A bit over a week ago, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry posted an open letter declaring that “Deniers are not Skeptics.” To the Committee, skepticism is central to its goals, and it defines the activity as a careful analysis of evidence. As such, the group has been rather annoyed that people who doubt climate change have labelled themselves as skeptics, even if they have never taken the time to come to grips with any evidence.
The letter called for the news media to stop allowing doubters of climate change to use the label “skeptic” and instead label them deniers, based on the root “denial,” which was defined as “the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.” In doing so, the Committee had the support of scientists and science communicators such as Bill Nye and Ann Druyan, the woman behind the latest version of Cosmos .
There’s no shortage of denial when it comes to climate change—the public proclamations of Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), which the letter cites, are classic examples. And there’s also genuine skepticism of individual scientific claims, as we saw by the response to a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on California’s recent drought. But there are a whole host of things in between that make using any single label problematic.
“Denialist” is one of the most common labels that gets attached to people who don’t accept the evidence for climate change. And frankly, there are a fair number of people in that camp who don’t accept any of the evidence that’s been generated. The greenhouse impact of carbon dioxide is a matter of simple physics, and we can see it in action on Mars and Venus; it’s impossible to explain Earth’s history without it. The apparent belief that human-emitted CO 2 somehow won’t operate in the same way is truly living in denial. And yet we’ve seen countless people (including Inhofe) claim that the whole thing is a fraud, created for political reasons, and more. Other people try to pretend that the oceans aren’t rising, the temperatures haven’t actually warmed, and so on.
Your labels offend me!
One of the big hangups with denialism is that some of the people who deserve that label are offended by it, thinking it somehow lumps them in with holocaust deniers. But that in its own way is a form of denial; the word came into use before the holocaust, and “living in denial” is a pretty common phrase. Plus, denialism has been used as a label for people who refuse to accept the evidence for all sorts of things: HIV causing AIDS, vaccines being safe, etc.
There’s a close cousin to denialism that I like to call “contrarianism.” Some people don’t just have issues accepting climate science; they have problems with lots of science. For example, atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen has been a prominent figure trotted out to suggest that climate scientists have gotten it wrong, but he also seems to think health authorities got it wrong with smoking . In the same way, climatologist Roy Spencer doubts the conclusions of climate scientists but also feels that all of biology has gone off the rails .
Again, this isn’t limited to climate science. Peter Duesberg, who thinks that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, also seems to enjoy telling biologists that their understanding of cancer genetics is all wrong, too. It’s dangerous to psychoanalyze anyone based on a few public utterances, but the enjoyment of going against the grain and the attention that it brings seems to be a key motivator for at least some of the contrarians.
But there are also people who try to hew a bit closer to reality. They’re not in denial or starting arguments simply for the sake of having a fight. For example, we attended a talk by William Happer who engages in what I might call pseudo-skepticism. He has an elaborate scientific argument about the potential for carbon dioxide to reach a level not too far from our current one where it simply absorbs all the infrared light it’s going to.
Most experts in the field think that the argument has already been demonstrated to be wrong. But the challenge with this sort of pseudo-skepticism is that it requires a very advanced understanding of the physical chemistry of carbon dioxide to figure out who’s right, an understanding well beyond my capacities. If Happer didn’t say incredibly stupid things about other areas of science, it would simply be his word against the word of a handful of other scientists.
One of the largest groups of people, however, are those who engage in what I call semi-skepticism. They accept that the planet has warmed and that CO 2 is a greenhouse gas and is probably producing some of that warming. But they don’t accept scientists’ conclusions on the likely extent of future warming, arguing that the Sun’s influence is too large, that CO 2 ‘s influence is too small, or that there’s some feedback or another that will tone down future warming.
It’s possible to make a decent scientific argument for some of this—I’ve read a few papers that do, written by people who might genuinely be labelled skeptical. But the semi-skeptic doesn’t bother. They don’t look into the various ways that people have estimated the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide or the data we’ve gathered on solar activity. They don’t understand how we’ve quantified the various climate feedbacks, or they reach their conclusions by eyeballing graphs rather than a detailed numerical analysis.
So overall, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is right: denialism like Inhofe’s deserves to be called out for what it is. But the world rarely breaks down into binary distinctions, and nowhere is that more true that human behavior. By choosing any one term for a spectrum of behavior, you’ll undoubtedly get things wrong. In fact, you’ll also get some things wrong about individual people, who may shift categories over time. (For example, Anthony Watts was originally a semi-skeptic about the reliability of our temperature records, but as he has continued questioning them even as more data on their reliability came in, he’s moved into the denialism camp.)
Does using the right label matter? I’d argue that it does. For one thing, people often get offended when you place them in the wrong camp. When they’re offended, they’re less likely to listen to anything you say. That probably won’t matter to the denialists, who aren’t going to register anything that goes against their beliefs anyway. But there are a lot of other people who fall into the other camps and might be more inclined to listen. And knowing who your audience is and where they fit on this spectrum might allow you to more finely craft a message they’ll find compelling.
So the letter from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is a good start. But it’s only a start.
- The Energy 202: Why climate scientists want to be thought of as the real 'climate skeptics'
- EPA Hid Scott Pruitt's Dinner With Climate Denier Accused Of Child Sex Abuse
- Nunes, Costa, Cox collide on climate change, yet they represent the same Fresno County region
- Climate change threatens the coast and NC should act, voters of both parties say
- How Should the Next President Deal With Climate Change?
- From small-town Kentucky to the UN: Can Trump nominee Kelly Craft surprise the skeptics?
- 2020 hopeful Inslee says $9T climate plan will boost economy
- Trump Gives Mattis an Inauspicious Label: ‘Democrat’
- On Politics: Trump Accuses Democrats of a ‘Con Game’
- Elon Musk Has Donated Nearly 7 Times As Much To Republicans This Cycle
- Trump team advocates burning fossil fuels, even as U.S. scientists sound alarm on melting Arctic
- Energy and Environment Legislative and Regulatory Update - March 26, 2012
- Energy and Environment Update - August 12, 2012
- Progressives set to push their agenda in Congress and on the campaign trail. The GOP can't wait.
- Progressives to push their agenda in Congress and on the campaign trail. The GOP can't wait.
- Why won't scientific evidence change the minds of Loch Ness monster true believers?
- Energy & Environmental Law Update May 6, 2013
- Energy and Environment Update - June 17, 2012
- Federal Issues, Nanotechnology, FDA, Renewable Products: Clients and Friends Memorandum
- White House Forced To Release Some Visitor Logs In Legal Settlement
Skeptics, deniers, and contrarians: The climate science label game have 1408 words, post on arstechnica.com at December 16, 2014. This is cached page on Business News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.