Journalists, stop using this one word

Or at least learn to use it correctly. This article reminded me of one of my least favorite words:


It’s rarely used appropriately — it’s more of a weasel word applied to dignify positions that ought to be laughed off the page. For example, here are phrases that the press might qualify with the modifier “controversial”:

  • The earth is roughly spherical.
  • The earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
  • Dinosaurs did not live at the same time as humans.
  • The planet did not experience a Great Flood any time in human history.
  • The Civil War was fought over the institution of slavery.
  • The United States has been and is a fundamentally racist nation.
  • Global warming is real, and anthropogenic.
  • Vaccines work and save lives.
  • Black people are human.
  • Women are people.

Every one of those claims is actually true, and is well-supported by the evidence. The existence of people who disagree with each of them is also a fact, but that fact is not sufficient to render the ideas “controversial”. We share a world with Alex Jones and David Icke, people who state the most absurd, insane, ridiculous propositions as facts, and their intrusion into any and every argument does not suddenly make every established idea that they disagree with “controversial”. I’ve had to deal with people for years who think evolution is a “controversial” theory, and the press just parrots the C-word right back for them.

So, just a suggestion for 2017: before you label something “controversial”, ask yourself whether it is actually something about which there is serious doubt and a substantial body of realistic argument on both sides…or even whether it is at all appropriate to fit it into this cartoonish two-sides model of everything. Because I guarantee you that the evidence-less, weak, minority side is going to love it when you elevate their lunacy to the status of a “controversy”.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    “controversy” is shorthand for “some ‘people’ STILL refuse to acknowledge this fact, and make a lot of noise about it”
    “Con-” means “against”, even if it is just emotion with no thought included.
    then again,
    maybe it refers to the bluster of the outraged opponents, not to the issue itself. As in, “there is controversy about this subject”, rather than “This subject is controversial”.
    trivial distinction, without any difference, so … ?
    [sorry. just struggling to see their point of view. All of the above is false]

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Even if something has been established beyond reasonable doubt, it is controversial as long as there is significant opposition to it. The word has nothing to do with truth or evidence. So yes, evolution and anthropogenic climate change are controversial.

  3. applehead says

    Facts that have been burdened with manufactured controversy are not actually controversial.

    Evolution and global warming are NOT controversial.

  4. says

    All that controversy means is that there is significant number of interlocutors that disagree with x proposition. It says nothing about the validity of that disagreement.

    With that being said, the media is often wrong to treat any and all controversies as only occuring betwixt two valid points of views. They are using the word right. They just need to use more words.

  5. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The media really needs to differentiate between scientific/factual controversies, where the facts may be in question with real evidence on both sides, compared to people who believe in something due to their religious/ideological presuppositions. The later includes the anti-SJW contingent, the AGW denialists, and any form or creationism. There really is no rational controversy on the facts, they are simply cranks being cranks, and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
    If they complain, give the the submission information for the proper scientific journals, and tell them take their complaints and evidence there to be judged.

  6. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    proposals of a few updates to AP style-guide:
    alt right >–> fascist
    controversial >–> irrationally disputed
    conservative >–> regressive

    1st pass

  7. fishy says

    Later, maybe, sometime this summer. or not, P.Z. Myers is planning a, “Shout at the Clouds and Shake Your Fist Fest.”

  8. Rich Woods says

    I am at this moment wearing a t-shirt which carries a cartoon of an Apollo moon lander with two people alongside. One person carries a steadicam, the other a boom mic. Above them is a lighting rig.

    If I were ever lucky enough to meet Buzz Aldrin, I hope he would not punch me because he would understand the cultural reference of the slogan underneath the cartoon: ‘Teach The Controversy’.

  9. richardemmanuel says

    I went to an ‘ask the Imam’ site intending to make them look silly, but they’d got there before me. The controversy was over how to face Mecca correctly. One person was halfway around the world and worried about pointing his arse at it, which apparently is a big no no. Someone drew a diagram showing how his arse would be pointing out into Space, and all was well. So that’s one controversy resolved if you have a somewhat curved outlook.

  10. khms says

    “Hey Mr. Journalist, how would you report about people who insist that there really exist no planes, because something heavier than air cannot possibly fly?”
    “OK, can you please use the same principles when reporting about other “controversies” where one side is clearly true, and the other clearly false?”

  11. anchor says

    A loud few dissenting opinions against overwhelming consensus based on repeatable evidence or demonstration does not a controversy make. But many so-called ‘journalists’ today are thin-skinned and intimidated by such contrarians and use the word far more frequently than ‘allegedly’ to cover their hind-hides. They should have gone into another line of work.

  12. Chancellor says

    @chigau (ever-elliptical): #5 & #7

    Stop haggling my amusement. *pokes with stick*

  13. AstrySol says

    Sometimes journalists may need some “controversy” for clicks (age of the earth, AGW), sometimes they probably just don’t know well enough on the subject, like *cough* genetic engineering *cough*.