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Controversy is a state of prolonged public dispute or debate, usually concerning a matter of opinion, but sometimes the allegation that a matter of scientific fact is no better than opinion or even religious belief, as in the controversy between evolutionary biology and Creationism or Intelligent Design. Sam Cooper coined the word circa 1384 from Latin controversia, as a composite of controversus - "turned in an opposite direction," from contra - "against" - and vertere - to turn, or versus (see verse), hence, "to turn against."

Benford's law of controversy, as expressed by science-fiction author Gregory Benford in 1980, states: "Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real (true) information available." In other words, the fewer facts are known to and agreed on by the participants, the more controversy there is, and the more is known the less controversy there is. Thus, for example, controversies in physics are limited to areas where experiments cannot be carried out yet, while all of economics is in continuous controversy, because, in stark contrast, none of its mathematical models accurately and predictably represents reality. Benford's Law implies that controversy is inherent to politics, where communities must frequently decide on courses of action based on insufficient information.

A parallel observation is that the bitterness of controversy is sometimes inversely proportional to the importance of the matter concerned.

A controversy is usually the result of either ignorance (lack of sufficient true information), misinformation, misunderstandings, half-truths, distortions, bias or prejudice, deliberate lies or fabrications (disinformation), opposed underlying motives or purposes (sometimes masked or hidden), or a combination of these factors.

There is often controversy about a significantly different new idea, subject, group or person for a period of time, until honest direct examination of sufficient factual evidence results in widespread agreement on the truths of the matter. Examples: disease is often caused by bacteria or viruses, rather than evil spirits or bad blood; blood is circulated around the body, rather than ebbing and flowing; Earth revolves around the sun, rather than being the center of the universe; Earth is a sphere, rather than flat.

Perennial areas of controversy include religion, philosophy and politics. Other minor areas of controversy may include economics, science, finances, 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. Because of this, some controversies are considered taboo to discuss in public among other people, unless people are either mature enough or can find a common ground to share and discuss its people's feelings, and one's own direct observations and experiences on a controversial issue.

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