23 September 2015

AP Changes Policy On Labeling Climate “Skeptics”

Posted by Dan Satterfield


I thought of this quote as I began to write this post.

A lot of us who write blogs about science face the issue of how to label those who think climate change isn’t real, or who think the science is all wrong. Just to be clear, virtually none of these folks have any background in atmospheric science, as several studies have clearly shown, but that still leaves the issue to be dealt with. I can tell you from my own experience that this group prefers the label of skeptic, but that’s really laughable, since skepticism is at the heart and soul of science.

Richard Feynman put it best and I paraphrase ” if you test something with an experiment, and it fails, then it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter who you are, how famous you are, or how much money you have, it’s just wrong.” It’s right to be skeptical, and if more people were skeptical, the folks who sell the copper bracelets for energy, or copper studded gloves for arthritis (The latest attempt to separate the scientifically illiterate from their money) would go out of business rather than make millions.

 That said, ignoring a mountain of testable evidence, and relying on ideas that have been shown to be wrong, is not practicing scientific skepticism. The question is, what do we call it?? The Associated Press has faced the same problem and they made a change today to their AP Style Guide (A copy of which is always nearby when I write these posts) and here it is:

global warming The terms global warming and climate change can be used interchangeably. Climate change is more accurate scientifically to describe the various effects of greenhouse gases on the world because it includes extreme weather, storms and changes in rainfall patterns, ocean acidification and sea level. But global warming as a term is more common and understandable to the public.Though some public officials and laymen and only a few climate scientists disagree, the world’s scientific organizations say that the world’s climate is changing because of the buildup of heat-trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide, from the burning of coal, oil and gas. This is supported by more than 90 percent of the peer-reviewed scientific literature.In a joint publication in 2014, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of the United Kingdom stated: “Human activities – especially the burning of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution – have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by about 40 percent, with more than half the increase occurring since 1970. Since 1900, the global average surface temperature has increased by about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit). This has been accompanied by warming of the ocean, a rise in sea level, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and many other associated climate effects. Much of this warming has occurred in the last four decades.”To describe those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces, use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science. Avoid use of skeptics or deniers.

The AP Blog has more on the reasoning behind it:

Some 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.

I have mixed feelings about this. The “Those who reject mainstream climate science” seems rather watered down to me and climate change doubters is not much better. I’ve already made the case for not using “skeptics”, but I’m not sure I agree on the reason for not using deniers.  A person who refuses to believe something in the face of a mountain of evidence (like the holocaust) is suffering from denial.That said, if indeed most people hear the term denier, and think of those who refuse to believe the holocaust, then the AP may have a point. However, I’m not sure that most people make that correlation.

Joe Romm has a post about this that makes a lot of sense to me. Especially the quote from Climatologist Dr. Michael Mann of Penn State“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.” Others agreed with Mann, based on quotes in this article on Huffington Post.

They have a good point. If you’re going to tell every major science body on Earth that they are wrong, without any evidence, and in almost every case, having no science background in the field, then to most thinking people, you have no air of legitimacy. It’s certainly not the AP’s job to give them one, but the good news is that the term “skeptics” is no longer AP policy, because they are most certainly not. 

Note: The policy here is going to remain “science deniers” until I come up with a better definition. I’m not totally happy with it, but so far it’s the closest accurate definition I can come up with. I think of it as a label and not as name calling, and I try to avoid using labels at all.