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This item was posted on November 22, 2010, and it was categorized as Climate Change, climate skeptics.
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Over the weekend, I took part in an exchange of emails among a group of journalists, academics, scientists and bloggers on a subject that never fails to get a rise out of people: “climate change skeptic” versus “climate change denier.” It was prompted by blogger and journalist Keith Kloor, who asked:

1) What is the difference between a climate skeptic and a climate denier?
2) Which term do you use as shorthand in your reporting/writing on climate change?

Among the 18 people who took part, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal offered what I considered to be among the most thoughtful comments, arguing for descriptive terms in place of labels. He made his argument on journalistic grounds. Read on in this post for his specific comments, and why I feel they are compelling — yet still problematic.

Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media led off the discussion. Here’s the gist of it:

Anything even inadvertently hinting of the Holocaust — as in “denialist” — clearly is off-limits.  So it’s easy to rule out certain terms.  Where does that leave us? What can we rule in?  I lean somewhat toward “contrarians” as being preferable to skeptics or deniers.

What about “skeptics”? He didn’t like it: “Call them ‘skeptics’ and we equate them to something the best scientists and best journalists are and need to be… skeptics.  So they co-opt the term.”

Uh oh…

After reading that swipe at people who express doubt of one sort or another of climate change science, I knew it was only a matter of time that the fireworks would go off. But first, Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and one of RealClimate’s bloggers, had this to say:

contrarians is ok, ‘skeptics’ is buying into the nonsense, but how about ‘inactivists’ vs ‘activists’?

At this point, my colleague here at the University of Colorado, Roger Pielke, Jr., just about “blew a seam” — his own words: “Let’s call them “yellow bellied sap suckers”!, he wrote.

Pielke argued that the mere act of categorization was intended to separate “us” from “them.” It is not that much different from deciding on which derogatory terms to use for African Americans, he claimed.

And then came Roger’s kicker: “What an utterly insane conversation this is!”

I’m sure my wife sometimes feels that way about some of the things I say. But in this case, I think Roger’s characterization of the conversation was a just a tad, well, exaggerated.

For responsible and knowledgeable journalists, the issue has nothing to do with demarcating “us” from “them.” I certainly have no interest in that. And I don’t believe Keith Kloor, Andrew Revkin, John Fleck, or any number of other journalists I know who cover this issue do either. As journalists, it is our bloody job to agonize over words. And the mere act of discussing usage does not make us insane.

The fact is, whether we like it or not, we must use shorthand in our stories. Otherwise they would be overly long and clunky. Imagine if journalists had to write a phrase akin to this every time they wanted to refer to people with liberal political views:

“ . . . those who believe that societal problems can be solved through government spending as well as regulation of the economy and other facets of life.”

We label things all the time in public discourse: “libertarian,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “neo-conservative,” “environmentalist,” “conservationist,” etc.  In journalism particularly, where time and space are often restricted, and where there is a premium on brevity and smooth writing, writing a descriptive, fully contextualized phrase to characterize a person’s views on any given subject often is not an option.

Ah, but on the issue of climate change, finding a label that is acceptably precise — should it be “climate skeptic” or “climate denier” or something else? — is much easier said than done. As John Fleck wrote:

I think as a journalist, in order to be useful to my readers, I have to use none of the terms. The fact that we have to have this discussion at all means the terms have no crisp meaning, but rather mean different things to different people.

If a word has the potential to mislead your readers, don’t use it. Use a descriptive phrase instead.

Excellent advice! And I find his reference to “crisp meaning” particularly compelling. The terms “skeptic” and “denier” are something of a Rorschach test — and that’s not acceptable in journalism.

How do we find a way out of this fix?

The issue isn’t whether we use a label but whether we have a clearly thought out and defensible rationale for using a particular word, and whether we provide the proper nuance and context when we do use it. Most important, if labels short circuit thoughtfulness and civil discussion, then perhaps we need new ones, or a descriptive phrase.

Do the labels “climate change skeptic” or “climate change denier” short circuit thoughtfulness and civil discussion?

I’ve never liked the echo I hear when “denier” is used to describe someone who does not believe that humans are altering (or even have the potential to alter) the global climate through emissions of greenhouse gases.

That said, my dictionary defines “deny” as refusing to admit the truth or existence of something. And there is, well, no denying that there are some people who simply refuse to admit the basic physical truth about the effects of greenhouse gases on the climate system.

Among them are public figures who clearly poisoning the well of civil discourse. One example is Chistopher Monckton, who has traded in labels like “Hitler Youth” to refer to young activists demonstrating in favor of a climate treaty. Monckton’s clownish behavior calls out for the use of a label. But if “climate change denier” is off limits because of its connotations, what label, if any, should I use?

Of course there are many people who have more nuanced views than the likes of Monckton, and whose goal most definitely is not to poison civil discourse. Some are skeptical that the signal of human-induced climate change has risen from the noise of natural variability. Others doubt whether our impact is or will ever be very significant. Still others believe climate change is happening, we’re largely to blame, and that it might eventually pose significant risks, but that right now we have other, much more pressing societal ills that need to be addressed.

In this case, does the label “skeptic” suffice to characterize this set of differing views?

Not really. Yet I frequently use the term “skeptic” because of the compelling need for shorthand in journalism.

I’m stuck. Any suggestions?

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This thing has 9 Comments

  1. L. Carey
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    “Insane”, eh? Well, RPJr is indeed prone to hyperbole (I left his place after he referred to me as “incoherent” for daring to suggest that a piece of climate legislation might actually have, gasp, more than one purpose – e.g., limiting CO2 AND increasing energy independence). I don’t like to use the term “skeptic” since what the WUWT crowd does gives real skeptics a bad rap (since, unlike real skeptics, many “climate skeptics” seem to be completely immune to having their views swayed by anything as irrelevant as the weight of scientific evidence, and virtually credulous when it comes to accepting any scrap of information, no matter how flimsy, that fits their own worldview).

    Anyway, I will repeat the substance of the argument I made at CAS, in favor of “contrarian” as rather more appropriate, based on the Skeptic’s Dictionary (h/t Greenfyre), which defines “climate change deniers” (their term, not mine) thusly:

    “Climate change deniers are contrarians who challenge the evidence that human activities such as deforestation and human behaviors that result in more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are causing changes in our planet’s climate that may prove devastating and irreversible. Contrarians pose as skeptics, refusing to accept consensus conclusions in science on the ground that there is still some uncertainty. True skeptics raise specific doubts about specific claims and do not try to debunk a whole area of science by an occasional error or by the general lack of absolute certainty, which is unattainable in any area of science.”

  2. Rebecca
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    How about ‘climate change rejecters’ or ‘climate change rejectionists’? This lacks the panache of ‘willful ignorants’, but it does at least withhold the heroic flavor of ‘contrarians’. It can be easily modified to ‘climate change science rejecter/rejectionist’, moreover, to clearly denote an individual who is not just skeptical of conclusions about climate change, but unwilling to entertain scientific reasoning.

  3. John Zulauf
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    This discussion also fail to include the nuance of skeptic and non-skeptic. There are those that believe that AGW will cause all manner of unmanageble crisis and unhealable environmental damage, other believe adaptation will be less costly and the impact of the warming less difficult. On the skeptic side there are those that believe that the world is warming do to direct CO2 effects, but that the feedbacks are negative, limiting the scope and risk to the climate minimal. Other believe that CO2 has no meaningful effect, that the warming is entirely (or nearly entirely) natural with the correlation with CO2 either coincidental, or with reversed causality (i.e. warming driving CO2 and not the opposite), and other that don’t believe that there is any meaningful warming, believing that the temperature record is invalidly adjusted.

    When you add to this belief or disbelief in the plethora of specific claims (more storm, colder/warmer winters, 300K/year dead, CO2 and plant growth, malaria range) the combonatorics (sp?) explode.

    Given the range of opinions — skeptic and non-skeptic, or denier and affirmer, or believer and heretic (c.f. Scientific American) are problematic.

  4. Posted November 23, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    In my research at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at CU Boulder on how media are framing climate-change policy, I came across this very subject last night, by way of a Letter to the Editor by Max Boykoff and Saffron O’Neill (published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”). Hope it helps!

    Climate denier, skeptic, or contrarian?
    Assigning credibility or expertise is a fraught issue, particularly in a wicked phenomenon like climate change—as Anderegg et al. (1) discussed in a recent issue of PNAS. However, their analysis of expert credibility into two distinct “convinced” and “unconvinced” camps and the lack of nuance in defining the terms “climate deniers,” “skeptics,” and “contrarians” both oversimplify and increase polarization within the climate debate.

    Unlike contrarian or skeptic, the term climate denier is listed in their key terms. Using the language of denialism brings a moralistic tone into the climate change debate that we would do well to avoid. Further, labeling views as denialist has the potential to inappropriately link such views with Holocaust denial.
    The article then uses the terminology “skeptic/contrarian” throughout. However, skepticism forms an integral part of the scientific method, and, thus, the term is frequently misapplied in such phrases as “climate change skeptic.” Contrarianism, on the other hand, implies a rather different perspective on anthropogenic climate change.

    McCright (2) defines climate contrarians to be those who vocally challenge what they see as a false consensus of mainstream climate science through critical attacks on climate science and eminent climate scientists, often with substantial financial support from fossil fuels industry organizations and conservative think tanks. We expand on the connections between claims making and funding to also include ideological motives behind criticizing and dismissing aspects of climate change science.

    Importantly, this definition of contrarian specifically identifies those who critically and vocally attack climate science—those who Anderegg et al. (1) indiscriminately identify as skeptics, contrarians, and deniers. It does not include individuals who are thus far unconvinced by the science (due, in part, to the
    voracious media coverage garnered by climate contrarians as identified above) or individuals who are unconvinced by proposed solutions.

    The use of the terms skeptic, denier, or contrarian is necessarily subject-, issue-, context-, and intervention-dependent. Blanket labeling of heterogeneous views under one of these headings has been shown to do little to further considerations of climate science and policy (3). Continued indiscriminate use
    of the terms will further polarize views on climate change, reduce media coverage to tit-for-tat finger-pointing, and do little to advance the unsteady relationship among climate science,
    society, and policy.

    Saffron J. O’Neilla,1 and Max Boykoff b
    aDepartment of Resource Management and Geography, University
    of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia; and bCenter for Science
    and Technology Policy Research, University of Colorado, Boulder,
    CO 80309-0488
    1. Anderegg WRL, Prall JW, Harold J, Schneider SH (2010) Expert credibility in climate
    change. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:12107–12109.
    2. McCright AM (2007) Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change
    and Facilitating Social Change, eds Moser SC, Dilling L (Cambridge Univ Press, New
    York), pp 200–212.
    3. Boykoff M (2008) The real swindle. Nat Rep Clim Change 2:31–32.
    Author contributions: S.J.O. and M.B. wrote the paper.
    The authors declare no conflict of interest.
    1To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: sjoneill@unimelb.edu.au.

  5. Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Many thanks Brian! This is very helpful.

  6. spyder
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Not intended to raise a ruckus, i would suggest using labels that fit the circumstances and the personages. There are certainly skeptics who challenge any and all near absolutes, but are not relativists. There are clearly deniers that will pass on to their beloved beliefs, denying that there is any science whatsoever that trumps their gods. There are contrarians who protest that what the science says is just not sufficient enough to warrant legislative change or to act at all. There are fence-sitters, who feel most comfortable trying to balance themselves with positions reflecting they understands both sides of the discourse, but completely unwilling to actually hold an actual position. And of course there are buffoons, like Monckton, who exist unto a category amongst themselves.

  7. Posted November 23, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Glad to oblige.

    If you want to get serious, think about how this is another attempt to jimmy the Overton window.

  8. Susan Anderson
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    I settled on fake skeptics, after a brief whirl with pseudo-skeptic (wanted to keep it in plain English.

    But accepting the premise that denier is a holocaust reference is to play their game. They do it to get sympathy and point away from the subject matter. The dictionary definition of denier is quite accurate, and if it were not PC to accede to their demands, the fake skeptics could perfectly well be named deniers.

  9. Posted November 24, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Various sceptic societies have objected to those who deny the existence or origin or threat of anthropogenic climate change using the label “sceptic” since a large number of them have demonstrated little or no interest in evidence or rationality.

    The claim that “denier” always has connotations of the Holocaust is a word game used to put an accurate label off limits. The term has been used for hundreds of years, well before the Holocaust, and continues to be used in a wide variety of contexts without always implying a reference to twentieth century atrocities in Europe. I have no problem using a good descriptive word when the boot fits.

This thing has 2 Trackbacks

  1. Posted November 22, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    [...] UPDATE: Roger Pielke Jr. makes his argument here, and Tom Yulsman responds here. [...]

  2. Posted November 22, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    [...] fact that the question triggers endless argument (see Pielke, Kloor and Yulsman) suggests that either label, like “new” or “not new”, isn’t going to [...]

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