Climate Communication Undermined by Inflammatory Language

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 4, 2015 4:51 PM


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A recent article in Slate carried this headline:

If You Don't accept Climate Change is Real, You're Not a Sceptic. You're a Denier.

I'll return to its claim in a minute. The piece, by Arizona State University professor Lawrence Krauss, ruefully notes that the term "climate skeptic" is frequently used in the media as a shorthand label to identify someone who denies the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. He writes:

Skepticism is all about critical examination, evidence-based scientific inquiry, and the use of reason in examining controversial claims. Those who flatly deny the results of climate science do not partake in any of the above. They base their conclusions on a priori convictions. Theirs is an ideological conviction—the opposite of skepticism.

This certainly is true to a considerable extent. Anyone who reads the most highly trafficked "climate skeptic" blogs, such as the one run by Anthony Watts, will detect a consistent ideological bias and a skepticism that runs in only one direction--broadly doubtful of mainstream climate science. The criticisms published there are often slanted, marred by conspicuous omissions or a selective use of facts. The overall tone at the site is hostile and conspiratorial. What you mostly see at Watts Up With That is not true skepticism but rather confirmation bias masquerading as skepticism. Of course, confirmation bias and motivated thinking are part of the human condition--cognitive behaviors that govern us all, to varying degrees. It is thus healthy to periodically question one's own assumptions that take root in the mind. Does this happen at "climate skeptic" blogs? Do the hosts there openly reassess governing notions from time to time? Do they apply critical thinking skills to all the research spotlighted on their sites, regardless of a given study's results? For some sense of this, let's look at how various "climate skeptic" blogs have dealt with something called "wind turbine syndrome," an assortment of adverse medical symptoms supposedly triggered by exposure to low frequency noise from rotating wind turbine blades. I thoroughly examined the phenomenon some time ago. As one public health scientist who has studied it noted last year:

There is no reliable or consistent evidence that proximity to wind farms or wind farm noise directly causes health effects.

And there have been numerous reliably-conducted studies and reports affirming this. A cursory Google search would lead you to that information. Nonetheless, Jo Nova, a well known Australian "climate skeptic" blogger recently trumpeted:

New small study: Wind farms show health effects--why wasn't this done before?

Nova uncritically pivoted off a media story and its breathless claim ("groundbreaking study"). A true skeptic would have drilled down into the methodological rigor of the cited research and would also have mentioned the existence of numerous other studies that has not found any causal link between wind turbine noise and health effects. You won't find any of that in Nova's post. An equally biased and uncritical take on wind turbine syndrome was highlighted in 2013 at the Bishop Hill site, a "climate skeptic" blog run by Andrew Montford. And look, here's a similarly credulous post over at the Anthony Watts site. Of course, nothing is too far-fetched for Watts, who also published a post by someone claiming that horses in Spain were becoming deformed by wind farm noise. The common denominator: No skepticism whatsoever, no critical thinking skills exhibited by these "climate skeptics" about a claim that has as much scientific validity as the power lines-cause-cancer scare. I mention all this to illustrate why I don't consider these "climate skeptics" to be true skeptics. They don't think skeptically; they are captive to their ideologically-driven biases and it often shows. So if they are not "climate skeptics," how do you characterize them and others who don't think the earth is warming (or at least not at a worrisome rate)? (This is something I tried to figure out a few years ago, with mixed results.) Today, there's a movement afoot to brand these people as "deniers." This language police campaign is unbecoming. It's also problematic, for reasons science journalist faye Flam explains in this smart post at Forbes:

What if we don’t have evidence as to whether a person is in denial? A much more appropriate word would be “wrong” because we don’t generally have access to the internal mental states of people who are saying wrong things. Denial implies people are aware of something but can’t face it. Some people may be in denial about global warming, but how do we know they aren’t just unaware? Or perhaps they are influenced by misinformation?

Another really smart and somewhat similar take has just been laid out in a post at The Science of Doom blog. I encourage folks to read the whole thing. It pretty much captures my thinking on this issue. Here's an excerpt:

I can’t find words to describe how I feel about the apologists for the Nazi regime, and those who deny that the holocaust took place. The evidence for the genocide is overwhelming and everyone can understand it. On the other hand, those who ascribe the word ‘denier’ to people not in agreement with consensus climate science are trivializing the suffering and deaths of millions of people. Everyone knows what this word means. It means people who are apologists for those evil jackbooted thugs who carried the swastika and cheered as they sent six million people to their execution. By comparison, understanding climate means understanding maths, physics and statistics. This is hard, very hard. It’s time consuming, requires some training (although people can be self-taught), actually requires academic access to be able to follow the thread of an argument through papers over a few decades – and lots and lots of dedication. The worst you could say is people who don’t accept ‘consensus climate science’ are likely finding basic – or advanced – thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and statistics a little difficult and might have misunderstood, or missed, a step somewhere.

I think that last paragraph with "the worst you could say" is a bit charitable, but honestly, the larger point about "trivializing" is why I avoid using "denier" in the climate context. To me, the provenance of "denier" can be clearly traced back to holocaust denial. That spawned the usage of the term in public discourse. Up until the last decade or so, the term "denier" was commonly associated with holocaust denial. Now I happen to know and respect Jewish academics, writers, and scientists involved in the climate debate who do use the "denier" term and don't make that association, so they don't believe they are trivializing the holocaust or exploiting the original ugliness of the term. I disagree, but I respect these individuals and take them at their word. All this said, I think the term "denier" is just as misused as "skeptic" when referring to someone who doesn't accept the consensus that 1) man-made climate change is real and 2) that it poses a risk to humanity if not addressed. "Skeptic" may not be an accurate way to define someone who rejects climate science or doubts the potential severity of climate change. But calling someone a "climate denier"--an emotionally and politically charged term--is as inflammatory as calling a climate scientist a fraud, or climate science fraudulent. These are conversation stoppers. If your objective is to get more people seriously engaged with the climate change issue, you probably want to avoid unwittingly antagonizing them with derogatory language. And by them, I mean the lurkers and fence-sitters in the mushy middle who tune in and out of the volatile climate discussion.

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