An artificial controversy
, or variously a contrived controversy
, engineered controversy
, fabricated controversy
, manufactured controversy,
is a controversy
that does not stem from genuine difference of opinion. The controversy is typically developed by an interest group
, such as a political party
or a marketing
company, to attract media attention
or to facilitate framing
of a particular issue. Creating controversy is also a controversial legal
tactic used to gain advantage in a negotiation
The controversy may stem from a minor incident blown out of proportion,
from a false claim of controversy where no serious dispute existed,
or no reasonable doubt remains,
or unintentionally from misinterpreting data.
Writing on the politics of cancer and the influence of special interest groups on the public policy debate, Dr. Robert N. Proctor, history of science professor at Stanford University specializing in scientific controversy and the cultural production of ignorance,
which he calls agnotology,
described the use of artificial controversy: "The relation between knowledge and ignorance in these matters is complex....The problem is partly that ignorance can be manufactured, controversy can be engineered."
In a 2006 interview regarding public perceptions of the press in the United States, iconic journalist Carl Bernstein, one half of the Woodward & Bernstein team who broke the Watergate scandal story that ultimately ended the presidency of Richard Nixon, lamented, "Well, let's take a look at what we're talking about: misinformation, disinformation, celebrity stuff—gossip, sensationalism and especially manufactured controversy.... Increasingly, sensationalism, gossip, manufactured controversy have become our agenda instead of the best obtainable version of the truth. We've become frivolous.
A common method of making denial look legitimate is generating artificial controversies over the subject matter.
- Holocaust deniers typically brand the historical consensus of the Holocaust genocide of World War II as 'controversial' to try to get others to believe there is a genuine difference of opinions between non-holocaust-denying historians, or that there is reasonable doubt as to the reality of the Holocaust. For example, French holocaust denier Robert Faurisson has actively generated controversy over the existence of Nazi gas chambers, including questioning their technical characteristics, and labeling his opponents as "exterminationists."
- Tobacco industry documents show that the industry created controversy over the dangers of tobacco smoking, and later passive smoking, without actually denying the claims. A 1969 Brown and Williamson internal document describes the strategy: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. ... Spread doubt over strong scientific evidence and the public won’t know what to believe.” The same tactics were used a generation later in the passive smoking debate. A 1988 meeting of the United Kingdom tobacco industry concerned Philip Morris's plans to use "vast sums of money" to fund research that could cast doubt on the health effects of second-hand smoke. Their intention was to "coordinate and pay scientists on an international basis to keep the environmental tobacco smoke controversy alive".
- Teach the Controversy, a Discovery Institute ideological denialism campaign against "the Theory of Evolution" is another example of a manufactured controversy. The issue reached the United States federal court system in the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Several students and their parents challenged the school board's policy inspired by the intelligent design movement ((IDM) requiring science teachers to read a prepared statement on intelligent design (ID) in science class. After a 40-day trial, conservative judge John E. Jones III wrote in his his 139-page findings of fact and decision, "ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.
Some notable usage examples
A partial list of notable controversies labeled as artificial, contrived, engineered, fabricated, or manufactured by a credible though not necessarily objective source, and without regard to whether the controversy is in fact genuine or artificial:
- Former U.S. Army Aviator and Philippine political prisoner William J. Pomeroy called opposition to the 1933 Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act for Philippine independence an "artificial controversy" launched for political advantage.
- Steven's Handbook of Experimental Psychology states that arbitrary statistical thresholds for interpreting experimental data cause unnecessary confusion and "artificial controversy"
- The Congress Legislature Party (CLP) in India has termed the uproar over the Sripada Sagar Project on the Pranahita River an "engineered controversy" designed to delay work.
- Biographer Andrew Morton contrasted the "engineered controversy" and deliberate chaos the entertainer Madonna causes in her artistic life with the order and regimentation of her business routine.
- Writers Laura Miller and Philip Jenkins characterized the 2001 brouhaha over the display of artist Renée Cox's "Yo Mama's Last Supper" at the "once attention starved Brooklyn Museum" as an "engineered controversy" (Miller's term) on the part of the museum; Jenkins noted that there is now "no better spot to get noticed if you are taking aim at the Roman Catholic Church".
- Writer Valerie Tarico, referred to Prof. Leah Ceccarelli's writings on "teach the controversy" as a manufactroversy.
- Precaution and the Methodological Status of Scientific (Un)certainty by A. Van Dommelen, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Volume 15, Number 1, 2002, pages 123–139 (abstract)
- The Media and Political Process by Eric Louw, 2005, ISBN 0761940839
- Prelude and temptation: arresting a vitriolic and defamatory controversy by Leslie G. Roman, published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Volume 16, Issue 2 March 2003, pages 149–156
- The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney, ISBN 0465046762
- GameDaily BIZ: Controversial Games and PR: Warning! Contents May Be Hot