Who's a Skeptic/Denier/Dissenter/Contrarian?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 21, 2010 2:43 AM


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My struggle to distinguish between a "climate skeptic" and "climate denier" continues. In July, I sought some clarity on these terms, which triggered over 500 comments and little agreement on an acceptable distinction between the two labels. That should come as no surprise. Do you know any climate skeptics who are fine with being called a climate denier? The term has some obvious baggage. Personally, I've resisted using "denier" because of the implied connotations. And while I recognize there is no one-size-fits-all category, I continue to use "climate skeptic" when referring to skeptic/contrarian-related positions, or persons associated with the skeptic wing of the debate. But I have this nagging feeling that I've taken the easy way out, that I have been over-relying on "climate skeptic" as a blanket term, that it does not accurately reflect a broad spectrum of voices that includes the likes of Richard Lindzen, Anthony Watts, John Christy and Christopher Monckton. Still, in terms of general usage for shorthand purposes, people involved in the discourse seem to choose either "skeptic" or "denier." These are the two terms I see most commonly used. To some degree, and in some quarters, they have become interchangeable--a blurring that strikes me as even more problematic than using one term as a catch-all. So I recently turned to my journalism colleagues for some help. Sometimes I am part of an informal email group that includes a cross-section of science and environmental writers, along with a smattering of scientists, philosophers, and wonks. On Friday, I asked the group the following two questions: 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? Those that responded have permitted me to reproduce their answers here. The responses also triggered a heated exchange that is likely to be covered by some of the participants in their own blogs. More on that in a minute. Here are the unedited answers to my query from some of the journalists who responded: Bryan Walsh, Time magazine:

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.

Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media:

This has become an age-old question, along with whether to call it global warming or climate change or .... and with no end in sight. 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. If you can't qualify the use of "skeptics" earlier in an article with such a footnote -- certainly not practical in all stories and all media -- perhaps best to just put it in quotes or "air quotes" -- "skeptics." Does that say it all though? Probably not. Deniers has its own baggage -- denying what exactly? ALL of the underlying science -- at least in as much as the climate is warming and humans unquestionably play a significant role in that warming? Perhaps, but it's fine to accept both of those points, based on ample and various streams of evidence, and yet be a denier on the proposed remedies (cap and trade, or tax, etc). 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. Might too warrant some explanation, but to me it comes closer. I've heard some favor "professional skeptics." Not bad, but for me "contrarians" may carry the least amount of baggage But the fact that we don't yet know how best to soundbite the issue itself -- global warming or climate change -- or those most steadfastly opposed to taking it on... that's at the root of the whole communications challenges we face with this issue. At the roots, mind you, with a huge and growing canopy spread out all above it.

Dan Fagin, Professor and Director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute:

I like Bud's "contrarian" idea. "Climate dissenters" is another good option, in my opinion. We need a word that indicates that their views are at variance from those of most of the people who know the most about the topic, but we also need a word that carries as little ideological baggage as possible. "Skeptics" is definitely the wrong choice, in my view, for the reasons Bud outlines.

Charles Petit, Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

There is some difference and a lot of overlap. A skeptic operates on doubt, at least ostensibly, which also is the fuel of scientific progress. A denier turns more to faith - faith that the world is just too big, that god is too just, that discredited ideas remain alive in some alternative universe, or something equally lean on data - to refuse to admit possibility that we're moving the thermostat. There are better definitions I'm sure but those are what I select at this moment. I tend to use one or the other depending on how strongly I reacted to something from their combined camps. Outwardly reasonable in tone: skeptic. Just plain stupid and usually very angry and spewing insults: denier.

Andrew Revkin:

I've used skeptic before, sure, as in covering the gathering of 600 self proclaimed "skeptics" at one of the Heartland meetings. This piece is the closest I've come to describing the range of views and where the sense of a "them" exists. There are certainly deniers in the mix -- people who know one thing but say another consciously -- but 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.

At one point in the email discussion, Roger Pielke Jr. dove in, objecting to the premise of my query:

Let's call them "yellow bellied sap suckers"! Whatever we call them, it should be clear that there is a "them" and there is an "us" and we should be sure to make clear that "their" views are illegitimate or profane, and "our" views are consensual and righteous. I recommend jerseys for ther different teams, perhaps Chelsea jerseys for the bad guys and Arsenal jerseys for those with "us" (seriously, anyone thinking Chelsea will win the title is a denier for sure;-) What an utterly insane conversation this is!

This triggered a pretty intense back and forth between a number of the participants, including myself, one climate scientist, David Roberts of Grist, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal, among several others. My own response to Roger was said better by Dan Fagin:

Anyone who has ever wrestled with the imperative of communicating complexity concisely knows how important these issues are. Word choices matter. It would be "insane" not to think carefully about them.

But John Fleck agreed with Roger, writing:

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.

Tom Yulsman, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who writes the CEJournal blog, offered perhaps the most contextual observation:

Concerning the use of the terms, being Jewish I've never liked the echo I hear when "denier" is used to describe someone who does not believe in AGW. 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. So putting aside the connotations of a word (which may be good enough reason not to use it), why is simply discussing its use in the context of climate change "insane"? That seems a bit over the top. Lastly, we label things all the time in public discourse: "libertarian," "conservative," "liberal," "neo-conservative," "environmentalist," "conservationist," etc. I think 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. If labels short circuit thoughtfulness and civil discussion, then perhaps we need new ones. Otherwise, they can be helpful.

As I mentioned, there were considerable fireworks triggered by Roger's objections, which I believe he will take up in full at his blog. (If I had to guess a title for his post, I would call it "Beware of Climate Labels.") There were also a number of other excellent comments that I have not included here, but this post is already too long. I'm hoping that several of the participants, such as Tom Yulsman and John Fleck, will also write about our fascinating exchange at their respective blogs. Meanwhile, I'd like to hear what readers think of the taxonomy. UPDATE:

Roger Pielke Jr. makes his argument here, and Tom Yulsman responds here.

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