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Skeptics, Deniers and Doubters, Oh My!

Skeptics, Deniers and Doubters, Oh My!

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Abby Berger

Profile Photo

Abby Berger

As professional communicators, we know and stress to others the importance of the words we use. When it comes to how we message policy issues in particular, we know terminology is not merely for description. It can also be used to convey a distinct point of view. 

Some of the clearest examples are the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Regardless of your view on the abortion issue, these words help convey each side’s core argument. Like these two highly charged terms, for better or worse politicized language can enter the popular vernacular. And even if we are aware of the connotation, it can be difficult to avoid such language without appearing like you’re playing a game of “You Can’t Say That.”

Those of us working around energy and environmental issues have seen debates over words play out for some time. Early in my career, I witnessed more than a few discussions as an EPA contractor over the branding of a program that ultimately avoided “warming” and “climate” altogether by settling on “global change research program.”

While I like to consider myself fairly attune to etymology and semantics (don’t get me started on the fun of watching media avoid the name of Washington, D.C.’s NFL team!), I took pause at the recent Associated Press announcement about nixing the terms climate “deniers” and “skeptics.”

AP executive Paul Colford explained:

We are adding a brief description of those who don't accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces:

Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.

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. 

The AP raises some interesting points. But as Huffington Post blogger Marvin Meadows posed best, “what should the naysayers be called when 97% of climate scientists affirm the existence of anthropogenic or man-made climate change?”

Watchdog group Media Matters rounded up critiques from the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Center for Inquiry among others to support the view that “the new AP-approved term ‘climate change doubters’ grants undeserved legitimacy to those who refuse to acknowledge the consensus.”

One of the most powerful analogies used to bring perspective to the curious AP decision comes from ThinkProgress’ Joe Rohm. Rohm asks:

“Does the AP recommend newspapers use the phrase ‘smoking health risk doubters’ or ‘tobacco science doubters’? Of course not -- and yet scientists have the same level of certainty about human-caused climate change as they do that cigarettes harm your health. . . .The media doesn't even pay attention to people who deny the health dangers of tobacco smoke anymore. So why treat those who deny the reality — and danger—of human-caused climate change any differently?”

One could argue that the public conversation around the health impacts of smoking has existed longer than that of climate change. While that may be true, the awareness or concerns are far from a new topic. 

Like it or not, we can’t stop (nor would we communicators want to) the strategic use of language to help advance a particular agenda. Instead, we can only hope more people follow the advice hidden in AP’s own argument: applying “critical investigation and the use of reason” in the examination of not just an argument itself, but also the word choice used by media and advocates alike to discuss the issue.

This exercise will likely remind us that it’s nearly impossible to avoid bias — whether you’re consciously choosing the slant, or it’s chosen for you through commonly accepted language. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time for a little more variety in our writing style. Your move, Chicago Manual and MLA. 

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