AP Denies the “Denier” Label

Rachelle Peterson

Scientists who refuse to cow to the orthodoxy of dangerous anthropogenic global warming have had a rough go of it in academia. The media’s none too friendly a place, either. In March, I wrote about a panel at Columbia Journalism School that recommended censoring expressions of “climate change deniers” out the public news. Quoting such scientists in news stories provided a “false balance” that pretended the academic debate about global warming was still going on. The assumption, of course, was that debate ended a long time ago. All that remained was activism. New York Times reporter Justin Gillis summed up, “To act as if the evidence is half and half is to tell a lie. I refuse to perpetuate that lie.”

Now, Science Magazine reports, the Associated Press is pushing back against the term “denier,” a derogatory epithet that disrespects climate change skeptics’ legitimate scientific concerns and jumps straight to stigmatization. A new update to the AP Stylebook asks news writers to avoid calling people climate change or global warming “deniers” because the term “has the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier.” But the AP also tosses a bone to keep the activists at bay:  neither may the former-deniers be called climate change “skeptics.” Skepticism “promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason,” which evidently the climate change dissenters do not.  

What should we now call such non-denying, non-skeptical questioners of dangerous climate change? The AP’s newly approved phrases are “climate change doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science.”

The Sierra Club is outraged at the change. It tweeted, “Also, please now refer to 'flat-earthers' as 'Sphere-thought-challenged.' Seriously, what the heck, AP?”

Joe Romm of the blog Climate Progress fretted that “The Associated Press just made one of the most pointless — if not most senseless — moves in the storied history of its widely used AP Stylebook.” Romm judges that “those who reject mainstream climate science” is “not half bad” as a description but is “so clumsy” that newspapers may fall back on “doubter” instead.

Some of the formerly labeled “deniers” are rejoicing. Meteorologist Anthony Watts, founder of the blog Watts Up With That, said the AP move was a “positive and long and overdue change” to trounce the “ugly climate term ‘denier.’” Marc Morano, who runs Climate Depot, deems the AP finally “entering the realm of objectivity.”

Naomi Oreskes, Harvard historian of science and outspoken critic of climate change doubters, likes the new term, too. Oreskes popularized the phrase “merchants of doubt” with her 2011 book by the same title, co-written with Erik Conway. Oreskes and Conway charged that mercenary scientists operated as front groups for corporate interests, seeding the scientific literature with false “doubts” about settled scientific consensuses to buy time for their benefactors to reap in profits.

The National Association of Scholars takes no position on the validity of the various scientific claims made in the dispute over catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, but we applaud the AP for ruling out the inappropriate and disrespectful term “climate change denier.” Scientific theories should be weighed by their evidence and their merits, and the scientists who scrutinize ideas—no matter their popular appeal—deserve our respect.  

As for the AP’s alternative phrase, “those who reject mainstream climate science,” we note that it is tendentious. Numerous critics of the AGW orthodoxy are mainstream scientists, many of whom hold academic appointments at major universities.  They hold what is currently a minority opinion but that does not mean they are outside “mainstream climate science.”  By proposing such a phrase, the AP is tilting to one side of an unsettled debate. 


Image: "Thermometer" by .rog31 / CC BY

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