“Controversy” a Big Issue

Controversies are frequently thought to be a result of a lack of confidence on the part of the disputants. Controversy is a state of prolonged public dispute or debate, usually concerning a matter of conflicting opinion or point of view.  The most applicable or well known controversial subjects, topics or areas are politics, religion, philosophy, parenting and sex. History is similarly controversial. Other prominent areas of controversy are economics, science, finances, culture, education, the military, society, celebrities, organisation, the media, age, gender, and race. Controversy in matters of theology has traditionally been particularly heated, giving rise to the phrase odium theologicum. Controversial issues are held as potentially divisive in a given society, because they can lead to tension and ill will, and as a result they are often considered taboo to be discussed in the light of company in many cultures.

Controversy has been feared, analyzed, dramatized – and often parodied, as here in Wild Side Story. The puzzling phenomenon of two individuals being able to reach different conclusions after being exposed to the same facts has been frequently explained (particularly by Daniel Kahneman) by reference to a ‘bounded rationality’ – in other words, that most judgments are made using fast acting heuristics that work well in everyday situations, but are not amenable to decision making about complex subjects such as climate change.  Anchoring has been particularly identified as relevant in climate change controversies as individuals are found to be more positively inclined to believe in climate change if the outside temperature is higher, if they have been primed to think about heat, and if they are primed with higher temperatures when thinking about the future temperature increases from climate change. In other controversies – such as that around the HPV vaccine, the same evidence seemed to license inference to radically different conclusions.

As with other controversies, it has been suggested that exposure to empirical facts would be sufficient to resolve the debate once and for all. In computer simulations of cultural communities, beliefs were found to polarize within isolated sub-groups, based on the mistaken belief of the community’s unhindered access to ground truth. Such confidence in the group to find the ground truth is explicable through the success of wisdom of the crowd based inferences however, if there is no access to the ground truth, as there was not in this model, the method will fail.

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