, “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.”  It is clear and powerful even today, as evinced not only by its reception in my classes but also in its innumerable citations in the steady stream of legal suits against tobacco firms.

Its relevance today has an additional important dimension—many of the same techniques and even the very same marketing and advertising agencies are being employed to oppose rising public concern about climate change.  A well-researched 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “Smoke, Mirrors, & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Change,” reveals the ethically questionable, even shameful, activities to raise doubts in the public’s mind, to propagate confusion and misunderstanding, to fabricate a debate when there in fact is none, and to deflect attention away from taking concerted action to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The report states: “In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. . . . ExxonMobil has drawn upon the tactics and even some of the same organizations and actors involved in the callous disinformation campaign the tobacco industry waged for forty years” (2007, p. 1).

Among the techniques used are contrived uncertainty, information laundering, the promotion of scientific spokespersons who misrepresent scientific findings, and the attempt to shift the focus away from existing scientific evidence toward a search for supposed “sound science,” just as the tobacco industry did (2007, p. 1). As one of the major tobacco firms as a signatory of “A Frank Statement,” Brown and Williamson, declared: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy” (qtd. p. 7). In “A Frank Statement,” for example, the tobacco industry pledged to create and fund the Tobacco Industry Research Council (TIRC), which would be headed by a recognized scientist (actually one of the very few who doubted the reports by the U.S. Surgeon General and other research endeavors).  Later, in the 1990s, Philip Morris created and funded The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (renamed slightly later) to propagate disinformation and uncertainty about the hazards of second-hand smoke, operating under the assumption that the mass of existing scientific knowledge was somehow unsound or incomplete.

Doing the same for the petroleum industry was natural enough but just as disturbing for the public interest.  UCS finds it disturbing that ExxonMobil would continue to associate with some of the very same TASSC personnel who had overseen such a blatant and shameful disinformation campaign for Big Tobacco.  The most glaring of ExxonMobil’s associations in this regard is with Steven Milloy, the former executive director of TASSC. . . . He served as a member of the small 1998 Global Climate Science Team task force that mapped out ExxonMobil’s disinformation strategy on global warming (18).ExxonMobil also funded a web-based “hybrid of quasi-journalism and lobbying” in support of its disinformation campaign.  “Tech Central Station was published (until it was sold in September 2006) by a public relations firm called the DCI Group, which is a registered ExxonMobil lobbying firm” (13).

In addition to its well-argued text, the report has a number of striking tables it uses for evidence.  Table 1, Select ExxonMobil-Funded Organizations Providing Disinformation on Global Warming, for example, documents scores of such organizations and ExxonMobil’s generous contributions to each (p. 31).  Table 3, Key Personnel Overlap between Tobacco and Climate Disinformation Campaigns, as another example, specifically lists five principals involved in both disinformation campaigns (p. 36). The appendices include the notorious example of Mr. Philip Cooney, Chief of Staff, White House Council on Environmental Quality, who edited a draft of a report by scientists on the likelihood and magnitude of projected climate change and its economic consequences, though Cooney himself is not a scientist but a lawyer.  This example is famously cited in Al Gore’s book and film An Inconvenient Truth, which further explain that as a result of this revelation Mr. Cooney was relieved of his White House position but immediately afterward took a position at ExxonMobil.  Before coming to the White House, Mr. Cooney had been a lawyer and lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute.

This case illustrates rhetorical points, too, such as sophistry and rhetorical duplicity.  Both the tobacco companies and ExxonMobil say they are concerned about the overall issue each faces, but it is “concern” in a sense different from that of the general public.  It is concern about reduced sales and reduced profitability rather than about health and the public welfare.  By not actually making that difference explicit, the communicators can have it both ways as it suits their purposes, and be technically true either way.  Likewise in speaking about scientists.  The two cases can cite “scientists” who differ from the accepted standard science position, but leave the actual number or proportion out of the text: is it 2 scientists out of 10,000 or is it 4,000 out 10,000 total scientists?  By deliberately not specifying the figures, they leave the likely rhetorical impression of a substantial number or proportion, while the reality is entirely the opposite.  The case is rich with other excellent examples of technically true statements that are grossly, intentionally misleading.

For a further exploration of the ethics of the tobacco industry’s opposition to scientific findings, I can suggest the chapter “Tobacco and Death: When Is a Cause Not a Cause” in my book Ethics in Technical Communication, Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

Works Cited

“A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” by 14 major American tobacco firms, originally published in 400 major American newspapers on January 4, 1954, at accessed December 2,  2013. Available at many other websites as well.

“Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science” by Union of Concerned Scientists, January 2007, at   accessed December 2, 2013.

Tribute to John Sterling Harris

John Sterling Harris (1929-2013)
By Donald H Cunningham, professor Emeritus of English, Auburn University


On the evening of 19 September, a storm uprooted a huge white oak in the backyard between my house and the back pond. Its diameter was four feet.

If my memory serves me, an entry in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks reads something like this: “A beam of light passing through an imperfect blind in a darkened room falls upon an open book. It might be made symbolic—of something.”

On the evening of 21 September, John Sterling Harris—teacher, poet, technical writer, and avid private airplane builder and pilot—taxied into position for takeoff, released the brakes, gunned the engine, and climbed out on his final flight. His final illness was a brief pneumonia complicated by many chronic health problems.

PH-Harris-200x300John was the major catalyst in the founding of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. Of all his very broad range of interests, the foremost was teaching; hence, the name of the association and the original title of its journal. Coming from a family of educators (his father was a superintendent of schools and a coach of several state championship teams in high-school football, an uncle was president of Brigham Young University), he regarded the development of teaching skills as the mission of the association.

John worked at the rock face of life—the experience of a teacher and a scholar to be sure—but also one who experienced the western deserts and mountains, worked in a mine smelter and as a steel rigger, and served as an armaments expert and technical instructor of small arms maintenance in the U.S. Army and a missionary in the American Southwest. He built and piloted—and eventually crashed—his own 200-miles per hour experimental airplane, hunted deer, responded to the beauty of Sego Lilies and Aspen and the high western desert of Utah out toward the Nevada line, which most people would call barren.

Isaiah Berlin would have been troubled by John. John’s life was both fox-like and hedgehog-like. For him, everything was, as the saw goes, grist for the mill. He wrote of aversions to technology, love of flying, the Murphy sponge, musical tastes, nomenclature, nostalgia, social and economic change, teaching, the relationship of poetry to technical writing, and instances of literary snobbery. He wrote about aircraft design and firearms technology in specialist magazines. Most importantly, John wrote about knowing things together, that phrase made famous by the psychologist William James, the older brother of Henry. John knew the impossibility of knowing everything, but he believed we should try.

Much of John’s life was influenced by the legacies of his pioneer ancestors, his church, his generation, his teaching, and his living in the American West. Far from being restrictive influences, they formed a more or less cohesive set of perspectives from which John viewed and by which he integrated the world. What converged into the center of his life were the prizing of curiosity (he knew that knowledge is a perishable commodity), problem solving (he knew that to learn, to find information, to analyze, and to think were by far the most important attributes of humans), the vivid sense that we are constantly being challenged and tested (both by events thrust upon us and by our tendency to test our abilities), and the search for permanent values in a seemingly impermanent world.

John was a compelling, blessedly clear, insightful, entertaining, yet instructive, writer and speaker. Many of his articles appeared in theJournal of Technical Writing and Communication, including one that received an NCTE award. John’s essays (many of which appeared in publications that teachers of technical communication or English do not read) and his two books of poetry (Barbed Wire and Second Crop) track closely much of his own life. To see a coyote breaking cover, to observe the ways of ants, to feel the lift of an airplane, to know the other side of the ridge, to slant an antique framing square to read his ancestor’s markings, to test new second lieutenants in garrison drill, to make his own root-beer—these are the kinds of experiences that formed the backdrop that brings into relief John’s life.

A recognized national leader in academic technical writing, John also was in demand as a speaker on his own campus, Brigham Young University. He spoke at several honors banquets in the Spanish Department and the English Department and at College of Humanities Convocations and Commencements. He formally championed the varieties of scholarship in the humanities when he expressed his concerns over what he regarded as his university central administration’s over-emphasis on valuing certain kinds of scholarly activities in the sciences at the expense of the humanities.

John was an unmatched friend of my wife Pat and me for over forty years, during which I had the great fortune to have long conversations with him. We discussed the historical plausibility of some of Mark Twain’s observations (“tall tales”) in Roughing It; whether it was poor design, mechanical defect, or young Sartoris’ hubris that led to his fatal crash in an experimental aircraft; how much Margaret Macomber knew about the power of various rifles at her disposal and the distance between her and Francis. Back in 1969-1970, we discussed topics that we believed were not being taught sufficiently in technical writing classes at the time: whether gender should be a factor in audience analysis; acquisition and access of information, graphics and typography, audience and situation analysis, (although Tom Pearsall’s Audience Analysis for Technical Writing soon appeared); the relationship between the scientific method to technical rhetoric; and the need for usability testing. Since then, most have received standard coverage in the courses we teach.

Those extended conversations during long rambles through inner cities and challenging hikes in wilderness areas are etched in my memory, reverberating in my mind even unto this day.

John’s older brother Richard and his wife Sue predeceased him. He is survived by his three children, Steven Bradley Harris, Scott Jefferson Harris, and Polly Anne Harris, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

John and Sue chose to be cremated and scattered around the historic house they lived in for 51 years in Springville, Utah.


Sharing Expertise and Bridging Cultures: Communicating with Scientists About Communicating Science

Derek G. Ross, PhD, Auburn University Dept. of English

An expert in one field is a lay person in another. This is easy to forget when we are surrounded by professionals in our own fields and when the bulk of our conversations about what we do are with people who share a similar educational background. Continue reading “Sharing Expertise and Bridging Cultures: Communicating with Scientists About Communicating Science”

Collaborative Usability Study in an Undergraduate Information Design Class

When we teach information design, we need to include user-centered design and usability in our curriculum. We need to address the designer’s responsibility to ensure that the deliverable is audience appropriate and to observe how the audience is using that deliverable. The class assignment discussed in this article introduced my undergraduate students to usability testing, allowing them to serve a nonprofit client and concurrently to learn about user-centered design.

In “Information Design and Usability” (IDU), we study search engine optimization, navigation on a digital page, the inverted-pyramid organization, tags and keywords, and online presence and security in addition to the mechanics and style of the English language. We also have integrated into the curriculum an introduction to usability testing. At the end of the semester, students are not usability experts, but they are familiar with usability testing and methods after this assignment. These students learn usability testing because their field of study is animation and many of them graduate and go on to design, create, and test virtual games and online products. However, this assignment would be useful to a range of technical communication students, such as Web designers, graphic designers, documentation writers, and others concerned with user experience.

Planning the Assignment

Last semester, I taught two sections of IDU and, upon identifying a client, I assigned my students to conduct usability tests on the client’s Web site. I divided students into teams of four, and each team chose one interviewer, two note takers, and one official timekeeper (the tasks of the note takers and timekeepers on the teams overlapped).

I requested and obtained IRB approval for the study, ensuring the board that all participants (testers and subjects) would remain anonymous outside the classroom. My university requires minimal review for any research that involves any human subjects: to ensure that the research subjects’ rights are protected and the research methods are ethical and per university standards. Therefore, because the study was not only an in-class activity but also a study that we formalized and reported, I obtained IRB approval. (I recommend this step so you can ensure and report that you conducted the tests ethically and so you can release the data from your students’ tests to your client without any concern of liability.)

I teach two sections of the course, so I allowed each section to create and conduct its own test. Thus, section one had four teams of students providing test results, and section two had five teams providing their test results. This allowed the students to work within their class and collaborate face-to-face. This also allowed me to provide the client with results from TWO tests—one from each section.

Executing the Assignment

The following timeline shows how we proceeded through the four classes for the study.

Prior to assignment—Introduce students to the qualitative and quantitative methods for usability testing and instruct them to read several articles including some from the Nielsen group. (You can find a list of articles at the end of this description.)

Class 1—Introduce the Web site to the students and record all of their responses. Provide a list of tasks to the teams—e.g., registering for the site, finding certain links, posting—and document the students’ initial responses as they complete the tasks. (Student feedback was valuable when I compared their responses to their test findings. Therefore, I considered this step as a way to triangulate findings—students’ initial responses, usability tests, and post-test surveys.) At the end of the introduction (10–15 minutes), ask students to suggest tasks that they could test in a usability study.

Class 2—Provide students with a draft of their task list and have them revise the list after they work through the tasks on the Web site. As a class, draft a script for the usability test. (We had already discussed how to write instructions, so the students were prepared to script instructions for the usability test. As we drafted, we discussed how to script an introduction, how to obtain the subject’s consent to participate, how to encourage subjects to “think aloud,” and how to encourage subjects if they became frustrated with the process—a skill that 4 of the 9 teams needed during the actual usability tests).

Class 3—Provide students with the script and have them work through the test 3–4 times to ensure that they are comfortable and prepared. Practice timing, note taking, and speaking to the subject. Have teams practice in front of each other and let students suggest improvements. Finalize the script. (I also had a student who decided to create a time log, a .doc that he shared with his classmates.)

Class 4—Prepare for the test. Distribute a copy of the script, the time log (if appropriate), and the follow-up survey to each team. (I took on the responsibility to create the follow-up survey so the students could focus on the actual usability test.) Conduct the usability tests.

Students designed the test to take approximately 15 minutes; however, 2 teams had technical difficulties with their computers in the lab, and 2 teams had students who did not rush through the tasks, so some of our times for tasks were skewed. We allowed 30 minutes of class for the usability tests, so all teams were able to complete their data collection before class ended.

Reporting Findings

After the students conducted their tests, they had out-of-class and in-class time to compile their findings and to write a team report of their findings. I did not require a standard format for the report other than to instruct students to provide me with all notes from the actual test (to verify and clarify information) and to provide times in minutes and seconds. I was aware of who was on each team, but the students were reminded not to include their names on their team reports per our IRB approval.

While the students wrote their team reports, I gathered the post-test surveys and statistically analyzed that data. In addition, I began to write a compiled report for our client.

Attached to this article, you can find a copy of one of the scripts that the students’ created and the post-test survey that subjects took after the test.

Experiencing Complications and Successes

The greatest complication we had in completing this assignment was student attendance and participation. One of the classes had several students who were consistently late, and those students missed some of the in-class instruction. We also had one student who did not show up for the usability testing—a complication that frustrated the student’s team.

Wanting to allow the students to evaluate each other for this team project, I provided students with a confidential team evaluation in which they could grade their team members for the assignment. Students also evaluated their own performance. I then averaged those scores and awarded those points to each student as their team evaluation grade. Only 2 of 36 students complained—1 of the 2 being the student who did not attend class for the testing.

The students obtained a variety of skills through this exercise. They learned:

  • to consider the client’s needs;
  • to evaluate the rhetorical situation for a variety of documents related to the usability test, including the tested Web site, the script for the study subjects, and the final report for the client;
  • to collaborate with team members to plan, conduct, and report the usability test;
  • to conduct a well-designed usability test;
  • to consider human subjects’ rights and their responsibility as researchers to study ethically;
  • to communicate professionally with study subjects; and
  • to design a deliverable for the client.

Overall, the assignment was a great success, and I will seek to assign a similar collaborative project next semester.

Suggested Readings for Students

Jerz, D. G. (2011, April 11). Usability testing: Top 8 tips for designing usability tests. Jerz’s Literacy Weblog. Retrieved from

Nielsen, J. (1997, October 1). How users read the Web. Neilson Norman Group. Retrieved from

Nielsen, J. (2001, August 5). First rule of usability? Don’t listen to users. Nielsen Normal Group. Retrieved from…

Nielsen, J. (2012, January 16). Thinking aloud: The #1 usability tool. Nielsen Normal Group. Retrieved from

Rohrer, C. (2008, October 6). When to use which user experience research method. Nielsen Normal Group. Retrieved from


Carie S. Lambert, PhD
Clinical Assistant Professor of Communication
Arts & Humanities
The University of Texas at Dallas


Infographics in Technical Writing and Communication

By Lee Brasseur  Department of English, Illinois State University

Infographics seem to be the “in thing” in information design these days, and more technical writing instructors are beginning to include them as assignments in their classes.  I first became interested in infographics when I started to see how the genre of graphs and charts had shifted from simplistic representations to ones embellished with graphics (as those originally shown in USA Today). I then saw this trend move to even more complex visual and verbal presentations of quantitative and qualitative information in newspapers, websites, and books.

Infographics were a new kind of genre, offering a more complex, more encapsulated way of understanding quantitative information for a new generation.  In this article, I will discuss the genre of infographics, its relationship to both cognitive and contextual theories, and using them as a technical writing assignment. Continue reading “Infographics in Technical Writing and Communication”

Review of Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior, edited by Robert A. Giacalone

Ethics in Technical Communication: A Deeper Look

Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior, edited by Robert A. Giacalone

 Review by: Paul Dombrowski, University of Central Florida

We typically think of ethics in technical communication in terms of our relationships with our employer, our clients, and the consumer or user.  Our ATTW Code of Ethics, for example, focuses on our students, the public, the academy, the profession, non-academic employers, and contractors. Of late, however, we are becoming increasingly concerned about the ethical aspects of our relationships within our working environment, whether it be face-to-face or in cyberspace.  Continue reading “Review of Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior, edited by Robert A. Giacalone”

Groups, Groups, and More Groups: Using Groups Throughout the Semester (Part two of a two-part series)

Meg Morgan, Department of English

UNC Charlotte

Last March Meg reported on a semester-long group project experiment in her beginning technical writing classes. In Part 2, she finishes her tale with a reflection on the experience after the term.

It is now the end of summer, and I have almost fully recovered from my experiment with the “less work” collaborative model last spring.  Overall, I was pleased with some aspects of the course design.  Here is a brief summary of what happened and what I learned. Continue reading “Groups, Groups, and More Groups: Using Groups Throughout the Semester (Part two of a two-part series)”

Can the obsoleteness of technology be overlooked in donations?

Newton Buliva

MA, Technical Communication

Texas Tech University

“We often don’t make the connection between individual action and large-scale unethical action. It may take particular situations for us to realize the ethical implications of our action (or inaction), especially while performing our jobs. This fictitious case, therefore, attempts to provoke creative thinking about how, as technical communicators, we can address e-waste dumping in regions that lack the power, knowledge, or resources to oppose it. Are we, as technical communicators, cogs in the wheel of environmental injustice or can we find novel ways of stopping and repairing such injustice?” Continue reading “Can the obsoleteness of technology be overlooked in donations?”

Groups, Groups, and More Groups: Using Groups Throughout the Semester (Part one of two)

Meg Morgan, Department of English

UNC Charlotte

I have been working with students in collaborative writing groups since the mid-1980s, when as a graduate student at Purdue, I worked with four fellow graduate student colleagues to write a research article on − collaboration.  With that experience and many others over the next 35 years or so, I thought I knew everything there was to know about using collaborative writing groups in a technical writing classroom.  Was I wrong! This semester I’m learning that you are never too old or too experienced to learn something new or to make some mistakes in the process. Continue reading “Groups, Groups, and More Groups: Using Groups Throughout the Semester (Part one of two)”

An Exercise in Ethical Criticism: Celebrex© on TV

Paul Dombrowski
University of Central Florida

Ethics can seem a subtle abstraction to some students, but the topic can be made more vivid, clear, and real through examples.  The example I provide here, a televised Celebrex© commercial, is one I have used in my technical communication classes. The commercial provides an egregious example of visual rhetoric used in technical medical information that is misleading, incomplete, and masked in a communication to the general public.  Reaching farther back in time to Plato, who linked ethics with rhetoric, it is an example of bad or ignoble rhetoric on the basis of its ethics. Continue reading “An Exercise in Ethical Criticism: Celebrex© on TV”