The Associated Press just made one of the most pointless — if not most senseless — moves in the storied history of its widely used AP Stylebook:
Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.
The half good news is that the phrase “those who reject mainstream climate science” is not half bad. But the fully bad news is that the phrase is so clumsy, the many newspapers who follow the Stylebook may simply fall back on the senseless phrase “climate change doubters.” Let’s hope they don’t.
Does the AP recommend newspapers use the phrase “smoking health risk doubters” or “tobacco science doubters”? Of course not — and yet scientists have the same level of certainty about human-caused climate change as they do that cigarettes harm your health. Indeed the AP itself explained that very point in a 2014 Seth Borenstein article that began, “Top scientists from a variety of fields say they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill.”
The media doesn’t even pay attention to people who deny the health dangers of tobacco smoke anymore. So why treat those who deny the reality — and danger — of human-caused climate change any differently?
“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.”
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.
Before discussing the AP’s utterly inadequate explanation for rejecting the term “denier,” we need to review the relevant history.
Back in December, four dozen leading scientists and science journalists/communicators — Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), issued an open letter headlined “Deniers are not Skeptics,” which urged the media to “Please stop using the word ‘skeptic’ to describe deniers” of climate science.
“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” the statement reads. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”
The signatories ended 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.
The group Forecast the Facts then launched a petition drive that quickly picked up more than 20,000 signatures. By February 2015, the New York Times published an excellent piece by its lead climate reporter, Justin Gillis, on why the people who spread disinformation about climate change are not “skeptics” — and why it’s no surprise they are called climate science “deniers.”
The Times explains that the denial “movement” — those who “so vigorously denounce the science” — is “mainly rooted in ideology, but much of the money to disseminate its writings comes from companies that profit from fossil fuels.” These people tend to be conservatives because “Many of these conservatives understand that since greenhouse emissions are caused by virtually every economic activity of modern society, they are likely to be reduced only by extensive government intervention in the market.”
It is in this context that the AP explains the “background on the change”:
Scientists who consider themselves real skeptics — who debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience, such as those who are part of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry — complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic. They say they aren’t skeptics because “proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” That group prefers the phrase “climate change deniers” for those who reject accepted global warming data and theory. But those who reject climate science say the phrase denier has the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier so The Associated Press prefers climate change doubter or someone who rejects mainstream science.
The first problem is that the AP had another alternative. As the NY Times piece explained, “others have started using the slightly softer word ‘denialist’ to make the same point without stirring complaints about evoking the Holocaust.”
Second, the deniers — the ones who generally make it into the newspapers, like James Inhofe — knowingly use phony arguments to stop the world from acting in time to avoid what the world’s leading scientists and governments agree are catastrophic impacts that will cause misery for billions of people for centuries to come. Since when should anyone care about the phony concerns of such self-destructive anti-scientific people?
Third, the concern about the word “denier” is phony. How phony? As the National Center for Science Education explained in a 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!”.
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. 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 disinformers. I seriously doubt that the term “doubter” will be widely embraced or that the phrase “those who reject mainstream climate science” will either.
So for clarity’s and consistency’s sake, “denier” has become the term of art.
Final note: I also try to say “climate science denier” and not “climate change denier,” because even the most outrageous deniers (like Inhofe or Donald Trump) acknowledge the climate is changing. It is the overwhelming scientific evidence and analysis that proves humans are the overwhelming cause of recent climate change that they deny.