More on Controversy

January 9, 2007

More specific questions:

How should we define a scientific controversy? Working definition – where two mutually exclusive explanations are being proposed for a single phenomenon (perhaps “Autism caused by MMR”, or “autism NOT caused by MMR”). Should we narrow it down to “by researchers in the field”?

Obviously this means almost everything is a controversy to a greater or lesser extent. How do we determine this extent within the scientific debate on the topic? Possibility: for MMR/autism, PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link. Am limiting only to the very large and reputable scientific journals – is this appropriate? Does all significant research make it into them eventually? Ask.

To what extent is the level of controversy within the scientific debate reflected in the public arena? Are there common factors determining which scientific controversies get picked up in the popular press? How would we establish such a reflection? One possibility – check whether the number of articles on a topic in the reputable peer-reviewed journals corresponds to the number of articles in the popular press, and also whether the tone and balance corresponds. So for MMR/autism: PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link; compare with similar search on LexisNexis or something. Comparison both of NUMBER/FREQUENCY of articles and PERCENTAGE SUGGESTING LINK. Need comparable system for other controversies. In event of the two corresponding less than we might expect, attempt to show factors; preferably common factors between examples.

Are there any examples of “major” (term will need defining) controversies that don’t get picked up by the popular press? Am thinking continental drift and tectonic plate theory, but will need to check. Why don’t they?

How should the balance of a debate be represented in print?

When is it appropriate for mainstream journalism to report on controversy within the sci community? E.g. if a small piece of research suggests a public health risk might exist but doesn’t confirm anything, should the journalist await further confirmation by research or is it more responsible to publish straightaway? Does the level of possible “scariness” (would like a better word than that) affect that decision – i.e. does the increased possible public interest necessitate lower threshold of “publishability” (and again) or does the greater risk of public panic have the reverse effect? How does one determine all of this?

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