When people stake out positions on an issue, those in one camp or another often bear the burden of associations not of their own doing. Such is the case in the field of climatology. For years, those in the camp of: a) there is no global warming, b) the Earth has always warmed and cooled, or c) the Earth is warming, but human attribution is minimal or not well understood, have latched on to the term skeptic. Some dictionary definitions of skeptic or skepticism include:
Those in the camp accepting of the overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth is warming and human activity significantly contributes to the warming often prefer a different term for those that would call themselves climate change skeptics: denier. Here are a few dictionary definitions of denier:
The second definition is from Dictionary.com and the examples they use to illustrate their definition are: “The writer is a Holocaust denier; a denier of climate change.” Two examples. The first references the Holocaust and the second references climate change. Herein lies the issue for those that are not on board with the scientific consensus. Should people who sincerely and honestly have questions about the state of climate change science be labelled with a term analogous to a Holocaust denier? Cliff Mass recently wrote a lengthy piece on the subject. Others have chimed in as well on the notion of skepticism (see: Marshall Shepherd’s article on Forbes).
In 2015, the Associated Press updated their eponymous Style Guide with the following statement: “Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.” This represents a step beyond the skeptic vs. denier debate discussed above.
The problem in the debate on terminology is a matter of scientific legitimacy. Does the person whose knowledge of climate change is gleaned solely from talk radio deserve the benefit of the doubt with regard to being labelled a denier? What about a distinguished professor of atmospheric science? What about an electrical engineer?
Professor Judith Curry is often interviewed for her thoughts on climate change. While labelled a denier by many, she concedes that to some degree, she is part of the consensus (see: https://youtu.be/z4ys2HCq-pw?t=3m46s ). “Yes it’s warming. Yes, humans contribute to it. I mean everybody agrees with that; and I’m in the 98%. It’s when you get down to the details that there is genuine disagreement [January 7, 2017].” Is she a denier? A skeptic? A doubter?
These are difficult questions. I propose a basic test to determine who has earned the benefit of the doubt on whether to be labelled a denier or not.
- Does the person have an academic or professional background in atmospheric science or climatology? If the answer is yes, then they earn the benefit of the doubt and should not be called a denier.
- Does the person have an academic or professional background in another discipline and not a climate-related field? If the answer is yes, then they have not earned the right to be called anything other than a denier.
Of course this ignores the issue of weather “denier” represents a statement on position of just name calling. My opinion is that it is not inappropriate name calling for people outside of the field. There is of course an irony in that many people who deplore being called a denier often refer to people who accept the consensus as “warmists” or “alarmists.”
Climatology is a subject that people are familiar with as a result of life experiences. Everyone sees the clouds, feels the rain, and bundles up in the cold. This leads people to feel comfortable opining on matters of serious scientific inquiry. However, that’s not how science works. Those that are doing research in the field have earned the right to make controversial statements on the subject without being labelled a heretic. It is an earned right.
If you are not in the community of climate scientists yet ascribe to the scientific consensus of climate change / global warming, there’s not a problem. That is what it means to have expert consensus and to trust the science. For example, when a tropical meteorologist says that hurricanes are less likely to form when wind shear is high, most people probably have little idea what wind shear even is, but trust that the experts know what they are talking about. So, without knowing anything about a topic, you can be on the “right” side by just going with the consensus. The opposite is not true however.
Is this unfair? No. I know enough about physics to teach high schoolers about gravity. I would start with Newtownian gravity and move to Einsteinium relativistic gravity. If, on the other hand, I go into the classroom and teach the students that Einstein was wrong, that’s a huge problem. I better have a PhD is physics, a beefy CV, and probably a Nobel Prize to my name. In the absence of those credentials, I would rightfully be labelled General Relativity denier. Period. The same holds true for climate science.