No Doubt About It: People Who Mislead the Public About Climate Change Are Deniers

Yesterday, the Associated Press Stylebook announced new guidance on how to describe those who reject accepted science on climate change. It's an important question, but the AP's recommendations in this case missed its mission to more accurately present the news. By suggesting the term "doubter" to describe this group, the AP reinforces a persistent problem in reporting on climate change - the false suggestion of a balanced scientific debate where none exists.

Last spring, submitted a petition to AP editors signed by more than 22,000 of our members in support of an open letter organized by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. The letter argued that the term "skeptic" granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry. Stylebook editors cited the letter in explaining their recommendation not to use the term skeptic.

Yet the Stylebook's alternative term "doubter" falsely equates the legitimate concerns of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry with the concern that "those who reject climate science say the phrase denier has the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier." In other words, deniers don't like being called deniers, so we shouldn't call them that. Why the feelings of the deniers have any bearing on this decision is not clear. But if the question is accuracy, then the label "climate change doubters" just doesn't hold up.

Like skeptic, doubter implies a certain intellectual authenticity - a sense of validation where none should reasonably exist. The group this term seeks to describe is mostly made up of an array of pundits, politicians, and front group professionals - part of a systematic, well-funded, coordinated effort to confuse the public about the reality of climate change. Their mission is simple and, at its root, inherently anti-intellectual: confuse the issue to forestall action. As the New York Times' Justin Gillis explained in a February piece on this subject:

The opposition is coming from a certain faction of the political right. Many of these conservatives understand that because greenhouse emissions are caused by virtually every economic activity of modern society, they are likely to be reduced only by extensive government intervention in the market.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. As the science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have ably shown in their book Merchants of Doubt, the people involved in this effort to mislead the public on climate change are often the same people who perpetrated years of lies about the health threats of tobacco. Climate Progress' Joe Romm rightly asks, whether Stylebook editors would suggest calling such people "smoking health risk doubters?"

For some, this whole debate may have them quoting Shakespeare's Juliet, who famously asked "What's in a name?" We need look no further than the Republican presidential primary for the answer. Nearly every candidate running for the Republican nomination denies the basic facts of climate change, and it's almost certain that will be the view of the eventual nominee. The media will have ample opportunities to describe that nominee's position on climate change, and how they do so will send an important signal to the American public about the nature of that view: is it an honest questioning or a willful effort to mislead?

The AP Stylebook has a difficult and important job, but this should be an easy call. Does the AP really think that James Inhofe or Marco Rubio or the staff of the Heartland Institute have taken a careful look at the IPCC's findings and decided they're authentically uncertain about whether those scientists have gotten it right? As climate scientist Michael Mann said in response to the AP announcement, calling these people anything other than denier "is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate."

AP editors are right to advise against labeling the anti-science crowd skeptics. But they have done the journalistic world a disservice by giving those who reject mainstream science the "benefit of the doubt" (pun intended). We're sticking with deniers and we urge accuracy-minded editors to do the same.