Manufactured Scienctific Controversy: this side, that side or neutral?

Manufactured Scientific Controversy

“Manufactured Scientific Controversy”, it might be said, when a debate about a scientific claim does not actually exist inside the scientific community, but due to special interests of the public audience, the controversy is successfully created. According to Ceccarelli (2011), the manufactured scientific controversy can be seen as a special type of “public scientific controversy”. If the debate concerns the public welfare, then it would result in an increased scholarly attention to the phenomenon. Such controversy appeals to have democratic values, because a culture that identifies itself as a democracy invokes sharing among the scientific community and the public forums.

The Purposes of Scientific Controversy

One might say controversy can be manufactured to maintain or change a status of public policy that is warranted by current scientific findings. Others say scientific controversy is brought up to share two equally strong sides on a scientific matter and individuals choose which side to agree to.

Scientific Controversy - Teach Controversy!


Our Perspectives

Always teach both sides!

When we review a dispute on a controversial subject, it is best that we can respect both sides of a scientific debate, not just the one that provide formality, logic facts and statistics. This is why we have “controversy” in the first place. In a perspective of science, scientific process is considered with evidence and the logical way of doing things. However, public audience requires more than just logic, but also “emotion”.

Taking immunization controversy as an example, scientists, doctors and public health officers feel that they have robust evidence on their sides to support vaccination. Meanwhile, parents who believe their children have been harmed by certain vaccines are strongly against vaccination.

Obviously, there must be a highly ritualized process why science adopted the vaccination. However, we cannot blame parents for questioning the process, because parents want the best for their children and sure they don’t want anything to harm their kids. Therefore, many scientific controversies are driven with emotion factor as well.

I believe that by discovering, presenting and sharing the means of “manufactured scientific controversy”, each individual can have their choice to adequately respond to a scientific dispute in public forums.

So what is your perspective on “manufactured scientific controversy”?

Reference: Ceccarelli, L. (2011). Manufactured scientific controversy: Science, rhetoric and the public debate. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 14(2)

By buid01

7 comments on “Manufactured Scienctific Controversy: this side, that side or neutral?

  1. It seems like manufactured scientific controversy comes from a gap in education and understanding. If people were to better understand why the science community has accepted the vaccines then maybe more parents would be willing to entertain the idea.
    Having said that, I have to admit that my mother, who is an educated women working as a nurse in the health industry, never had me vaccinated. My brother and I only ever got the tetanus shot and cervical cancer vaccines (well my brother didn’t get this one). Mum always believed that many of the hepatitis etc were so rare it wasn’t worth vaccinating against and that a healthy lifestyle would ward off the flu and head colds. My brother and I have never had any health issues. We have both been incredibly lucky and only get a head cold about once a year if that! So I guess my personal experience tells me that it isn’t really necessary to have all these vaccinations on the market if you are eating well, exercising regularly and in the right state of mind. But in this day and age it seems like that is less and less of a priority for people so these vaccinations are an easy solution.
    I like that manufactured scientific controversy is around, because it forces good science. People can’t argue with facts, even though they don’t have to choose to accept them – if the science is good then they can’t cut it down so easily! There is also obviously a negative side to it though where people ignore a fantastic piece of science and great advice because of the controversy surrounding it.

    • Hi Ashfonty,
      Thank you for sharing your story on the vaccination 🙂
      I also appreciate the fact that scientific controversy is around, because with its presence, debate can go on and that may contribute some valid arguments to the table. I believe this offers the community choices and still the decision is up to each individual to decide. So if the science is good, then more acceptance from the crowd, but if it is not then that science needs more refinement.

  2. I don’t think I can appreciate the benefit of manufactured scientific controversy. I surely support the view that the public should see more than one side to an issue but manufactured scientific controversy may too easily mislead in the absence of any real controversy if the only thing it does is taking an issue out of context.

    The public health issue around childhood vaccinations is probably a good one to illustrate my point. No scientist advising public health officials on vaccination programs will deny there is a risk involved. In turn, such public health programs are only run if the benefits will outnumber the risks by far. And that tends to be the case with vaccinations nowadays. There is no guarantee that no one will have side effects from new vaccinations, but overall the number of those unfortunates tends to be low. And full proof evidence that a major health complication was actually caused by the vaccination rather than an unfortunate combination of events or guilty by association, usually lacks.
    In the case of the most recently developed HPV vaccination against cervical cancer, the media may have overemphasized the number of cases with side effects distorting the context in which risk and benefits should be considered by the public. The hype against this particular vaccination is mostly seen by experts as unfounded. That does not mean that I would not sympathize with individuals being very unfortunate to suffer from unwanted outcomes. But if the incidence of a risk is 0.1%, this means 1 in 1000 may be affected. The risk does not suddenly increase several fold, just because you know that person.

    So, emotions do play their role in debates about science and keep others alert, but too much emotion overshadows reality in my view.

    • Hi Ankev,
      I respect your perspective.Plus, it is true that there are people out there using manufactured scientific controversy to mislead people’ attention in some cases. However, I think it is generally still a good thing that scientific controversy. Having said in my post, presenting two sides of the story is a contribution for widespread public perception that public audiences and experts can and do disagree. When it comes to issues such as health and relating to family members, queries and worries are unavoidable, hence, people seek for advices and that is when they come to find forums where they debate on scientific controversy of that particular topic. Therefore, scientific controversy comes as a growing demand for greater public participation in scientific decision-making. On the other hand, individuals have their own choices to make by weighting the pros and cons of both sides of the arguments. So by presenting and sharing scientific controversy, it is your own decision to make after analyzing the science and the social construction of that specific issue.

      • I understand why some controversy is important, but don’t you think manufactured controversy goes too far? For example, minority groups funded by industry successfully manufactured controversy about whether smoking caused cancer. Even though there was no scientific doubt, the manufactured doubt delayed legislation that could have saved thousands of lives. Today, the same techniques are used to delay action on climate change.

      • I have to agree with Anke and Miriam here. If the one side of the controversy is factual and evidence based but the other is an emotional, irrational argument then I don’t think the controversy is necessary. I’m not saying we should dismiss peoples emotions but when others are hindered in either their health or their knowledge because groups of people create an emotional argument, then I think controversy is a bad thing.
        To add to Anke’s HPV example; whilst 1 in 1000 may be affected by side affects, what about the 233,000 women who die from HPV related cervical cancer each year? By irrationality and emotion getting in the way and preventing vaccination we will still have thousands of women dying of HPV related cervical cancer, not to mention the men who are susceptible to other HPV related cancers because their partner wasn’t vaccinated.

        Controversy is sometimes a good thing but not when other people can be harmed by your emotional reaction.

  3. Hi buid01,

    Thank you for the great post, this is a quite good food for thought.
    Well, my position is, I welcome the scientific controversy, because I believe that everything is debatable, especially topic is a scientific issue.

    As long as I reckon, there must be two type of scientific controversy, one can be told within value system of science, I mean logic, evidence and statistic facts. For instance, In case of vaccinations, we can compare the estimated risk of not having vaccination and the estimated risk of side effects. this is not such difficult one.
    The other type of controversy is out of value system of science. Nowadays, science affects our daily life in both physical and mental aspects. And sometimes that issue requires debate based on multiple value systems. In case of vaccination, some parents may not choose to have vaccination, not only for risk of side effects, but for personal brief or religious reasons, like some people reject vaccination because their sources are came from animal, like pig or chicken. This emotional reaction cannot be persuaded by scientific (or practical) explanation, because it is based on completely different backgrounds.

    However, I still believe the debate itself has crucial meaning, because we can learn new concept from different value system. In case of religion, even if it is not based on scientific facts and logic, it still have its reasoning and logic, and aimed for same purpose, our happiness.
    Unfortunately, I must adimit the most of scientific controversey are not productive argument,
    but still I believe that debating the issue has its meaning, because both side have to try to justify themselves for audience. Purpose of debate is not persuade opponents. It should aimed for audience, which is the public. During the argument, claims of both side tend to get sophisticated, and communication skills are developed, and that helps understanding of general public.
    That is what I really believed in, the effects of debate.

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