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There is no doubt that Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein is a top notch science reporter. However, he is a professional journalist, and for this reason I expect him to be part of, and to be guided by, the culture of journalism. The culture of journalism involves a critical feature that makes journalism work: When researching and reporting a story, seek the other perspectives, those that for one reason or another come to a different conclusion than the perspective that may have initially gotten one’s attention. The Pope speaks to the Joint Session of Congress, and the most obvious thing we see is that he doesn’t say much about climate change. But some astute observers note that he really did, but he was just being subtle. Now, the interplay between the Pope’s overt and subtle messages is central to the story, and a journalist can bring together observation and analysis by multiple voices to dig below the surface.
You already know that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, associated with the Center For Inquiry, recently took action in the form of a letter and a petition to encourage the Associated Press to stop using the term “skeptic” to describe those who reject mainstream climate science. The term “skeptic” and its derivatives was already in use by the community represented by CFI/CSI, who in fact call themselves skeptics. To be a skeptic means that you view claims and assertions made by individuals or organizations as a scientist might view data or propositions to explain them, using critically evaluated evidence in the context of provisional theories or models to come to a rational understanding of something.
Those who reject mainstream climate science are not skeptics.
AP agreed with that, and the reason I started out with a mention of Seth Borenstein is that he was involved in developing a proper response to CSI’s proposition. AP modified its owns style guide to recommend against the use of the word skeptic in this context. In truth, this has only a minor impact on the world, in my opinion, because we have many words that have multiple meanings, and it is not at all unusual for a word to connote very different things even in the same conversation. In theory, my friend is going to meet me for lunch so we can discuss my new theory about human evolution. I say “in theory” because my friend always forgets appointments, and spoken with a saccharine inflection I indicate that I suspect he isn’t going to show. But my new theory of human evolution is a carefully constructed set of interrelated propositions, based on several lines of evidence of varying qualities and subject to revision, contextualized in a set of basic biological and taphonomic principles that guide my scientific mind in interpreting this evidence, those principles also subject to revision. Vernacular theory, scientific theory. This is how we humans communicate, which makes our mode of communication both a wonderful and mysterious playground for the mind, and a very annoying place to think. We could probably have lived with the term “skeptic” having two distinct meanings.
But, the CFI/CFI had a legitimate, if somewhat self-concerned, beef, with which I fully agree. And it got fixed, and that is nice.
By now you also know that the AP decided that the term “skeptic” in the context of climate science should be replaced with phrases like “those who reject mainstream climate science,” which is very accurate and appropriate, or for short, the word “doubter.”
Unfortunately, the term “doubter” is abysmally incorrect and inappropriate.
Seth Borenstein did a very informative interview with Bob Garfield at On The Media. Listen to it here or here:
In this interview, Garfield isn’t having it. He is fine with phrases like “those who reject mainstream climate science,” but he is highly skeptical of the term “doubter.” Borenstein defends “doubter” but Garfield’s arguments, which are similar to those of most climate scientists and science communicators who have weighted in on this, stood.
During this important conversation, something was revealed (something already widely known) about journalism, and we heard an example of a top notch journalist, Seth Borenstein, being hampered at a fairly deep level by his own journalistic culture. The culprit here is that feature of journalism I mention above, the feature that gives journalism its power, and makes it an important part of, well, civilization.
First let me examine Borenstein’s argument for why “denier” is bad and “doubter” is good.
“Denier” is bad because of the existing association with the Holocaust. There are those who deny that the Holocaust happened, they are called “Holocaust Deniers,” and it is bad to associate people with such an obviously nefarious perspective.
This argument is incorrect for several reasons. Mainly, the term “denier” was already in use to describe the state of rejection of that which is well established. “Denier” was not invented to describe those who claim the Nazi Holocaust didn’t really happen. It was already there, and was simply applied to them. In theory, this could sully the term enough to make it undesirable for other uses. But, forms of the word “deny” are in widespread use. “Deny” and its derivatives are fallback words, words we English speakers automatically use. The Red Brigade was an organization of jerks who killed innocent people several decades ago, terrorists. We don’t say that we should get a different word for the color we call red because of that. That is a more extreme example than the case of Holocaust deniers, but it makes the point.
A second reason to not reject “denier” is that it is already in use to describe climate science, and other science, deniers.
So, the prior use argument, whereby “denier” as a term is indurated with ickiness, is not valid. Or, only a little valid, but not enough to matter.
Now we transition to Borenstein’s argument that “doubter” is better, and this starts with his assertion that denier is less precise and “doubter” is more precise, in describing “those who reject mainstream climate science.” Borenstein claims that this is true because among those who question climate science, there are some who agree that climate change is real, and human caused, but that it isn’t serious. Since there is a broad spectrum of claims among those who reject something about the science, a term must be used that applies to all of them.
And, he says, “doubter” is the word.
This is incorrect. “Denier” is the more precise term because it does not refer to a specific set of assertions, but rather, the denial of whatever assertions are on the table. This is a critical aspect of climate science denialism that is often missed in this conversation. I can show you the writings of a denier (I still use that word) who claims that the link between greenhouse gasses and surface warming is false. I can also show you the writings of a denier who claims that the link is real, but the effects are unimportant. And, I can do so by showing you the writings of the same exact person, at about the same time, but in different contexts where different sub conversations about climate change were happening.
Not all deniers do this, but most do, or have, and the community of climate science deniers as a whole does it all the time. They are not systematically and thoughtfully denying one or another aspect of climate science. Some are denying all of it, but many will deny one aspect and accept another aspect in one conversation, and swap that around for another conversation.
This is not doubting. This is systematic dancing like a butterfly stinging like a bee footwork sophistry.
Let me make the point about precision a different way. Doubting is skepticism, all skeptics doubt when they can, and pull back from doubt and “accept as pretty much true” when they are forced to by the preponderance of evidence. Doubter can also apply to deniers. Doubt is a very large, broad, word which can be applied across a wide spectrum. Denier refers to a specific community of individuals (and organizations), with specific tactics, and applies well to almost everyone in that community. There are few exceptions, but only a few.
“Doubter” will usually be wrong, “denier” will usually be right. “Doubter” is the imprecise term, “denier” is the precise term. Doubt means there is uncertainty, denial means refusal to accept a widely accepted truth.
So why is this happening, why does Seth Borenstein like doubter and not denier?
In the interview, Bob Garfield holds Borenstein’s feet to the fire, briefly, over the issue of false balance. That is a horrible thing to accuse a top notch journalist of, and Borenstein got a bit testy about it. Part of Borenstein’s argument is that it is the scientists, not the deniers, who use the word denier, so it comes from advocates of one of those alternative perspectives journalists are supposed to identify and report on. By downgrading the term “denier” because the scientists and many mainstream communicators use it, one is avoiding giving privilege to one “side” of an issue. Borenstein both uses this as part of his argument, but denies that he is doing so. I doubt Borenstein is being a bad journalist here. But he is being a journalist. As an anthropologist, I’ve learned to see this sort of surface incongruity as a possible indicator of a deeper culture-bound conflict in thinking. I think that is what we’ve got here.
Here is the part of the interview to which I refer.
SB: [the term denier] does most of the job pretty well according to one side. Granted, that side has the majority of science on it.
BG: [interrupting] Seth, I apologize, I’m going to cut you off here. One side? This is the very definition of false balance.
SB: No one has accused me of false balance. Don’t you go there. All you have to do is Google my name, Seth Borenstein, look at the images, and see what the group that you call deniers, we call doubters, look at what they’ve done to me personally, and to the AP. To say that I’m giving in to them, it is just not something that has ever happened. It is not something I’ve ever been accused of before.
BG: Can I say that there are two sides to the political debate, but if there is fundamentally no scientific debate, why would you think of this in terms of both sides that require fair treatment any more than you would treat holocaust deniers as having one side in the issue of history? …
SB: There is no false balance in the way AP covers the science. But there is a difference between the science and the semantics. We’re not talking, you and I, about the science right now. We’re talking about the semantics. And there are different sides on the semantics. I’ve been using climate doubter for months and no one has said anything.
Borenstein is right to be a bit defensive in this exchange. He has in fact been the subject of attack by deniers, and his record of excellent reporting on climate change, and his and AP’s rejection of false balance, are easily confirmed. If you look at what watchdog organizations like Media Matters say about AP in relation to “false balance,” AP gets good marks. Also, yes, Seth Borenstein has in fact been using “doubter” for a while.
Nonetheless, in this exchange you see one really smart well spoken person making a good case that giving sway to one group in relation to the semantics about what they say about science smells like false balance, and a second really smart well spoken person falling back on the “it is a semantic argument” argument. A nerve. It has been touched.
Don’t get me wrong. Borenstein, or the AP, is not exactly committing a false balance fallacy. If the main argument that “denier” is out and “doubter” is in came from the use of “denier” by mainstream science and the dislike of the term by, well, deniers, then we do have to ask why equal weight is given to both sides in considering this argument. But AP is primarily stepping back from a term that has a negative connotation because they don’t like to do that (see the original AP justification). This conforms to general practice in developing the AP style guide. Unfortunately, the outcome in this case is the substitution of a word that works very well with a word that does not work at all.
One only has to go slightly meta to understand why this is wrong. The term “denier” is in fact negative, but appropriately so. Science and journalism are carried out in different ways, and some of those differences can be rather startling when you try to mix the two. But both are professions involved in truth seeking. Deniers are truth obscurers. Deniers are lie-sayers. Deniers aren’t simply people with a non-mainstream opinion. They are individuals and organizations who identify the well supported mainstream thinking about a critically important issue, and actively try to subvert it. And they do it using an age old practice that has been called the same thing for a very long time. They deny. Not doubt.