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Manufactured scientific controversies: What they are and the harm they cause

By Juliette Blais-Savoie



Vaccine controversy, intelligent design, and climate change: while these topics alone may seem disconnected, they all share a common dynamic. Manufactured scientific controversy is the term assigned to issues that are largely agreed upon within the scientific community, but that are depicted as controversial in political or cultural discourse. This usually occurs when an individual or group intentionally misrepresents the current understanding of an issue by the expert community. Motivations for such misrepresentation can be political, financial, or ideological. For example, executives and financers of fossil fuel companies have a vested interest in raising doubts about the science surrounding climate change because reforms in this area would harm them financially.


Manufactured scientific controversies have often been seen surrounding health issues. The anti-vaxx movement has raised concerns about the safety and efficacy of many common vaccines, even though there is no evidence to support such claims as vaccines causing autism. In the early 2000’s, political motivation caused the South African president to base public health policies on the notion that there was still controversy surrounding whether AIDS was caused by HIV. Most recently, this trend has been seen numerous times in topics surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Dissenters have claimed that the COVID-19 virus is nonexistent or that it was created in a lab and intentionally released. COVID-19 vaccines have been accused of containing microchips, and ivermectin has been falsely advertised as a miracle cure for the disease. While many of these claims are only believed by a small subset of individuals, some, such as theories about ivermectin, are believed by many people, and have led them to act in ways detrimental to public health and their own personal health. Hesitation regarding the COVID-19 vaccines due to false information, for example, has most likely limited vaccination rates in the U.S. in Canada, leading to avoidable infections and deaths.


It is difficult to imagine the sum total of harm done by manufactured scientific controversies as a whole, but it is not difficult to see how serious an issue they pose to global health. There is no telling when another manufactured scientific controversy will pop up in public discourse. Anyone with the financial or ideological motive to do so could attempt to make even the most sound scientific findings controversial. Because of this, the approach of trying to convince the general public with evidence on each of these individual issues leads the scientific community into a perpetual game of whack-a-mole, trying to disprove each new theory as it appears. For these circumstances to be avoided in the future, scientists need to be leading public and political discourse about scientific issues, and public trust in expert opinion must be restored.


References


Ceccarelli, L. (2011). Manufactured Scientific Controversy: Science, Rhetoric, and Public Debate. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 14(2), 195–228. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41940538.

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