Experts Criticize Associated Press For Disavowing Term "Climate Change Denier"

Scientists And Journalists Say AP's Stylebook Change Legitimizes Those Who Reject Scientific Fact

››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

The Associated Press recently updated its Stylebook by instructing AP writers to avoid using the term "denier" to describe those who reject the firmly-held scientific consensus on climate change. The AP's Stylebook change was celebrated by several well-known climate science deniers, but criticized by prominent scientists and journalists who say the new AP-approved term "climate change doubters" grants undeserved legitimacy to those who refuse to acknowledge the consensus.

Associated Press Updates Stylebook To Disavow Term "Climate Change Denier"

AP Instructs Staff To Use "Climate Change Doubters" Instead Of "Skeptics Or Deniers." On September 22, the Associated Press added the following addendum to its Stylebook entry on global warming:

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.

In a staff memo, AP Stylebook editors Sally Jacobsen, Dave Minthorn and Paula Froke stated that "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." [AP.org, 9/22/15]

Move Comes After Prominent Scientists Called On Media To Stop Describing Deniers As "Skeptics," And Advocacy Group Launched Petition Against AP. In December 2014, fellows from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry -- a project of the Center for Inquiry -- wrote an open letter to journalists asking that they "stop using the word 'skeptic' to describe deniers." The group of fellows, which included many prominent scientists, wrote:

As Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, we are concerned that the words "skeptic" and "denier" have been conflated by the popular media. Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.

In response to the fellows' open letter, the climate change advocacy group Forecast the Facts (now known as ClimateTruth.org) launched a petition calling on the AP to "[e]stablish a rule in the AP StyleBook ruling out the use of 'skeptic' to describe those who deny scientific facts." Media Matters promoted the Forecast the Facts petition. [The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, 12/5/14; Forecast the Facts/ClimateTruth.org, accessed 9/23/15; Media Matters, accessed 9/23/15]

Scientists And Journalists Criticize AP Stylebook Change

Center For Inquiry President: "Doubters" Term "Imbues Those Who Reject Scientific Fact With An Intellectual Legitimacy They Have Not Earned." In a press release, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry described the AP's decision to use the term "climate change doubters" as "problematic and confusing." Center for Inquiry president and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay explained that "[r]eferring to deniers as 'doubters' still imbues those who reject scientific fact with an intellectual legitimacy they have not earned. The general public, we fear, will still not get a clear picture of which public figures are basing their positions on reality, and which are not." The press release added: "Despite problems with the term 'doubters,' CSI expressed that the longer classification of 'those who reject mainstream climate science' was acceptably clarifying."[Center for Inquiry, 9/22/15]

Washington Post's Erik Wemple: AP "Succumbed To A Specious Argument," Setting A "Dicey Precedent." Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple wrote in a blog post that the AP "succumbed to a specious argument" by suggesting that the term "denier" always implies a connection to Holocaust denial, which Wemple added "[s]eems like a dicey precedent." Wemple also quoted the Climate Investigations Center's Kert Davies, who said that the AP's preferred terminology "would give an increasingly marginalized minority of mostly non-scientists and crackpots new credibility." From the post:

The AP takes a step like this only after piling up a great deal of e-mails and filing in and out of meetings. Stylebook editors Sally Jacobsen, Dave Minthorn and Paula Froke understand the influence of the document that they curate. In this case, however, they have succumbed to a specious argument that the term "denier" can't be paired with another term without tinging it with Holocaust implications. Seems like a dicey precedent. "This change in terminology would give an increasingly marginalized minority of mostly non-scientists and crackpots new credibility," writes Kert Davies of the Climate Investigations Center in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog. "It would also satisfy the wishes of the 'deniers' to not be called 'deniers.'" [Washington Post, Erik Wemple blog, 9/22/15]

Huffington Post Washington Bureau Chief: "Doubters" Term "Is Almost Always Simply False." Ryan Grim, the Huffington Post's Washington Bureau Chief, wrote that the term climate change "doubters" is "almost always simply false," and added that "[i]n no other circumstance would the complete rejection of science be treated so gently":

[T]he motivation behind shedding the term denier is a deeply strange one: Because it hurts their feelings?

To call them "doubters," though, is almost always simply false. It presumes knowledge of somebody's state of mind, but more often is just inaccurate. Take Exxon: We learned just recently that Exxon has known for a scientific fact since 1982 that fossil fuels were driving catastrophic climate change. Exxon's scientists did not "doubt" this fact. Nor did its executives who were read in on the science. Rather, they spent a fortune to -- I'm trying to find the right word here -- say that what was true was not actually true.

AP's deference to the deniers is all the more strange for how it would sound in a different context. Would we talk about gravity doubters? What about people who doubt the link between smoking and lung cancer? In no other circumstance would the complete rejection of science be treated so gently. And it is only being done because, over the past decade, under intense pressure, an entire political party has embraced denialism.

[...]

At HuffPost, we'll continue to call people who deny science "deniers" (when we're being charitable). [Huffington Post, 9/22/15]

Climate Scientist Michael Mann: To Call Science Deniers "Doubter[s]" Is "To Grant An Undeserved Air Of Legitimacy To Something That Is Simply Not Legitimate." Climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in an email to ThinkProgress:

Those who are in deni­al of ba­sic sci­ence, be it evol­u­tion or hu­man-caused cli­mate change, are in fact sci­ence-den­iers ... To call them any­thing else, be it 'skep­tic' or 'doubter,' is to grant an un­deserved air of le­git­im­acy to something that is simply not le­git­im­ate. [ThinkProgress, 9/22/15]

ThinkProgress' Joe Romm: AP Made "One Of The Most Pointless -- If Not Most Senseless -- Moves" In History Of Stylebook. ThinkProgress' Joe Romm wrote that the change was "one of the most pointless -- if not most senseless -- moves in the storied history of its widely used AP Stylebook." Romm added:

Does the AP recommend newspapers use the phrase "smoking health risk doubters" or "tobacco science doubters"? Of course not -- and yet scientists have the same level of certainty about human-caused climate change as they do that cigarettes harm your health. Indeed the AP itself explained that very point in a 2014 Seth Borenstein article that began, "Top scientists from a variety of fields say they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill."

The media doesn't even pay attention to people who deny the health dangers of tobacco smoke anymore. So why treat those who deny the reality -- and danger -- of human-caused climate change any differently?

[...]

Here's another reason "doubter" makes no sense. The Senate's leading climate science denier/denialist/disinformer James Inhofe (R-OK) still maintains "global warming is a hoax." Is he expressing "doubt"? Is he expressing what Oxford Dictionaries calls "a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction." No. He is denying the science. [ThinkProgress, 9/22/15]

American Geophysical Union's Dan Satterfield: AP's Change Is "Rather Watered Down." American Geophysical Union blogger and meteorologist Dan Satterfield wrote that the phrase "Those who reject mainstream climate science" is "rather watered down," and that "climate change doubters" is "not much better." He continued:

A person who refuses to believe something in the face of a mountain of evidence (like the holocaust) is suffering from denial. That said, if indeed most people hear the term denier, and think of those who refuse to believe the holocaust, then the AP may have a point. However, I'm not sure that most people make that correlation.

Joe Romm has a post about this that makes a lot of sense to me. Especially the quote from Climatologist Dr. Michael Mann of Penn State "To call them anything else, be it 'skeptic' or 'doubter,' is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate." Others agreed with Mann, based on quotes in this article on Huffington Post.

They have a good point. If you're going to tell every major science body on Earth that they are wrong, without any evidence, and in almost every case, having no science background in the field, then to most thinking people, you have no air of legitimacy. It's certainly not the AP's job to give them one, but the good news is that the term "skeptics" is no longer AP policy, because they are most certainly not. [AGU.org, 9/23/15]

Noofangle Media President Barbara Kessler: Denier Term "Fits," Doubter Is "Too Soft." Barbara Kessler, president of Noofangle Media, which provides green living news content for media companies, tweeted: "Agree w/ AP that 'skeptic' is not best descriptor for climate 'doubters.' But denier? That fits. Doubter, too soft." [Twitter, 9/23/15]

ScienceBlogs' Greg Laden: AP Is Being "Anti Science." ScienceBlogs writer Greg Laden tweeted: "The term 'denier' is a widely used term [in] social science research. AP is being anti science." [Twitter, 9/22/15]

Climate Science Deniers Praise AP's Stylebook Change

Marc Morano Commended AP For "Entering The Realm Of Objectivity." Marc Morano, who is paid by a fossil fuel industry-funded group to run the climate denial website ClimateDepot, said he "com­mend[s] the AP from mov­ing away from 'den­ier' and en­ter­ing the realm of ob­jectiv­ity," according to the National Journal. National Journal also reported that Morano said he would "gladly ad­opt 'doubter' be­cause it still in­dic­ates that there's room for de­bate." [Media Matters, 3/8/15; National Journal, 9/23/15]

Anthony Watts Gave "Kudos" To AP. Climate denial blogger Anthony Watts made the following statement about the AP's Stylebook shift:

Kudos to the Associated Press.

This is a positive and long overdue change. As reported back in 2007, the ugly term "global warming denier" gained traction after a widely syndicated op-ed from Boston Globe Columnist Ellen Goodman. [Media Matters, 11/28/12; WattsUpWithThat.com, 9/23/15]

William O'Keefe: Denier Term "Was Intended To Be Pejorative." William O'Keefe, CEO for the industry-funded George C. Marshall Institute, said the word denier "was in­ten­ded to be pe­jor­at­ive and was seen that way." [Media Matters, 3/8/15; National Journal, 9/23/15]

William Happer Reportedly "Applauded The AP For The Move." The National Journal reported that William Happer "ap­plauded the AP for the move, but said he was still happy to be called a skep­tic." In 2014, Happer compared efforts to reduce carbon emissions to the Holocaust, stating that "the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews." [National Journal, 9/23/15; Media Matters, 7/15/14]

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