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There are two different types of scientific controversies.

I. Controversies within science

Scientists debate a topic. Examples:

What killed off the dinosaurs – was is mostly due to a meteor impact, or did volcanic eruptions from the Deccan traps play the larger part?

Does dark matter exist? If so, what is it’s nature?

There are different sorts of scientific controversies:

Decisional – When we need to take action despite knowing that we have inadequate information. For example, how do we combat a disease epidemic with only limited knowledge of the situation?

Ethical – It is never clear how one may ethically use  knowledge.  For instance, should people have access to their sequenced genome, and make birth and abortion decisions based on this data?

Controversies on the basic facts themselves. For example, what is the nature of dark matter, and what is the origin of dark energy?

How to interpret data – this overlaps with the previous example.  For instance, is red wine good for one’s health? What amount of alcohol is safe to drink? Should people have a plat-based diet, or a vegan diet?

Many topics, such as the use of GMOs to make food, may include all of these types of discussions.

II. Controversies against science

This can happens when social or religious group denies the findings of science due to their belief systems. It can also occur when people develop conspiracism.

Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups in America and elsewhere. It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power. As such, conspiracy theories do not typify a particular epoch or ideology. Mintz, p.199


The flat earth movement

Claims that evidence of evolution are a hoax.

Claims that evidence of the ancient age of the universe are a hoax

Claims that cigarettes don’t cause cancer.

Claims that airplane contrails are a government plot “chemtrails”


Controversy can be misrepresented

Newspaper, TV and social media articles often sensationally present normal scientific discussion as some kind of huge controversy. In this resource you can learn more about what kind of scientific controversies exist, versus how they are perceived.

Is a controversy misrepresented or blown out of proportion?


Physics controversies

Are the constants of nature truly constant?

Einstein Light: Beyond Relativity

Speed of light may have changed recently?

How can we reconcile the theory of General Relativity, and the theory of Quantum Mechanics?

Both are experimentally known to be correct – yet their models of reality contradict each other.  Some possible solutions include superstring theory, and Loop Quantum Gravity.

Read “Beyond Relativity” from Einstein Light

Superstring theory

What is dark matter? Does it even exist?

What is dark energy? What is dark matter?

Nobel Prize: physics controversies

Engineering/Physics controversies

Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts


External resources

Pioneerworks. Discussions of scientific controversies.

An evolving controversy: The struggle to teach science in science classes, Berkman and Plutzer, American Educator, Summer 2012

Aft.org An Evolving Controversy: The struggle to teach science in science class

Science controversies past and present, Steven Sherwood, Physics Today, October 2011, page 39

Copy of article on Physicstoday.scitation.org
Copy of article on Semanticscholar.org

Mintz, Frank P. (1985). The Liberty Lobby and the American Right: Race, Conspiracy, and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood

Learning Standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Standards
Students will be able to:
* apply scientific reasoning, theory, and/or models to link evidence to the claims and assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion;
* respectfully provide and/or receive critiques on scientific arguments by probing reasoning and evidence and challenging ideas and conclusions, and determining what additional information is required to solve contradictions
* evaluate the validity and reliability of and/or synthesize multiple claims, methods, and/or designs that appear in scientific and technical texts or media, verifying the data when possible.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012)
Implementation: Curriculum, Instruction, Teacher Development, and Assessment
“Through discussion and reflection, students can come to realize that scientific inquiry embodies a set of values. These values include respect for the importance of logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, and a requirement for transparent research procedures and honest reporting of findings.”

Next Generation Science Standards: Science & Engineering Practices
● Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
● Ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.
● Ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables.
● Ask questions to clarify and refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.
● Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable and relevant.
● Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.
● Ask and/or evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of the design.

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