No doubt readers of this blog are getting their fill of the big Wikileaks story elsewhere. But I can’t resist linking to this smart post by Stephen Budiansky, a writer I’ve been familiar with for a long time. He offers a measured perspective that is critical of both “excessive secrecy” by the U.S. government and the latest Wikileaks dump. Of the former, he notes that
Paul Kelly tries talking sense to the all-or-nothing crowd over at Bart’s place. The usual suspects snarl and prance.
a good example of effective science communication.
It would be interesting to hear from climate scientists if they agree. The argument the op-ed authors make is that current obstacles to curbing carbon dioxide need not prevent concrete action on climate change:
Other potent warming agents include three short-lived gases “” methane, some hydrofluorocarbons and lower atmospheric ozone “” and dark soot particles. The warming effect of these pollutants, which stay in the atmosphere for several days to about a decade, is already about 80 percent of the amount that carbon dioxide causes. The world could easily and quickly reduce these pollutants; the technology and regulatory systems needed to do so are already in place.
Here’s what puzzles me: if this could be done so “easily and quickly,” then why isn’t it happening? What’s standing in the way?
That’s what a certain organization is trying to urge with this controversial billboard outside Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey.
I’m all for “celebrating reason,” but picking on Santa Claus to make your point? Then again, the target audience appears to be
people who are secretive not only to their friends and family, but maybe even to themselves about [their atheism].
This is the second post of what will be a three part series on the terminology used in the climate debate to define individuals and groups of people that share a common position.
The first post surveyed responses from science and environmental writers on two common terms used in the climate debate: “skeptic” and “denier.”
This second post will discuss the intellectually inconsistent use of “denier” as a pejorative term.
In the climate discourse, “denier” has become widely adopted by climate “hawks,” liberal climate bloggers, and some scientists. Defenders of the term insist that
denialism is not a priori meant to invoke Holocaust denial, but rather describes an attitude and set of behaviors that are common among many groups that reject mainstream scientific and/or historical concepts.
The argument being that denial of global warming is a form of denialism no different than denial of the Holocaust, evolution, the HIV virus, and germ theory. With liberals, though, there appears to be a double standard in usage of the term “denier.”
Maher is a comedian and talk-show host who last year famously advised against getting the swine flue shot. Over the years he has been an outspoken opponent of the seasonal flu vaccine. Here he is in 2005, railing against “western medicine” and vaccines on the Larry King show. You’d think that if anyone deserved to be labeled a “denier,” it would be Maher. (Incidentally, Maher’s rant against the swine flu vaccine last year triggered so much backlash that he felt compelled to respond with this teach the controversy post.) But I’m not seeing anyone labeling Maher a denier.
To be fair, plenty of liberals are dismayed at Maher’s quackery. But he’s mostly called a “crank” for his anti-vaccination nonsense and opposition to western medicine. No broad brush tarring as a “denier.” (I could also make the same case for Robert Kennedy Jr., especially since he seems to get special dispensation from liberals.)
As for the hugely trafficked Huffington Post (which takes its name from the liberal pundit and socialite Arianna Huffington), it has become “since its inception a bastion of pseudoscience,“ a crazy “rabbit hole of anti-science,” or to put it more gently, a forum for all sorts of wacky views on alternative medicine and immunization.
What it’s not, of course, is a “denialist” communications vehicle. It can’t be, because “denialism” is…well…not associated with enlightened liberal thinking, right? Arianna Huffington can’t be a denialist any more than Robert Kennedy Jr. Liberals calling liberals denialists? Nah, you’re not going to see that.
Meanwhile, climate denialism is treated uniquely as part of of some larger conservative derangement syndrome, that, oh yeah, threatens the future of the world. Why aren’t Bill Maher and the Huffington Post labeled similarly as “denialists” when they promulgate misinformation and myths that threaten public health?
No, I’m not saying that liberals ought to be more more evenhanded in the way they throw around the term “denier.” What I wish, though, has been said best by this blogger, who writes that
both liberals and conservatives alike must own up to their own extremists. Liberals must own up to the fact that they don’t have a universally-solid grasp on scientific truth, and just like the right wingers, we have people and movements within the left wing that are cranky and denialist. I would say left wing crankery includes animal rights extremism, altie/new age woo, and anti-technology Luddites.
Bill Maher is one of these cranks (he scores 3/3), and if the liberals want to represent themselves as truly pro-science we must make a concerted effort to reject the unscientific beliefs of these crackpots.
That includes the cranks that happen to be liberal icons, too.
the three scientists behind the project ““ John Abraham, Scott Mandia, and Ray Weymann ““ have come off almost as climate science super heroes, which in a sense they are.
Wow, move over Batman and Robin.
Seriously, I know the UK newspapers aren’t so hung up on the whole faux objectivity thing, but isn’t that a bit too smoochy?
This is not to cast any aspersions on climate scientists volunteering their time to help communicate the complexity of their field. But it’s not like they’re running into burning buildings or ridding the world of Lex Luther. People might want to hold off on the hero worship–at least until these caped climate crusaders have their own comic book.
Utility executives that had favored the failed cap & trade bill in Congress are moving on, reports the WSJ:
In a blueprint released last week, Exelon executives said their 13-state region could achieve reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions nearly equal to what federal legislation might have achieved in the next decade by pressing ahead with activities already encouraged by state and federal regulators.
This includes investment in nuclear power plant enhancements and a raft of energy efficient programs, such as “smart” meters and new transmission lines to ferry wind and solar power.
The money quote goes to one exec, who likens the roundabout CO2-reduction approach to the way a famous mobster was once taken down:
It’s like getting Al Capone for tax evasion. It’s not as satisfying as getting him for murder, but it still puts him away.
Clever, but it still happened by way of the federal government.
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.
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.
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.
He hates conservative views. He hates conservative thoughts. He hates conservative verbiage. He hates conservatives…He’s crazy. If it wasn’t polarized, he couldn’t make a living. He makes a living by attacking conservatives and stirring up a liberal base against it…He loves polarization. He depends on it. If liberals and conservatives are all getting along, how good would that show be? It’d be a bomb.
And that was the tame part of the the Roger Ailes interview with Howard Kurtz.
Ailes, who is the chairman of Fox news, said this about NPR executives:
They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view.
The Anti-Defamation League has already accepted Ailes apology. As for the reaction from the talent at Fox News, you have to wonder if Beck and O’Reilly are perturbed that Ailes is stealing their material.
That’s what David Rothkopf is bemoaning here in Foreign Policy and it’s what outgoing Republican congressman Bob Ingliss is warning about in his comments yesterday at the House Subcommittee hearing on climate change.
Rothkopf, perhaps reminded of this movie (that was awful but also dead-on), offers his own metaphor for the virus overtaking parts of the Republican party :
In just the past couple of weeks since the election we have seen half a dozen examples of this next generation know-nothingism, this translation of a dumbed-down zeitgeist into a new movement that might be called Snookiism.
Go ahead and have a read of his examples. You might then ask yourself what it’ll take to burn out this strain of Snookism.