Controversy is everywhere, from the news we watch and the entertainment we consume to the politicians we support and...well...the politicians we despise. But what are the most controversial topics? What are the most debated topics? Which are the controversies that most sharply divide us, and which are the public debates that actually define us? We answer that question with an empirical ranking list of The 25 Most Controversial Topics, and with it, a focused but completely objective exploration of each of the subjects that generates the greatest public debate in the U.S. today.
Each position paper is a study guide that includes:
Taken together, each exploration offers a strong starting point for your research on one of the top controversies. You will learn how to study successfully for your research assignments. Read on for examples of controversial topics for your next position paper, persuasive essay, or even for a starting point on your graduate thesis...
Controversy is everywhere. It’s up to each of us to decide our level of involvement in the public debate. College offers an amazing opportunity to explore these controversies, to determine where you fit into the conversation.
The university is a place where we are taught to question our own assumptions, challenged to defend our ideas, and trained to probe for a more complete understanding of the issues defining our times. College is also an environment where free speech, open discourse, and informed debate are meant to flourish. Embedded in all of these experiences is the inevitability of disagreement. Controversy plays an important role in the experience of higher education—whether your future career is defined by the ideological positions you stake out today, or you’ve simply been assigned an essay on a highly controversial topic.
That’s why we’ve decided to take controversy by the horns. Wherever you are in your educational journey, you should not only anticipate, but embrace, the opportunity to explore topics that generate controversy.
Our spotlight on each controversial topic includes an overview of the subject matter, key points of disagreement, and a look at the role and impact of major influencers. Use it as a way to begin your study on a subject, formulate your own position, and even connect personally with professors, activists, and thought leaders who hold influence over the subject matter.
Controversy is a prolonged public dispute or debate. Controversy is typically played out through public channels like news media, electoral politics, and social media. What perhaps most distinguishes controversy from mere disagreement is the heated, sometimes emotional, and often diametrically opposed viewpoints that frame a given issue.
At the risk of being glib, it’s hard to find a word that better captures public life in America today. We exist in a state of perpetual controversy—from the Civil War to Civil Rights; from guns and God to liberty and justice, America is sharply divided along lines of debate that feel very personal, very emotional, and indeed, extremely heated.
Controversy, as a concept, can refer to any number of issues that either impact large cross-sections of the American population or else move large populations to align along rigidly-defined ideological lines. When we hear the word controversy, we may reflexively think about topics like abortion, the death penalty, or gun control—subjects that engender strong enough disagreement to generate organization, political action, and legislation—often pushing toward one extreme or the other in a given public debate.
The Civil Rights Movement refers to one of the most consequential struggles in American history, one that continues to present date. Civil Rights refer to the freedoms, liberties, and protections under the law that are meant to be accorded to all people. But civil rights advocates argue that racial inequality is ingrained in American life through realities like economic disenfranchisement, police brutality, and mass incarceration. The Civil Rights controversy pits groups, organizations, and communities who advocate for greater racial equality against those who work to maintain or advance a white racial hierarchy.
Learn more about the Civil Rights Controversy.
The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religious expression, and the right to a free press against government restriction. As a key component in the very first article of the Bill of Rights, free speech is among the most cherished and frequently-cited protections built into the U.S. Constitution. However, because the content of that speech and expression may itself provoke sharp disagreement, the true controversy in this issue extends from differing ideas about what constitutes “protected speech” as well as the methods that should or shouldn’t be used to limit free speech. This underscores the debate around Freedom of Speech and Censorship.
Learn more about the Censorship and Freedom of Speech Controversy.
The climate change debate concerns the impact of human activity on the earth’s temperature, as well as its impact on weather patterns, plant-life, wildlife, and human health. On one side of the debate, most in the scientific community believe that human activity is responsible for climate change. On the other side, some journalists, political leaders, and industry advocates argue either that global climate change is not actually occurring, or that shifts in climate are natural meteorological patterns unrelated to human activity. Some also argue that economic imperatives should be prioritized over environmental concerns.
Learn more about the Climate Change Controversy.
Capital punishment refers to the use of the death penalty as a form of legal punishment administered by the state. Capital punishment in the U.S. has long been the subject of constitutional, philosophical and practical disagreement, and as such, has been subject to legal fluctuation. As of the time of writing, the United States is one of 56 nations worldwide, and one of just four developed democracies (alongside Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore) which uses death penalty. The U.S. is also the only developed Western nation to employ capital punishment.
Learn more about the Death Penalty and Capital Punishment Controversy.
Abortion refers to the act of terminating a pregnancy before it can be carried to term. The abortion controversy concerns the ongoing debate and battle over the legal status of abortion in the U.S., both at the state and national levels. Abortion is among the most divisive issues in American public discourse. Views on abortion often carry religious, political, and cultural overtones. The debate is largely framed by two competing views: The Pro-Choice view, that abortion is a woman’s constitutionally-protected right; and the Pro-Life view, that abortion is immoral, and that the government should have the right to restrict and/or punish abortion.
Learn more about the Abortion Controversy.
Social Security refers to the federal social insurance program in the United States, which provides financial and medical benefits to older Americans, as well as the disabled and some who have been widowed or orphaned by working age adults. All working Americans contribute to Social Security through a dedicated payroll tax. The Social Security controversy refers to a complex economic and philosophical debate over how Social Security should be funded, dispersed, and managed. Some advocate for its continuity as a federal program while others argue that social security should be privatized and removed from government control.
Learn more about the Social Security Controversy.
Artificial intelligence (AI), in the simplest terms, refers to computing which aims to mimic human cognitive functions like learning, problem solving, and adaptation to environmental conditions. With the evolution of computer science, computing machines have accelerated in their capacity to demonstrate “intelligence” in areas such as reasoning, planning, natural language processing, perception, and much more.
Learn more about the Artificial Intelligence Controversy.
Health Insurance refers to financial coverage for healthcare expenses. Health coverage is among the most intensely debated subjects in American life, both because of the generally high cost of healthcare expenses, and because access to coverage varies significantly based on employment and socioeconomic status. Some Americans believe the government should take greater responsibility for the millions who are uninsured or underinsured, with many arguing that the United States should provide universal health coverage for all Americans. By contrast, others believe that paying for health coverage should be the individual responsibility of every American, and argue that universal healthcare coverage is a socialist policy.
Learn more about the Health Insurance Controversy.
Women’s Rights refers to the ongoing movement in the U.S. to improve gender equity through legislation, activism, public service, political participation, and more. The United States was founded as a patriarchy, restricting women from owning property, voting, or enjoying the rights of citizenship. The women’s rights movement uses activism, policy advocacy, and non-profit organization to improve gender equality, whereas the opponents of this movement may argue that gender equality already exists, or that women are biologically unequal to men and therefore deserving of secondary status.
Learn more about the Women’s Rights Controversy.
On its surface, the controversy over religious freedom in the U.S. concerns the right of individuals to practice their religion freely and without infringement by individuals, groups, or the government. But since the dawn of American history, the debate over religious liberty has been clouded by conflicts between different groups and belief systems, especially when the belief system of one group risks discrimination against another group. While the right to practice one’s religion is a core Constitutional protection, debate persists over the meaning of religious freedom and whether this freedom can be used to exempt groups from certain laws, including anti-discrimination laws.
Learn more about the Religious Freedom Controversy.
Minimum wage refers to the lowest hourly wage that an employer may legally pay an employee under state and federal law. The controversy over the minimum wage concerns the belief that a living wage should be a fundamental right for all American workers and is opposed by the belief that regulatory control over wage thresholds risk imposing undue economic burdens on employers with potentially deleterious effects on the economy as a whole.
Learn more about the Minimum Wage Controversy.
Atheism is defined as the absence of a belief in deities, or the rejection of a belief in deities, or the belief that no deities exist. These nuances underscore the complexity of individual views on religion and theology, and by extension, the complexity of this debate. The controversy over atheism concerns disagreement between those who believe in the existence of deities and those who do not believe in the existence of deities, and more specifically, how these divergent beliefs should be treated in public spaces. As a result, this controversy touches closely on issues of religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and freedom of expression.
Learn more about the Atheism Controversy.
Reparations for slavery refers to the idea of compensating the victims of African slavery and their descendants for the abuses suffered under U.S. law. The idea of reparations for the victims of African slavery in America emerged as early as the colonial era, but took on particular relevance after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. While some individual former slaves and their descendants have received reparations of some type, the vast majority have not, owing to the absence of any lasting or comprehensive federal policy. This absence keeps the reparations controversy relevant, as advocates, activists, and public leaders continue to call for the adoption of some form of reparations, both in compensation for slavery, and for the injustices visited upon succeeding generations of Black Americans.
Learn more about the Reparations Controversy.
Hacking refers to the use of computing skills to penetrate, disrupt, or interfere with a computer system by non-standard avenues. Hacking is a controversial issue because this skill can be used for many different purposes both lawful and unlawful; ethical and unethical. Some hackers use their skills for criminal activities while others may use their skills to create cybersecurity defenses against malicious actors. Activists may use hacking to undermine dictatorship just as dictators might use hacking to suppress individual liberties.
Learn more about the Hacking Controversy.
A labor union refers to an organized alliance of workers, often joined by a shared industry or trade, but also frequently joined across different labor industries. Labor unions use a tactic referred to as collective bargaining to improve worker conditions, advance wages, and secure benefits, as well as supporting members in disputes with management, and engaging in political action and lobbying. The controversy over labor unions concerns the historical and ongoing conflict of ideals, methods and goals between labor leaders, organizers and union members on one side, and business management, ownership, and industry lobby groups on the other side.
Learn more about the Labor Unions Controversy.
Extremism refers to beliefs and actions that are of an extreme or fanatical nature. Extremism is often connected to political, religious or racialist ideologies that fall far outside of the mainstream. Extremism is often associated with fringe groups such as white supremacists, jihadist terrorists, or religious fundamentalists, and is distinguished from traditional activism for its radical and sometimes violent methods. The controversy over extremism centers on the disagreement between those who subscribe to extremist views and extremist actions, and those who reject the views or methods of extremism, as well as those who work actively to prevent extremism.
Learn more about the Extremism Controversy.
The United States Electoral College is a group of 538 delegates—representing the 50 United States and the District of Columbia—who meet every four years to elect the President and Vice President of the United States. Though the Electoral College is written into the U.S. Constitution, it is also a source of ongoing controversy. This is because the outcome of the electoral vote is the sole determinant of the presidency. Critics argue that this model renders the national popular vote meaningless, undermines the principle of “one-person, one vote,” and results in widespread voter disenfranchisement. Debate over the Electoral College has been magnified by recent elections in which the winner of the national popular vote did not win the electoral vote and thus, did not win the presidency.
Learn more about the Electoral College Controversy.
The term vaccine refers to a form of medical treatment which may be used to preemptively inoculate individuals and populations against infectious diseases. The controversy over vaccines stems from a social phenomenon called vaccine hesitancy, as well as an organized anti-vaccination, or anti-vax, movement. Those who support the use of vaccines point to extensive scientific evidence that vaccines are both safe and effective, whereas those who oppose vaccines believe that vaccines are either unnecessary or unsafe.
Learn more about the Vaccines Controversy.
Outsourcing refers to the business practice of hiring outside consultants, freelance workers, or third-party agencies to complete work that might otherwise be handled in-house. The practice of outsourcing is also highly connected to the rise of globalization, free-trade, and the practice of “offshoring,” in which American companies will open facilities and employ laborers in other countries where wage standards, environmental restrictions, and costs of operation are lower. The outsourcing controversy centers on the conflicting interests of corporate profitability and free market capitalism on one side, and, on the other side, concerns over heightened American unemployment and the exploitation of low-wage workers in the developing sphere.
Learn more about the Outsourcing Controversy.
Gun Control refers to legislation aimed at curbing gun violence in America. The gun control controversy centers on disagreement between sectors of the American public, as well as their political representatives, over the legal implications of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which grants Americans the right to bear arms. Some argue that the ongoing public health crisis of gun violence necessitates more restrictions around gun manufacturing, sales and ownership while others argue that such regulation is unconstitutional or disagree that stricter rules would lower the occurrence of gun violence.
Learn more about the Gun Control Controversy.
United States foreign aid, also referred to as foreign assistance or international aid, is “aid given by the United States to other countries to support global peace, security, and development efforts, and provide humanitarian relief during times of crisis,” according to ForeignAssistance.gov. The controversy over foreign aid divides those who believe there are strategic, economic, and moral imperatives justifying this use of American resources for foreign aid versus those who believe this is a misappropriation of funding that should instead be spent on domestic priorities.
Learn more about the Foreign Aid Controversy.
Nuclear energy refers to the use of nuclear reactions such as nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and nuclear decay in order to produce power. The controversy over nuclear energy concerns both its perceived impact on the environment and its capacity for weaponization. This history of nuclear energy centers on the expansion of war-making capabilities and, specifically, the creation of weapons capable of mass casualty and mass destruction. But over time, nuclear energy has also become at once an ingrained part of the power grid in the United States and the world. Today, the global debate over nuclear energy concerns its safety, environmental impact, capacity for civil energy production, and its global proliferation as a source of potentially catastrophic weaponry.
Learn more about the Nuclear Energy Controversy.
Police brutality refers to the use of excessive or unnecessary force by law enforcement officers, but may also refer to excessive force used by corrections officers and prison officials. The controversy over police brutality centers on disagreement over the extent of force that law enforcement should be entitled to use while engaging suspects, perpetrators, prisoners, and other members of the general public. Those who believe that police brutality is a problem would argue that the current system of law enforcement gives officers too much discretion and impunity in using violent methods of engagement while those who don’t believe police brutality is a problem would argue that the dangerous nature of law enforcement requires that officers have far-reaching discretion in carrying out their duty, including the use of potentially violent confrontational tactics.
Learn more about the Police Brutality Controversy.
Affirmative action refers to an array of policies and practices aimed at redressing historical and ingrained inequalities, especially those experienced by people of color and women as a consequence of systemic discrimination. Affirmative action usually takes the form of education and employment initiatives aimed at creating access and opportunities for individuals from groups that have faced such discrimination. The controversy over affirmative action divides those who believe this is an effective way to push back against the sociological impact of systemic discrimination versus those who believe affirmative action is either ineffective or is, itself, a discriminatory policy.
Learn more about the Affirmative Action Controversy.
A charter school is an educational institution that provides free and uniquely structured educational opportunities to students and families seeking an alternative to traditional public school. Charter schools are a product of the demand for greater school choice, especially in cities where public schools often struggle to provide a high quality educational experience. The controversy over charter schools concerns the belief that charter schools are a valuable alternative to traditional public schooling, especially for disadvantaged or at-risk student populations versus the belief that charter schools divert funding and resources from traditional public schools.
Learn more about the Charter Schools Controversy.
While some of the topics noted above spring to mind, we wanted to know which topics were the “most controversial.”
Our machine-learning algorithm measures influence based on Wikipedia pageviews and links. This provides a point-based way of scoring the permeation, visibility, frequency, and quality of mentions. At AcademicInfluence, Influence Rankings are used to identify and rank academics and thought leaders for their relative influence.
Using our behind-the-scenes Ranking Analytics tool, we applied the same standard to measuring the breadth of a given controversy. Those topics which scored the most “influence points,” based on page views and links, could therefore be identified as the “most” controversial for the sheer breadth of coverage they have received in the public forum.
It should be noted that the breadth of topical coverage is not necessarily reflective of the intensity or emotional tumult surrounding a given controversy so much as the degree to which it has been publicly discussed, debated, written on, and read about. In essence, “most controversial” is a measure of how widely a topic is covered and how widely people actually read the Wikipedia articles covering it.
There is no limit to the number of topics that could be used to spark a spirited debate. Certainly, countless worthy topics have fallen just short of our decidedly exclusive list of 25. A topic which is close to your heart may not be here. Be assured, this is not because we overlooked these important topics, but because our Ranking Analytics revealed fewer page-views and links in connection with these topics than with those which did make our list.
Time frame also played a big role in our findings. Our search parameters were bound between the years 2000 and 2020. A different time frame would likely have revealed a different landscape of controversies.
Evolutionary theory, for instance, ranked #36 on our list, and therefore fell short of the Top 25. However, it is entirely likely that this topic would have ranked far higher on the same list had it been compiled to coincide with the Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920s.
Another example of how these rankings can change over time, medical marijuana fell well short of our list, ranking 40th overall. This is an example of an area in which shifting cultural mores and legal standards have significantly diminished the relevance of a controversy in just a few years. Now you can get a degree in cannabis studies from several universities. Similarly, prayer in school was once a hot-button issue in American public life, but did not at all rank among the 70+ topics used to generate our list.
These “honorable mentions” are examples of topics that may still generate some debate, and which may themselves be worthy of exploration, but which fell short of the Top 25 according to the selection methodology outlined in the section above.
Among the limitations to our method, our algorithm doesn’t provide a comprehensive measure of how related terms might rank for page views and links. However, it is our goal over time to refine our machine-learning engine to identify and account for more sweeping views of a given topic.
We should also note that discussions are largely focused on controversy in American public life. Far too many cultural, social, geographic, and political realities shape the different ways in which various national publics perceive and approach controversial topics. Such subject matter demands focus and context. Therefore, while some of the influencers and historical notes included may touch on controversy in countries other than the U.S., this is, by design, an ethnocentric list of controversial topics revolving around American controversies.
Now that you know how we’ve identified the most controversial topics, be aware that we have no intention of taking sides. Our goal is to identify these topics, and point you in the direction of those who have helped to define the issue. Historical influencers and books have, like our list of controversial topics, been drawn directly from our Ranking Analytics. More current influencers have been drawn from a vetted selection of findings using our Academic Influence engine.
You will agree with some of the figures on each list. You will disagree with some of them. You may even be offended by the inclusion of some influencer in our discussion. But inclusion is not endorsement. It is merely acknowledgment of influence, for better or worse.
Our goal is to reach beyond the traditional point-counterpoint approach to controversial topics. Subjects usually generate controversy because they are complex, and because a wide spectrum of parties may be impacted in very different ways by these issues. This is why we do our best to provide a panoramic view of each controversy (as opposed to an approach which merely pits one side in competition with the other). The result, we hope, is the kind of nuanced discussion required to take on subjects of such complexity.
Therefore, we’ll lay out the subject matter, point you to the experts and thought leaders, and let you do the intellectual footwork. Like we said, learning is all about inquiry. Question everything, and don’t be afraid to lean into a little controversy.
Want to be an Academic Influence Insider?