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When a Science Journal Uses Loaded Language

By Keith Kloor
Jun 18, 2012 8:34 PMNov 19, 2019 9:16 PM


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Several years ago, while wrestling with the climate skeptic/denier terminology, I queried a number of my colleagues on which term they used as shorthand. None of them used the "denier" term, but most were also uncomfortable with "skeptic" as a one-size-fits all label. My own thinking on this was captured by Time's Bryan Walsh, who said:

I've generally used the term "climate skeptic," in part because it seems more neutral as a descriptive. Nuance will be lost in any shorthand description but "climate denier" seems to pack a whole lot more judgment in a single word.

On a similar note, Andrew Revkin said in that post:

there's no way I could justify using denier as a blanket term, given the variegated range of people who oppose restrictions on greenhouse gases or challenge aspects of climate science.

I mention this exchange now because the journal Nature Climate Change has just published a new study entitled, "Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers." The term "deniers" is also used frequently throughout the paper. It's quite a striking juxtaposition, since the purpose of the paper is to highlight new research that supposedly shows how those who are skeptical of climate change can still be won over to care about the environment. But the way the authors go about it--by using the loaded "deniers" term as a catch-all reference--is akin to a public health expert slapping this title on a study: "Promoting a healthy diet for fatsos." And then characterizing overweight individuals as "fatsos" all through the paper. So far, reaction from climate scientists ranges from puzzlement to consternation. On Twitter, Doug McNeall, a climate researcher at the UK's Met office, wondered if the paper "was actively courting controversy" and added:

I struggle to believe that the authors don't know the impact of the word 'denier', given the subject matter.

Richard Betts, a fellow Met Office climate scientist, chimed in:

"Denier" is an unnecessarily inflammatory label, and only causes distraction by getting people worked up. Bad move.

Unsurprisingly, climate skeptics are worked up over the Nature paper. Bishop Hill writes:

it certainly looks as if the authors intended to generate offence and controversy rather than truth and light. Hilariously, the authors are writing about how to convert people to the green cause!

Indeed, the irony is hard to miss.

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