About controversial questions

A controversial question (also called a “hot topic”) is a question that causes a dichotomy or polarization of a group of humans based on their answer to the question, dividing this group into two “camps” who “fight” each other. Sometimes there are more than two camps.


It’s fascinating to see how humans can stand up and fight for what they believe as “the only right” thing. A tiny concrete issue of daily life can make a whole group of humans furiously yell against another group of humans who see the same facts but come to an opposite conclusion. Wars have been fought about such questions, wars between nations and wars between family members.

Controversial questions can cause division within existing groups of any size, starting in couples and ending in the big economic, political and faith cultures on our planet.

Controversial battles aren’t limited to religious groups. We see them in politics as well. For example the words “equality” and “liberty” are considered basic democratic values, but they actually exclude each other. Liberty means –also– that the political power should not hinder the stronger and successful humans from exploiting the weaker ones. This is quite opposite to saying that the political power should foster equality. “Democratic values support the belief that an orderly society can exist in which freedom is preserved. But order and freedom must be balanced.” (ushistory.org) The main purpose of political parties in democratic countries is to develop and promote certain sets of answers to certain real-life questions.

Controversial battles aren’t limited to “big” religious or political questions. It can happen when the members of a local scout group, or the board members of an international corporation, discuss about what they should learn from some recent event, e.g. from a sad accident or from a successful project. It happens every day in couples, families and communities who live together under a same roof.

Controversial questions aren’t limited to “serious” questions. A funny example is a debate about a photo that shows a sneaker. The sneaker on the photo is coloured grey and green, without any doubt, at least for me and some people. But some other people perceive it without any doubt as white and pink.

The digital era enables us more clearly than ever to observe eager and seemingly endless controversial battles.

The observation that some questions are controversial isn’t new. Ancient Chinese Philosophers described it as the yin and yang duality.

Content on the web is often presented in opposition to something else. For example, when I was first starting to learn what web framework to learn, I saw plenty of content talking about Django vs Flask, or Flask vs FastAPI (yes, I contributed to that).

Controversial battles actually make sense. We need to see things in relation to other things in order to understand them better. The trick is to see them as complementary subjects instead of things that exclude each other. (Inspired by Mario Munoz)

Naming the camps

Giving definitive and clear names to the two camps is often difficult because reality is never simple, because the situations are complex and because human spirit is limited.

It can happen that somebody belonging to a given camp fights for some concrete cause into the opposite direction of what his camp fellows consider the “right” direction, and that the fighter gets shamed as a traitor or whistleblower.

Jesus refers to this kind of “battles” when he said:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (…) Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12:49.51)

“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death” (Mt 10:21)

Examples of “camp” names:

  • traditionalist against progressivist

  • “pro life” against “pro choice”

  • “vaxxers” against “anti-vaxxers”

  • mercy against justice

  • believers against evildoers

  • capitalism against communism

  • liberal politics against social politics

  • God against the Mammon

  • the children of light against the children of dark

Controversial questions and science

No scientist will invest time in research about whether the Earth is flat because no human doubts about this question.

The scientific method is based on formulating a theory and then challenging it. Science starts when there is a controversial question. Science becomes useless when consensus has been reached.

Saying “There is no scientific evidence for claim X” doesn’t mean that X is false.

Science is not an institution. Science does not ask whether something is good or evil. Science is a tool for looking at reality without asking whether it is good or not.

Producing scientific evidence on a controversial topic requires money. Science works for their employers, who work for their investors. Hence science will answer only to questions that are asked by investors.

Those who ask “How can we sell more mobile phones?” have more money than those who ask “Is it possible that we should completely stop using mobile phones?”

Somebody who claims to tell you “the truth” about a controversial topic is obviously an imposter.

How to handle controversial discussion

Here is how I imagine what I would do if I had to organize a debate. Not yet much tested.

  • Identify the camps: Invite each camp to formulate their manifesto. If possible, cut the problem into smaller units: formulate your manifest as a series of numbered statements. Write a clear definition for every word that might be unclear. Sort your statements by importance. Check within your camp whether you agree among yourself about your manifesto.


Each round of dialogue consists of the following:

  • A representative of each camp meet and exchange about every single statement of their respective manifestos. For each statement, the representative is to formulate what the enemy says about it: “Agrees”, “Refuses to answer”, “Disagrees because…”

  • As long as a group doesn’t reach a consensus on a given controversial question, the only solution is to agree on a modus vivendi, i.e. to limit the damage.

modus vivendi

A set of compromise answers to a controversial question to which all participants of a team can adhere. A temporary agreement to be followed as long as there is no better solution.

Controversial questions in daily life

I have been programming accounting applications throughout my career. The direction of a financial movement is always either Debit or Credit. It cannot be both, or none of them. It’s a dichotomy. But it’s not easy to decide how to label it and how to store it in a database. Some entries of my developer blog illustrate this: 2020-10-15 2013-10-03

Another example is that most of us assume that 1+1 is 2. But in mathematics this is an axiom, a non-provable assumption. See for example here stackexchange.com


July 2021. A friend of a friend in a private chat:

Ma arvan, et keegi ei peagi vaidlema teemal, kas maa on lame või mitte. Seal haritud inimesel “veidikest tõde” lamemaa poolt leida pole võimalik ju 🙂. Homoabielude suhtes saab kristlane alati võtta Piibli ning lugeda. Pole ju samuti vaidlusteks kohta. Ma ütleksin, et kindlasti on kerge mugavalt armastada, aga päris armastus on kõike muud, kui mugav. Me ei lase ju lapsel tikkudega mängida, mis sest, et ta sedasi ju õnnelik on … enne tulekahjut.

I answered:

Ma alati imestan, kuidas eesti kristlased usuvad ikka veel, et “Piibel ütleb selgesti” seda, mida nemad ise sel teemal arvavad. Näiteks homoabielude kohta lugesin hiljuti saksa keeles hoopis midagi muud http://blog.thomashieke.de/blog/bibel-und-homosexualitat/aber-in-der-bibel-steht-doch/


Some definitions:

controversial question

A question about a concrete issue for which there are two mutually exclusive answers.

pair of opposites

The two opposite answers in a controversial question.


A partition of a whole (or a set) into two parts (subsets) where this couple of parts is (1) jointly exhaustive: everything must belong to one part or the other, (2) and mutually exclusive: nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

controversial dialogue

A dialogue or discussion about a controversial question.


A dialogue whose participants perceive a certain urgency for a decision.

controversial battle

A controversial dialogue that is perceived by at least one camp as a “war” rather than a part of a learning process.