***Update – In a huge win for everyone who isn’t a doofus, the AP has now officially changed the language it will use to refer to people who don’t accept modern science. From the AP blog:
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.
On the Media and other media critics have raised questions about the AP’s decision to avoid the word denier, and while I still prefer that word I am thrilled that they (and those who use their style guide) will no longer use the word skeptic. Overall a win for the good guys.
Much of today’s new media is dreadful – this is a truth well acknowledged by most of us in academia. Be it the doofuses who get to pass as “experts”, the prioritization of special-interest and feel-good pieces, the pushing or corporate agendas, or the general lack of self-reflexive insight, very few of us feel that we ever really learn that much from the major news networks. The one large organization often excepted from this criticism is NPR*, probably the most pre-programmed radio station in every faculty and staff parking lot at your local college or university. NPR can do some great journalism and story-telling, if you can get past it’s east-coast upper-middle class view of the world, and it is the only major news outlet that I can stomach for extended periods of time.
Perhaps this is what I got so annoyed the other morning. Usually I am either biking or bussing to work in the morning, but that day I had to drop my folks off at the airport bus station and had a few hours in the car. Morning Edition, the normal NPR offering this time of day, was doing a piece on President Obama’s upcoming trip to Alaska, and his renaming of Mt. McKinley back to Denali. The trip is thought to focus on the effects of climate change, which is excellent, which lead the Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to say the following:
Climate is the president’s main focus on this trip, and on that subject, in Alaska, climate skeptics and environmentalists alike question the president. John Ryan reports from our member station KUCB in the Aleutian Islands. (full transcript here)
You can probably tell by the words I highlighted in the above quote that my problem with this statement is the term “climate skeptic.” This term is used regularly, every week or so I put on my grumpy old man pants and fire off an email to some editor or ombudsman about their use of this term (for example here on CNN). I expect most of these outlets to use the term, but NPR’s use of it got me sufficiently grumpy that I thought I’d write a post instead. There have apparently been hints that NPR had stopped using this incorrect term back in 2014, but apparently not all of the script writers got the message.
Skeptics are great, they question prevailing wisdom; they collect data and observations and then use reason, logic, and critical thinking to come to a conclusion. Basically they follow where the data and observations lead them, even if it is into uncomfortable or unpopular territory. Importantly, skeptics should be ruled by reason. The ideal scientist (or academic generally) is skeptical, sure we all have biases, but every interaction with data is an opportunity to challenge ourselves.
Refusing to accept ideas in the face of overwhelming evidence is not skepticism, it is denial. There is no such thing as a round earth skeptic, heliocentric solar system skeptic, or anthropogenic climate change skeptic. People unwilling to accept the overwhelming evidence are deniers, and we need to call them that.
The truth is, good scientists welcome skepticism. Think of Richard Muller, one of the few who might have fallen into the category of skeptic (although one could argue his old position required a general ignorance of climate science considering that most of his points of contention had been addressed by the climate science community previously). Anyways, he challenged the prevailing science, took some money from the Koch Brothers, collected data, thought about it logically, used reason, and realized the climate scientists were right all along (read about it here). That is what a skeptic would do, and regardless of his original position, at least Muller can be given credit for doing his due diligence.
This is a long winded way of saying that language is important, and the term “skeptic,” when applied to climate change deniers (or evolution deniers or ancient earth deniers or whatever) gives them undeserved credit and makes them sound like they are acting rationally and basing their position on the preponderance of evidence. They are not, and we need to call out the news organizations that continue to prop them up. For fuchsite sake 14 of the 15 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000, with the 15th being 1998, people born after 1977 have never experienced a year cooler than the 20th century average, and anyone born after February of 1985 has never experienced a single month colder than the 20th century average.
So the next time you hear a journalist refer to someone as a climate skeptic, put on your old person grumpy pants, fire up the complaint letter emails, and remind them that climate deniers belong in the same bin as flat earthers.
*I am using the term “NPR” as a catch-all for public radio, although I know that the details of who produces the program can vary. I’ll refer you to this story from On the Media if you are interested.