Health Debates in Communication and Culture

Spring 2015

Download PDF of Syllabus

In this course, analyzing several major public health debates, students will learn about the relevant scientific, political, and ethical dimensions of each case; the generalizable theories, frameworks, and methods that scholars use to analyze them; and the implications for effective public communication, policymaker engagement, and personal decision-making. Assignments include facilitating class discussion, short analysis papers, an annotated bibliography, and a research paper on a relevant topic of the student’s choosing. By the end of the course, students will have gained an integrated understanding of the different roles they can play in public health debates as professionals, advocates, and consumers. In doing so, they will have improved their ability to find, discuss, evaluate, and use expert sources of information; assess competing media claims and narratives; write persuasive essays, analyses, and commentaries; and author evidence-based research papers.


  • Discussion Leadership and Translation (5%): For each class topic, 2-3 students will be designated discussion leaders and will provide 1-2 page summaries of each reading.#
  • Reading Quizzes (5%): At the beginning of each week’s topic, students will complete a brief quiz about the readings.
  • Three Analysis Papers (45%): Students will be completing three 2,000 word analysis papers relative to specific case studies and topics covered. These papers will assess and integrate the assigned readings and other sources; and be written in a broadly accessible, persuasive, and engaging style. Students will be expected to revise papers after initial grade and review by instructor.
  • Annotated Bibliography (15%): Students will be compiling an annotated bibliography of approximately 15 quality academic or research sources on a topic relevant to the course. Based on the bibliography, students will prepare a detailed outline for their final paper subject to feedback and discussion.*
  • Research Paper (30%): Drawing on their annotated bibliography and other sources, students will author a 6,000 word paper synthesizing and applying research to their topic, written in a style that is broadly accessible and engaging.

# Students should compile their reading summaries into a single PDF document and email the document to Prof. Nisbet by the Monday evening before the class sessions. These summaries will then be posted on the course page in advance of class.

*Compiling an Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to scholarly books, book chapters, journal articles, and reports.  Each citation – usually around 300 words — is followed by a brief descriptive and evaluative paragraph called “the annotation.”  For your annotated bibliography, you should be able to find and describe in your own words relevant journal articles, book chapters, and books on your topic.  The journals, edited volumes, authors, and fields referenced in this course are good places to start to search for relevant sources.

Primer on Getting Started with Your Research

Primer on Using APA Style in Your Writing


Caulfield, T. (2012). The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Gallagher, W. (2009). Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York: Penguin.


  • First short analysis paper due Wed. Feb. 18 by 2pm EST.
  • Annotated Bibliography due Fri. March 6 by 5pm EST.
  • Second short analysis paper due Tues. March 31 by 5pm EST.
  • Third short analysis paper due Tues. April 14 by 5pm EST.
  • Final research paper due Wed. April 29 by 5pm EST.


Tues Jan 13 — Course overview


Jan 16, 20 & 23 — Framing, Metaphors and the “Wicked Problem” of Obesity

Discussion Leader Summary of Readings


  • Barry, CL, Jarlenski M, Grob R, Schlesinger M (2011). News media framing of childhood obesity in the United States from 2000 to 2009. Pediatrics, 128-32. [PDF]
  • Barry, CL, Brescoll VL, Brownell KD, Schlesinger M (2009). Obesity metaphors: How beliefs about the causes of obesity affect support for public policy. The Milbank Quarterly, 87: 7-47. [PDF]
  • Harris, J.L., Pomeranz, J.L., Lobstein, T., & Brownell, K.D. (2009). A crisis in the marketplace: How food marketing contributes to obesity and what can be done. Annual Review of Public Health, 30, 211-25. [PDF]
  • Shellenberger, M. & Nordhaus, T. (2013, Winter). Wicked Polarization: How Prosperity, Democracy and Experts Divided America. Breakthrough Journal. [HTML]
  • Lee, H. (2013). The making of the obesity epidemic. The Breakthrough Journal, 3, 15-20. [HTML]

Discuss Excerpts from Videos:

  • HBO Films’ The Weight of the Nation, Part 4: Challenges, Chapters 1 – 5. [Video]

Jan 27 & 30 The exercise industry, celebrity and body Image

Discussion Leader Summary of Readings


  • Caulfield, T. (2012). The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press (pp. 1 – 42).
  • Grabe S., Ward L.M., Hyde J.S. (2008).  The role of the media in body image concerns among women: a meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin, 134 (3), 460-476. [PDF]
  • Taubes, G. (2007, Sept. 24). The Scientist and the Stairmaster. New York magazine [HTML]
  • Beck, J. (2014, July 31). Why Would Anyone Want to Workout Until they Puke? Atlantic magazine. [HTML]
  • From Eyelids to Skin Tone, Beauty Isn’t Always about Looking “White.” The Guardian [HTML]

Discuss Videos:

  • HBO Films’ The Weight of the Nation: Choices;  Chapter 7: What are the Facts & Myths about Exercise? [Video]
  • Five Illuminating Films about Beauty Standards [Videos]
  • The Illusionist documentary [Video]


Feb 3 & 13  Shifting Narratives about Diet and Health

Discussion Leader Summary of Readings


  • Caulfield, T. (2012). The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press (pp. 43 – 98).
  • Taubes, G. (2011, April 13). Is Sugar Toxic? New York Times Magazine [HTML]
  • Bora, S.T. & Bouchoux, A. (2009). Effects of Science and the Media on Consumer Perceptions of about Dietary Sugars. Journal of Nutrition, 139, 1214S-1218S [Library Gateway]
  • Katz, D. (2014, June 16). Ending the war that nobody started. The Huffington Post [HTML]
  • Brean, J. (2014, March 28). Farewell to gluten free: Why we are so easily fooled by pseudoscience and marketing gimmicks when it comes to food. The National Post. [HTML]
  • Specter, M. (2014, Nov. 3).  Against the Grain: Should You Go Gluten Free? The New Yorker. [HTML]

Discuss Videos:

  • TEDX: Robert Lustig “Sugar: The Elephant in the Kitchen” [Video]
  • Why We Get Fat with Gary Taubes [Video]
  • American University Ideas: Interview with Timothy Caulfield Part 3 [Video]

Feb 17 & 20 — Health, Organic Agriculture, and Genetically Modified Food

Discussion Leader Summary of Readings


  • Pollan, M. (2010, May 20). The Food Movement Rising. The New York Review of Books. [HTML]
  • Hurst, B. (2009, June 3). The Omnivore’s Delusion. American magazine. [HTML]
  • Williams, P.D. & Hammitt, J.K. (2002). A Comparison of Organic and Conventional Fresh Produce Buyers in the Boston Area. Risk Analysis, 20, 735-746. [Library Gateway]
  • Bittman, M. (2014, May 6). Leave Organic Out of It. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Anon. (2012, Sept. 18). Would we be healthier with a vegan diet? The Wall Street Journal. [HTML]
  • Ellin, A. (2009, Feb 25). What’s Eating Our Kids? Fears about “Bad” Foods. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Spector, M. (2014, Aug 25). Vandava Shiva’s Crusade Against Genetically Modified Crops. The New Yorker [HTML]
  • Spector, M. (2014, Aug 20). The Problem with GMO Labels. The New Yorker [HTML]

Discuss Videos:

  • TED: Mark Bittman What’s Wrong with What We Eat [Video] [Transcript]
  • Food Inc [Video]
  • PBS Frontline “Harvest of Fear” [Video]


Feb 24 & 27 — Attention, Motivation, and Well-Being

Discussion Leader Summary of Readings


  • Gallagher, W. (2009). Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York: Penguin, pgs 1-28; 99-132; 145-218.
  • Ragan, S.R., Massey, J.D., Jennings S.R. (2014), Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes. Computers & Education. [Library Gateway]
  • New York Times series “You Brain on Computers” [HTML]

Discuss Videos / Podcasts:

  • PBS Frontline “Digital Nation” [Video]
  • CBS 60 Minutes “Mindfulness” [Video]
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn “How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life” [Video]
  • Mindful America: Tricycle magazine podcast interview with Jeff Wilson [Podcast]


March 3 & 6 — Values, worldviews and false beliefs

Discussion Leader Summary 1 ; Discussion Leader Summary 2


  • Kata, A. (2012). Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the post-modern paradigm: An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccine movement. Vaccine, 30: 3778–3789. [Library Gateway]
  • Kahan, D. (2012). A risky science communication environment for vaccines. Science, 342: 43-54. [Library Gateway]
  • Voosen, P. (2014, Nov 3). Seeking a Climate Change. Chronicle of Higher Education. [HTML]
  • Klein, Ezra. 6 April 2014. How politics makes us stupid. [HTML]
  • Konnikova, M. (2014, May 16). I Don’t Want to Be Right. The New Yorker. [HTML]
  • Kloor, K. (2014, July 18). RFK Jr’s belief in the autism-vaccination connection, and its political peril. The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. [HTML]

Discuss Videos:

  • Excerpts from PBS Frontline The Vaccine War [Video]
  • Excerpts from PBS NOVA Vaccines Calling the Shots [Video]
  • Watch excerpt of Jenny McCarthy interview on CNN’s Larry King Live [Video]
  • Kahan, D. (2012). Science Communication as the New Political Science. Sackler “Science of Science Communication” Colloquium, National Academies of Science [Video]

March 10 & 13 Spring Break — No Class


March 24 & *April 3 News coverage, Internet claims, and Public Perceptions


  • Fowler, E.F. et al. (2012). Issue emergence, evolution of controversy, and implications for competitive framing. International Journal of Press/Politics, 2: 169-189. [Library Gateway]
  • Ungar, S. (2008). Global bird flu communication: Hot crisis and media reassurance. Science Communication, 4: 472-479. [HTML]
  • Brossard, D. (2013). New media landscapes and the science information consumer. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [HTML]
  • Witteman, H.O. & Zikmund-Fisher, B. (2012). The defining characteristics of Web 2.0 and their potential influence in the online vaccines debate. Vaccine, 30: 3734–3740. [Library Gateway]
  • Pew Research Center (2014). Political Polarization & Media Habits. [HTML]

Discuss Video:

  • Excerpts from PBS NOVA Vaccines Calling the Shots [Video]

March 31 Guest Speaker Prof. Susan Mello


  • Society: Don’t blame the mothers (Nature, 2014) [Library Gateway]
  • Counseling Patients on Preventing Prenatal Environmental Exposures (PloS One, 2014) [Library Gateway]


April 7 & 10 — Scientific competition, politics, and the cycle of hype


  • Caulfield, T. (2012). The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press (pp. 99-128 & 185-194).
  • Blackmun, S. (2009, Nov. 1). Promises, Promises. The Scientist magazine. [HTML]
  • Engber, D. (2013, July 29). The end of neuro-hype? Slate [HTML]
  • Anon. (2013, Oct. 19). Trouble at the Lab. The Economist [HTML]
  • Condit, C. (2007). How geneticists can help journalists get their story right. Nature Genetics, 815-820 [PDF]

Discuss Video:

  • PBS Frontline “Cracking Your Genetic Code” [Video]
  • Direct to consumer genetic testing: What’s in it for me? Interview with Timothy Caulfield [Video]

April 14 & 17 — Medical Ethics, Scientific Advances, and Public Engagement


  • Roach, S. (2014). Stem Cells: What Happened to the Radical Breakthroughs? The Guardian [HTML]
  • Caulfield, T. (2014, March). Easy test. Tough answers. Policy Options [HTML]
  • Wade, N. (2015, March 19). Scientists Seek Ban on Method for Editing Human Genome. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (2013). Bioethics in Popular Science: Evaluating the Media Impact of The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksBMC Medical Ethics, 14: 10. [HTML & PDF]
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2014). Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88473. [HTML] [PDF]

April 21 — NO CLASS

 Final research paper due Wed. April 29 by 5pm