Climate

Top Scientists To Media: Stop Using ‘Skeptic’ To Describe Climate Science Deniers

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Four dozen leading scientists and science journalists/communicators have issued a statement urging the media to “Please stop using the word ‘skeptic’ to describe deniers” of climate science.

The 48 signatories, Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), include such luminaries as Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kroto; Douglas Hofstadter, Director of The Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University; physicist Lawrence Krauss, Director of The Arizona State University Origins Project; and Bill Nye “the Science Guy.” Full list here.

The scientists and journalists were motivated by a Nov, 10, 2014, New York Times article “Republicans Vow to Fight EPA and Approve Keystone Pipeline” that referred to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) as “a prominent skeptic of climate change.” They note that same week, NPR’s Morning Edition called Inhofe “one of the leading climate change deniers in Congress.” The signatories note, “These are not equivalent statements” and the two terms should not be conflated.

“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” the letter reads. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”

The scientists and journalists point out that Inhofe’s assertion that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” is a very extraordinary claim of a “vast alleged conspiracy.” They note that true skepticism is embodied in a quote often repeated by Carl Sagan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But Inhofe has never been able to provide even ordinary evidence for his absurd conspiracy charge. “That alone should disqualify him [Inhofe] from using the title ‘skeptic’.”

The signatories end by explaining:

As scientific skeptics, we are well aware of political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong. The most appropriate word to describe the behavior of those individuals is “denial.” Not all individuals who call themselves climate change skeptics are deniers. But virtually all deniers have falsely branded themselves as skeptics. By perpetrating this misnomer, journalists have granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry.

We are skeptics who have devoted much of our careers to practicing and promoting scientific skepticism. We ask that journalists use more care when reporting on those who reject climate science, and hold to the principles of truth in labeling. Please stop using the word “skeptic” to describe deniers.

Let me add that I have explained many times in the past why “denier” is not a perfect term. There are no perfect terms. Years ago I tried to coin the terms “delayer” and “disinformer” for those who make a living spreading disinformation about climate science in order to delay action — and I still use the term “disinformer.” But coining terms is nearly impossible, and the fact is that almost everybody has embraced the term “deniers” — including many, many disinformers.

As the National Center for Science Education explained in their 2012 post, “Why Is It Called Denial?

“Denial” is the term preferred even by many deniers. “I actually like ‘denier.’ That’s closer than skeptic,” says MIT’s Richard Lindzen, one of the most prominent deniers. Minnesotans for Global Warming and other major denier groups go so far as to sing, “I’m a Denier!”.

Heck, even disinformers associated with the beyond-hard-core extremists at the Heartland Institute like the term:

So clearly, using the term ‘denier’ doesn’t inherently mean you are equating a disinformer with a Holocaust denier. So for clarity’s and consistency’s sake, ‘denier’ has become the term of art.

But undefined labels are always subject to criticism and out-of-context attacks, especially by people who spread disinformation for a living, so I’m a big fan of defining one’s terms. As I’ve written:

I understand that some of the deniers take offense at the apparent implication that they are like Holocaust deniers. I am not trying to make that connection — since climate science deniers are nothing like Holocaust deniers. Holocaust deniers are denying an established fact from the past. If the media or politicians or the public took them at all seriously, I suppose it might increase the chances of a future Holocaust. But, in fact, they are very marginalized, and are inevitably attacked and criticized widely whenever they try to spread their disinformation, so they have no significant impact on society.

The climate science deniers, however, are very different and far more worrisome. They are not marginalized, but rather very well-funded and treated quite seriously by the status quo media. They are trying to persuade people not to take action on a problem that has not yet become catastrophic, but which will certainly do so if we listen to them and delay acting much longer.

Note: I prefer “climate science denier” to “climate change denier” because many deniers say they accept that the climate is changing, while denying the overwhelming evidence that humans are behind it.

The media doesn’t write about “tobacco science skeptics” or even bother giving equal time to people who deny the dangerous health consequences of cigarette smoking. And yet as the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world’s largest general scientific society explained in a March report: “The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases.”

“Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer,” the report said. “And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.”