Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society. By David Harker. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2015. ISBN 978-1-107-69236-7. 260 pp. Softcover, $28.99.
Do you remember the term manufactroversy? A portmanteau of manufactured and controversy, it appeared in 2008 as the intentional product of a marketing and advertising agency to characterize the supposed controversy over evolution that Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed—the execrable creationist propaganda film fronted by Ben Stein—sought to promote. As part of the agency’s campaign, Leah Ceccarelli of the University of Washington, a specialist in scientific and antiscientific rhetoric, defined manufactroversy as “a manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute,” and offered as examples “global warming skepticism, AIDS dissent in South Africa, and the intelligent design movement’s ‘teach the controversy’ campaign.”
Although the cumbersome word never attained currency and remains absent from the Oxford English Dictionary, manufactured controversies are, lamentably, still common. In Creating Scientific Controversies, David Harker, a philosopher of science at EastTennessee State University, aims to equip the reader with the conceptual wherewithal to understand, evaluate, and respond to manufactured controversies in science. The book is intended as a textbook: each chapter is furnished with a list of discussion questions and suggested reading, and each of the three sections of the book concludes with a helpful list of “points to remember.” But the cogency of Harker’s discussion, as well as his lucid if not always lively style, ensures that any reader, student or not, will benefit from reading Creating Scientific Controversies.
After a brief introduction, in which the project of the book is explained and the example of the manufactured controversy over tobacco’s role in causing lung cancer is usefully sketched, Harker devotes the first part of the book to issues in the philosophy of science. He is skeptical of attempts to specify what is and what isn’t scientific—to solve what is known in the trade as the demarcation problem—and instead recommends engaging with the details of how scientific claims are or aren’t supported by the evidence. In addressing a host of various philosophical challenges to the success or the objectivity of science—challenges often opportunistically invoked by manufactroversialists—his approach is generally to concede a modicum of justice to the challenge but to insist that science is still capable of objective success by any reasonable standard.
In the second part of the book, Harker considers why people are vulnerable to accepting created controversies. He devotes a chapter to the results of cognitive psychology (confirmation bias, the availability heuristic, and the like) and a chapter to argumentation (deductive arguments, non-deductive arguments, and informal fallacies); a highlight of the latter is the thoughtful discussion, indebted to Jamie Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic (2004), of the vapid slogan “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” A third chapter—“Created Controversies and How to Detect Them”—defines “created controversy” along Ceccarelli’s lines, suggests that such controversies are created mainly by “magnifying uncertainty and manufacturing doubt” (p. 163), and offers three plausible criteria for deciding whether a purported scientific controversy is merely created.
The first of these criteria involves the motives underlying the claim. If the people claiming that there is a scientific controversy over, say, evolution turns out to be fundamentalist creationists who think that teaching evolution in schools imperils the souls of the students, it is appropriate to approach the claim with caution. (But not to dismiss it out of hand; Harker emphasizes that he is not endorsing the genetic fallacy here.) The second and third involve the focus of their arguments. If they are preoccupied with attacking the scientific view from which they dissent, rarely attempting to produce a positive case for the supposed alternative, or if they are preoccupied with addressing the public rather than the relevant communities of professional scientists, then again it is appropriate to suspect that they are engaged in manufactroversy.
The third part of the book provides case studies: anthropogenic climate change, evolution and creationism (including intelligent design), and, together in a single chapter, HIV and AIDS, autism and vaccination, and genetically modified organisms. In each case study, Harker briefly presents the relevant science, discusses the supposed controversy over it, and considers whether the supposed controversy is indeed merely a created controversy. In the cases of climate change and evolution, his ruling is that these are merely manufactroversies; in the cases of AIDS and vaccination, he finds that the criteria are not clearly satisfied, suggesting that conspiracy theory might be the better diagnosis; and in the case of genetically modified organisms, he regards the question as too complicated to resolve in detail.
These case studies are all presented clearly, cogently, and for the most part without error—although it was surprising to see Eugenie C. Scott’s creation/evolution continuum as presented in her Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction (2009) credited to the illustrator who provided the associated diagram, and to see Scott herself misidentified as “Eugene” (p. 204). Although it was impossible for Harker to provide a complete treatment of any of the case studies, the literature in the lists of suggested reading is generally excellent. And Harker is clearly on the side of the angels throughout, endorsing the scientific consensus on the topics he considers while mindful of the possible legitimate concerns, especially with respect to genetically modified organisms, that the public may have about the applications of the science.
But the ambiguous results of the case studies suggest that the idea of created controversies is perhaps not the best way to understand pseudoscience. After all, Harker identifies only a handful of full-fledged examples of created controversies, while failing to explain the diagnosis, that of conspiracy theory, that he assigns in the alternative. Moreover, there is a lot involved in creationism in particular beyond the “teach the controversy” slogan in its various incarnations. A creationist counterestablishment of societies, institutions, and journals attempts—or is intended to be viewed as attempting—to provide positive evidence for creationism and to constitute its own relevant community of professional scientists, thus ostensibly distancing creationism from the second and third of Harker’s criteria for detecting manufactroversy.
Creationism also poses a challenge to Harker’s evasion of the demarcation problem. “The project of defining science,” he writes, “cedes to the project of identifying which beliefs about the world are plausible in light of available evidence” (p. 30). But the concept of evidence is not uncontroversial. Creationists have attempted to include as evidence what the overwhelming majority of contemporary scientists would not accept as evidence, such as revelation, and to exclude as evidence what the overwhelming majority of contemporary scientists would accept as evidence, such as data supporting claims about the prehistoric past. A full diagnosis of what’s wrong with creationism will therefore require, if not a fully general solution to the demarcation problem, at least engagement with creationism’s faulty philosophy of science as well as with its faulty science.
It would be unreasonable, however, to expect a book like as Creating Scientific Controversies to offer a key to all pathologies. Despite what appear to be the explanatory limitations of the central concept of created controversies, it is not only a fine textbook for a class on the philosophy of science or science and society but also a substantial contribution of its own. And it is needed. As Harker compellingly writes in his final chapter, “Levels of scientific literacy lower than they otherwise would be is one regrettable consequence of creating controversy. More practical consequences are also apparent. When we ignore expert opinion, we risk our health, our well-being, and the quality of life of future generations” (p. 248). The ability to detect manufactroversies for what they are is not merely desirable. It is, increasingly, essential.