Skeptic, Denier, Denialist: Would a Rose by any Other Name...?

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When I wrote about holocaust denier and climate conspiracy theorist Nick Griffin, Konservativ Anarkist asked me nicely not to use the term 'denier' or 'denialist' to describe climate skeptics. It was, he said, an "obvious attempt to marginalize." In general, I'm not a fan of annoying people, and I like to accord respect where respect is due. The trouble is, as Brian's post on the excellent video debunking of climate 'gate' shows, when people are willing to jump to crazy and unsubstantiated conclusions at the slightest provocation, the term skeptic just doesn't cut it. I do understand that some people remain confused or unconvinced by climate science, or the science as it is reported in the mainstream media. On that level, I'm OK with terms like skeptic. Even though as many as 97.4% of climate scientists believe human activity is causing climate change, as many others have pointed out, science is not a democracy. So we must always question the evidence, and keep the debate going—as long as that debate is not allowed to delay the urgent action that current science suggests is necessary.

And while I may disagree strongly with them, many of the commenters who question climate change here at TreeHugger are open to debate, and they at least post some evidence for the claims they make. Even if that evidence is contrary to the vast body of scientific knowledge on climate, say solar radiation as a significant factor in climate change, for example, there is always a chance that our understanding is flawed. So skeptic seems like an accurate term for anyone who is genuinely and openly in search of the truth—even if that person's interpretation of the truth differs widely (and I might argue dangerously) from the current accepted wisdom.

On the other hand, there are those whose theories are so outlandish and who favor wild accusations instead of debate or discussion. These are the folks who leave angry ALL CAPS comments about socialist conspiracies. These are the people who claim esoteric discussion in private emails is evidence of a global cover up involving thousands of scientists and hundreds of institutions. And these are the people who leave statements like "global temperatures remain unchanged" yet do not respond when asked for sources. And these are the people who are perfectly happy referring to Al Gore as "our guru", climate science as "scientology", and global warming as a theocracy, and yet complain if we refuse or question the term skeptic. It is here where I have to draw the line.

As in any argument, terms are important. How we frame the debate effects the terms by which the debate plays out. And when one side flatly refuses to look at the evidence, and chooses instead to level accusations of fraud, conspiracy, and even the birth of a new 'green religion', when it chooses name calling over discussion, it's important we fight back with all we've got.

So sorry folks. Denier and denialist remain part of my vocabulary. I'll just try to be a little more discriminating in how I use them.

Tags: Activism


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