On the last day of hottest summer in recorded history, the Associated Press made a rather timely announcement: we are no longer supposed to use the terms “climate change sceptics” or “climate change deniers” to label people who disagree the Earth is warming due to human activity.
Instead, the AP Stylebook will now recommend that journalists use “climate change doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science”. That last one is a mouthful that’s certainly going to eat up my Twitter character count. So why the change?
According to the AP Definitive Source, which reports on edits to the AP Stylebook, it’s because some scientists consider themselves sceptics:
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.
So, alright then, even sceptical scientists agree, “climate change deniers” it is. But the problem with that is that some people really don’t like being called deniers:
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.
Our choice of words matter, maybe more than ever in an age when a three-word tweet can go viral. I recently wrote about the movement to use the word “crash” instead of “accident” when describing a road collision. The idea is that this semantic shift points to the fact that there was a flaw somewhere — street design, driver behaviour — and fixing it could help save lives. When talking about climate change, I would argue that precise language is equally important, especially to help convey the gravity of the situation. I think that “climate change denier” is a powerful phrase; these people are denying something that scientific evidence has demonstrated repeatedly to be true. Climate change deniers are also denying that human lives are at stake.
A screengrab from the Obama for America site to “Call Out Climate Change Deniers”
I disagree with the fact that “denier” is too closely associated with the Holocaust; I hadn’t even considered that before. And there are plenty of other things to deny out there, anyway. Like moon landings. It’s kind of a blanket term used to describe people who reject all kinds of mainstream ideas.
Interestingly enough, the use example of “denier” on Google is about global warming:
And the mentions for “denier” spike in the 1950s. Why? It actually has nothing to do with denying things. Instead, it has to do with the other denier — a unit of measurement for nylon and rayon.
“Denier” is by far the most powerful word we have. “Climate change doubter” is too soft of a phrase for such an important topic. “Those who reject mainstream climate science” is accurate perhaps, but it’s far too wordy. And the fact that it has “mainstream” in there is troublesome. Perhaps we should just go with “those who reject climate science.”
Or, as Gizmodo staff writer Maddie Stone suggested: Those who reject science, period.