The term “skeptic” has a long history, but has come to refer to those who regard claims, usually about nature, health, or anything where science may inform, with studied incredulity. The skeptic wants evidence, and they are organized. The Skeptics Society has a magazine, and the magazine has a podcast. The Center for Inquiry has multiple skeptical programs. The Amazing Meeting gathers skeptics from around the world in a Las Vegas hotel where everybody gets all skeptical. Science based medicine is a practice as well as a blog (and is linked to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast). Skepchick: chicks that are skeptical. There are about fifty skeptical podcasts, with Science for the People best representing the skepticism-science link.
Then there are some other people who are called skeptics, and this pertains to global warming. The science is clear. Anthropogenic pollution is causing global warming and other changes in the climate. There is no legitimate contrary scientific position, though there is plenty of work within the science as yet undone. People who deny the scientific reality of global warming are wrong, and are probably motivated by a number of different forces. And they like to call themselves skeptics.
It has been convenient for deniers of global warming to be called “skeptics” because it makes denial of science sound like something it isn’t, like it is a good thing. Every single good scientist is a skeptic. So being called a “global warming skeptic” gives some cover. Actual scientists generally prefer to call deniers deniers, though there are a few other terms in the mix (including the widely used “contrarian”).
(If this does not all make sense, have a look at the MOOC known as Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.)
But actual skeptics didn’t like the use of the term “skeptic” applied to science deniers. There is a small, historically interesting irony here, which I’ll mention then move beyond. It wasn’t that long ago that three of the most famous “skeptics” (none of whom are scientists), magician James “The Amazing” Randi, and the two magicians known as Penn and Teller, espoused views of global warming that would put them squarely in the denier camp. So, among the leaders of the skeptic movement (movement is probably an OK word to use there) three were both skeptic and skeptic, in the two senses of the word. Perhaps because of this, a number of other skeptics, just regular people who participate in Internet discussions and so on, also denied the global warming science, so this incorrect perspective was part of the skeptic movement. Eventually, after a conversation or two with some actual scientists, Randi changed his mind, to his credit, and did so publicly. I’m not so sure about Penn and Teller.
Recently, the Committee for Skepticsl (CSI) called upon Associated Press (AP), and the world in general, to stop using the word “skeptic” to describe climate change science deniers. They wanted the word back, to not have it sullied by association. That was a reasonable thing to ask for, and the request was supported by many scientist who are not necessarily active in the skeptic movement. There was a letter, a petition, all that.
And AP went along with it. Just a couple of days ago, AP changed their style guide to specify that the word “skeptic” should not be used to refer to climate change science contrarians. That was good.
But the AP went further. They also said that the term “denier” should not be used, and in supporting text, indicated that this was in part because of the association of the word “denier” with “holocaust denier.” AP’s new guideline specifies, instead, that the term “doubter” instead of “skeptic” or “denier.”
This is wrong. This places contrarians who actively attempt to damage and derail the conversation about one of the most important existential issues of the day in a relatively good, and undeserved, light.
Climate change deniers are not “doubting” climate change, or any particular aspect of climate change science. A single denier might be seen on one day claiming that adding CO2 to the atmosphere does not increase global surface temperatures (it does). In another conversation a day later, the same individual can be seen arguing that yes, it does do that, but not much. Next day, OK, it does do that but it will stop doing it and the temperature will go down. Or the warming is good. Or the warming is real, and will have effects, but we can fix that. Or we can’t really fix it, but since the Chinese are not on board with changing things, what we do does not matter. And so on and so on.
And, no, that is not the rapid evolution of thinking of a denier. The same denier will go right back to the “CO2 does not cause warming” argument the moment they find a sufficiently uninformed audience.
This is not doubting. It is not being skeptical. It is denying, and it is denying pretty much the same way that Holocaust deniers are denying, in an irrational, politically motivated, goal-post moving, dishonest, and damaging way.
Denial expert John Cook, who was the lead developer of the above mentioned MOOC, pointed out to me that the term “denial” is already part of the academic and scientific conversation. “There is a great deal of research by psychologists, political scientists and other social scientists into the many aspects of science denial. Understanding the why and how of denial – why people reject science and how the scientific evidence gets distorted by misinformation – is essential to formulating an effective response. It would be ironic in the extreme if our response to science denial involved denying the social science research into denial. ”
Climate blogger Sou notes,
“Climate change doubters” is a poor euphemism. It doesn’t mean the same as a climate science denier. I sometimes refer to “those who reject mainstream climate science”, however it’s clunky and doesn’t lend itself to repeated usage. Why use five words when there’s a perfectly good single word that describes those people “deniers”? Or if there’s no other context that makes it clear who you’re talking about: “climate science deniers”.Joe Romm at Think Progress talked to climate scientist Michael Mann about this.
“As they say, if the shoe fits, wear it. Those who are in denial of basic science, be it evolution or human-caused climate change, are in fact science deniers,” as leading climatologist Michael Mann emailed me. “To call them anything else, be it ‘skeptic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate.”Romm also notes, “Here’s another reason “doubter” makes no sense. The Senate’s leading climate science denier/denialist/disinformer James Inhofe (R-OK) still maintains “global warming is a hoax.” Is he expressing “doubt”? Is he expressing what Oxford Dictionaries calls “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.” No. He is denying the science.”
Climate scientist and communicator Things Break picked up on the “avoid Hitler reference” theme with this tweet:
The @AP will no longer call mustaches “mustaches” b/c Hitler had a mustache, & some might get offended by the term.In retrospect (and I truly mean that, 20-20 hindsight and all, because I had a chance to suggest this before but did not think of it) the CSI should have given equal weight to the two arguments that a) skeptic is the wrong word and b) denier is the right word. And, for good measure, they should have thrown in c) some of the other words that are out there should not be used, such as “doubter,” while some other words might be OK in certain contexts, like “contrarian.”
Perhaps the appeal to AP should have been written, or at least gone over, by lawyers who think of these kinds of things in advance! As it turned out, the organized skeptics may have been a bit too concerned about their brand and a bit under concerned about the big picture.
Good lesson: If you want to effect change, be more clear about what you want the change to be to.