“Climate Skeptic” or “Denier”: Can journalists stake neutral ground in a language war?

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151108newsglobeWords map our concepts. They affect how we think within our personal knowledge, and how we shape and exchange our shared knowledge. In any critical examination of the creation and flow of knowledge, we need to be aware of the influence of the terminology we use.  

Do you accept the knowledge claims above? If so, you are likely to be keenly interested in guidance on terminology issued to journalists by the Associated Press Stylebook editors on September 22, 2015. The editors have recommended specific language for journalists writing on climate change “ to help our reporters and editors present the news accurately, concisely and clearly”.

This AP announcement hands TOK teachers a current example for class on the relevance of language to handling concepts, and the importance of definitions and connotations in public flow of knowledge.

This example could be used in 5 minutes in class, or developed as the running example for an entire discussion. Below, I suggest one approach to using the terminology of climate change to open up a number of TOK topics – touching on large ones such as trust in sources, the influence of perspectives on terminology, and deliberate choices within the public discussion of shared knowledge.


Introduction: news media as a source of shared knowledge

Ask your class how much they trust journalists as reliable sources of knowledge. You’re likely to get responses varying from inflamed cynicism to murmured indifference. Then ask them why. Most likely, answers will include the kinds of things we’re all aware of and which are basic to many issues in TOK — conscious or unconscious bias that affects selection, framing, slanting and so on. Raising them at the beginning warms up a class on familiar topics and acknowledges many of the general issues that lie in the background of the questions on which you want to focus their attention.

You might want to argue, en route, that journalism and the news media are possibly the most important vehicle for the public of shared knowledge of world events, including development and communication of scientific knowledge.

Ambiguities and connotations: climate change “skeptic” vs climate change “denier”

The particular questions for focusing the class are these:  What is the difference between a “climate change skeptic” and a “climate change denier”?  Does it matter what language we use?

Here is a good time to play the devil’s advocate. Pause and ask your class something like the following:

  • Is it not true that TOK encourages questioning knowledge claims?
  • Is it not true that “skepticism” suggests questioning knowledge claims?
  • Is it not, therefore, accurate to describe as a “climate change skeptic someone who questions the claim that climate change is both real and caused by human activity “?

Follow this up with a question on connotations. Does it seem more flattering to be described as a “climate change denier” or climate change skeptic.” ? What does the word “denier” suggest?

The chances are, of course, most will react more positively to the term “skeptic” than “denier”, particularly if they are familiar with the meaning of “skeptic” not to mean “cynic”, but, rather, someone who uses scientific principles of enquiry to assess — but not necessarily deny — claims. A “denier”, they are likely to point out, suggests someone more than a little blindly pigheaded in face of the facts. Indeed.

Both terms, until just now, were rife in the media and used more or less to mean the same thing, or, at least, to apply to the same group — that is, those who reject the findings of climate science.

This is a good time to refresh the terms denotation and connotation in order to frame the following discussion. You might want to refer students to the TOK Course Book section “Perspectives in language” starting page 141, and the guided analysis on page 150.

The Associated Press Stylebook comes to the rescue–or does it?

Ask your students what words they would use if they had the power to control the language used by journalists when writing about those who reject climate change.  Recognizing that perspectives influence word choice, what would they recommend themselves with a goal of neutral language?

Enter the Associated Press Stylebook — a set of journalistic guidelines with a huge influence around the world. One of the world’s largest organizations for disseminating news makes, through its stylesheet, regular attempts to clarify words that journalists use, to counteract some of the most dangerous mis–and dys–information that swirls throughout the media.

Although what journalists report on remains an issue, how they report it has been called into question. In a recent addition to the Associated Press Stylebook, journalists are given specific instructions to clean up their language over the particularly gnarly issue of climate change.

But pause. This may a good point to refer to a short section from the Theory of Knowledge Course Book (pp. 139-40): 

…what slippery territory we enter when we want to talk about the larger concepts that shape our understanding of the world!

When we define our terms, we are trying to use the symbols of our language to make another specific symbol precise. Definitions are statements within the system of symbols, rather like moves in a large language game, with each piece depending upon the others.

In some fields, precision is crucial. The sciences take care to define terms tightly in order to use exactly the right word….

Well, it seems, because of the crucial importance of “precision” in writing of climate science, the AP has told journalists to avoid both terms, “skeptic” and “denier”! So, what next? What would your class recommend that journalists use instead? After all, they need to use some words to identify climate science ______ers!

The new, “official” terms

This is what the Associated Press has said to the journalists who write for them:

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.

Does this solve the problem? Ask your class their opinion. It is likely that class reactions will be mixed–as, indeed, they have been both by those who accept climate science and those who don’t. What might climate scientists and those who accept climate science object to?

You might also point out, however, that it is not quite enough to understand the principles of connotation of denotation. In addition, the careful reader or writer–and TOK student– will be sensitive to which words have a strong connotative quality and, even more, what those connotations are likely to be. What wording in journalists is likely to create, or solve, the most problems?

Reactions to eliminating both “skeptic” and “denier”

Here, you are likely to want to go beyond class reactions into the response to the change within public discussion. Having engaged your class in the nuances of the terms, you’ll want them to see who cares in social context, and why. You’ll find a list of good articles at the end of this post, but here are a few main ones.

First, here is one reaction in favour of banning the term “climate change skepticism”:

The Center for Skeptical Inquiry, which lobbied for media outlets to drop “skeptic” in a letter signed by Bill Nye and other prominent scientists because it says the term only applies to those who use “reason and evidence to reach conclusions,” applauded AP’s change…

Mark Boslough of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry goes further:

“We should be skeptical of everything. In science, we are skeptical of everything. But being skeptical of climate change is sort of like being skeptical of Newton’s laws. [Both are] so well established. It’s like saying I’m skeptical that eclipses are caused by the shadow of the moon.”

The bigger controversy has arisen from the banning of the term “denier”. For instance, from Graham Readfearn in The Guardian:

John Cook, climate change communication fellow at the University of Queensland and founder of the SkepticalScience blog, told me:

There is a growing body of scientific research into the phenomenon of science denial, whether it be denial of evolution, climate change, vaccination or so on. We can’t counter the corrosive influence of denial unless we heed the psychological research into what drives people to reject scientific evidence, as well as the techniques and strategies employed to misinform the public. It’s essential that we take an evidence-based approach to our response to science denial. So running away from the issue of denial is counter-productive and unscientific. Scolding people for using the accurate and informative term ‘denial’ is tantamount to scientific censorship.

Readfearn goes on to say:

But the vast majority of climate science deniers who warrant coverage in the news media are not weather vanes or disinterested observers on climate change. Many are activists. Some get funding from the very industries who stand to lose the most from action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps tellingly, several high profile and newly minted “climate change doubters” have welcomed AP’s decision.

Reactions to the new terminology “doubter”

What is wrong, then, with the new term, “doubter”?

Ronald Lindsay, CEO of the Center for Inquiry, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Amherst, New York, agrees that “doubter” isn’t a great substitute for “skeptic” or “denier.” “Referring to deniers as ‘doubters’ still imbues those who reject scientific fact with an intellectual legitimacy they have not earned,” he says in a statement.

One climate change denier – no, not “denier” anymore but “doubter” — agrees with the connotations of the new term “doubter”– but, of course, likes the change: Marc Morano, who runs the contrarian site Climate Depot, told National Journal that he preferred the term “skeptic,” but that “doubter” still suggests there’s room for debate.

So what terms should be used otherwise? Those who accept the findings of climate scientists were perfectly happy, of course, using the word “denier”. Others, however, have other ideas. Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a climate scientist who is running as a candidate to be the next chair of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said he personally uses the term “climate confusers” in most cases.

Knowledge questions

Thus we are left with a few questions about the way journalists can communicate shared knowledge — and not just scientific knowledge. These questions can be applied first to the specific example, and then generalized to apply to all relevant knowledge:

  1. Who should decide what a term like “climate change skeptic” actually means? Is it enough for each journalist to make his own terminology clear, or should there be a central body to make the definition?

BROADER KNOWLEDGE QUESTIONS: What is the role of definitions in language? What is the role of shared definitions in developing shared knowledge?

  1. What arguments could be made for the use of the term “climate confusers”? What forces – political, economic, and so forth — influence the accumulation of connotations around terminology used in topics hotly contested in public media? Would it be fair to say that gaining public acceptance of a particular body of knowledge claims can be a matter of taking control of the language used on a topic, and having your own connotations take over?  (Some reference to election campaigns or campaigns over racist and sexist language would be obvious here!)

BROADER KNOWLEDGE QUESTIONS: In what ways might the language we use affect the way we think? In what ways do our perspectives on the world affect the concepts we name and the language we use to describe them?

Ultimately, of course, the particular example of the Associated Press guidance on terminology of climate change doesn’t matter to us in TOK – except insofar as it opens up knowledge questions. The questions above come up most notably in treatment of language as a way of knowing (also intuition, reason and emotion) and the subsection concepts/language in the knowledge framework for areas of knowledge. But they thread their way through all of the critical thinking of the Theory of Knowledge course.

Further Reading

Theo Dombrowski, “Skepticism – a million dollar challenge”, Activating TOK. March 15, 2014. http://activatingtok.net/2014/06/12/skepticism-a-million-dollar-challenge/

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013.  Note especially analysis of perspectives pages 28-29 and chapter 8 on language, section following page 141. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737/?region=international


Paul Colford, “An addition to AP stylebook  entry on global warming”, Associated Press. Sept 22, 2015.  https://blog.ap.org/announcements/an-addition-to-ap-stylebook-entry-on-global-warming


Graham Readfearn, “What other term is there for climate science deniers other than denier?”, The Guardian. Sept 24, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2015/sep/24/what-other-term-is there-for-climate-science-deniers-other-than-denier

Lydia O’Conner, “Associated Press Stops Calling Those Who Deny Climate Change ‘Deniers'” Huffington Post. Sept 22 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ap-climate-change deniers_5601c55ae4b08820d91a99cc

Jason Plautz, “What Should a Journalist Call Someone Who Doesn’t Think Climate Change Is Real?” National Journal. Sept 23 2015. http://www.nationaljournal.com/s/73641/what-should-journalist-call-someone-who-doesnt-think-climate-change-is-real 

Zoe Schlanger, “The Real Skeptics Behind the AP Decision to Put an End to the Term ‘Climate Skeptics'” Newsweek. Sept 24 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/associated-press-climate-skeptic-climate-denier-stylebook-center-skeptical-376197