A manufactured controversy (often shortened to portmanteau manufactroversy) is a contrived disagreement, typically motivated by profit or ideology, designed to create public confusion concerning an issue about which there is no substantial academic dispute. This concept has also been referred to as manufactured uncertainty.
Mechanisms of manufacturing controversy and uncertainty
Manufacturing controversy has been a tactic used by ideological and corporate groups in order to "neutralize the influence of academic scientists" in public policy debates. Cherry picking of favorable data and sympathetic experts, aggrandizement of uncertainties within theoretical models, and false balance in media reporting contribute to the generation of manufactured controversies.
The formula is to amplify uncertainties, cherry-pick experts, attack individual scientists, marginalize the traditional role of distinguished scientific bodies and get the media to report "both sides" of a manufactured controversy.
Those manufacturing uncertainty may label academic research as "junk science" and use a variety of tactics designed to stall and increase the expense of the distribution of sound scientific information. Delay tactics are also used to slow the implementation of regulations and public warnings in response to previously undiscovered health risks (e.g., the increased risk of Reye's syndrome in children who take aspirin). Chief among these stalling tactics is generating scientific uncertainty, "no matter how powerful or conclusive the evidence", in order to prevent regulation.
Another tactic used to manufacture controversy is to cast the scientific community as intolerant of dissent and conspiratorially aligned with industries or sociopolitical movements that quash challenges to conventional wisdom. This form of manufactured controversy has been utilized by environmentalist advocacy groups, religious challengers of the theory of evolution, and opponents of global warming legislation.
In the United States, the generation of manufactured uncertainty about scientific data has affected political and legal proceedings in many different areas. The Data Quality Act and the Supreme Court's Daubert standard have been cited as tools used by those manufacturing controversy to obfuscate scientific consensus.
Concerns have been raised regarding the conflicts of interest inherent in many types of industry regulation. For example, many industries, such as the pharmaceutical industry, are a major source of funding for the research necessary to achieve government regulatory approval for their product. In developing regulations, agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency rely heavily on unpublished studies from industry sources that have not been peer reviewed. This can allow a given industry control over the extent of available research, and the pace at which it is reviewable, when challenging scientific research that may threaten their business interests.
Examples of controversies that have been labeled manufactured controversies:
- The health risks of smoking tobacco
- Depletion of the ozone layer
- Climate change denial
- Development of skin cancer from exposure to ultraviolet radiation via sunlight and tanning lamps
- Denial of Armenian Genocide by the government of Turkey
- Vaccination controversies, particularly those alleging a causative relationship between the MMR vaccine or thiomersal in the development of autism spectrum disorders.
- AIDS denialism
- The "Teach the Controversy" efforts of intelligent design supporters
- The carcinogenicity of hexavalent chromium
- Fear, uncertainty and doubt tactic used in business
- Merchants of Doubt book and Merchants of Doubt (film)
- Scientific consensus
- Manufactroversy: "A contrived or non-existent controversy, manufactured by political ideologues or interest groups who use deception and specious arguments to make their case", Paul McFedries, Wordspy.com, December 16, 2009
- "Manufactroversy: The Art of Creating Controversy Where None Existed", Leah Ceccarelli, Science Progress, Center for American Progress, April 11, 2008
- Michaels D (2005). "Scientific evidence and public policy". Am J Public Health. 95 Suppl 1: S5–7. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2005.065599. PMID 16030339.
- Attie, A. D. (2006). "The Republican war on science". Journal of Clinical Investigation. 116 (3): 552–552. doi:10.1172/JCI28068. PMC 1386128.
- Michaels D, Monforton C (2005). "Manufacturing uncertainty: contested science and the protection of the public's health and environment". Am J Public Health. 95 (Suppl 1): S39–48. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.043059. PMID 16030337.
- "The Paranoid Style in American Science: 3. Contrary Imaginations", Daniel Engber, Slate, April 17, 2008
- "The Paranoid Style in American Science: 2. An Uncertain Truth", Daniel Engber, Slate, April 16, 2008
- Camargo KR (December 2009). "Public health and the knowledge industry". Rev Saude Publica. 43 (6): 1078–283. doi:10.1590/S0034-89102009005000076. PMID 20027493.
- Michaels D, Monforton C, Lurie P (2006). "Selected science: an industry campaign to undermine an OSHA hexavalent chromium standard". Environ Health. 5: 5. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-5-5. PMC 1402271. PMID 16504102.
- Holthouse, David (Summer 2008). "State of Denial Turkey Spends Millions to Cover Up Armenian Genocide. Intelligence Report" (130).
- Hall, Harriet (3 June 2009). "Vaccines & Autism: A Deadly Manufactroversy". Skeptic Magazine. 15 (2).
- Michaels, David (2008). Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-530067-X.
- Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway (2010). Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4. OCLC 461631066. also a film
- Harker, David (2016). Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107692367. OCLC 974778682.