When the Associated Press decides to change its style guide, journalists take note. AP style is the most widely-used style across the media industry. Newspapers and websites everywhere take their cue from the AP about how they should spell things, which words they should use and which terms are now outdated. If the AP makes a change, the ripple effects are considerable.
That's why heads turned on Tuesday when the AP announced that it was tweaking its style for one of the most contentious issues of our time: climate change. Here's what the organization said:
We are adding a brief description of those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces:
Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.
Some background on the change: Scientists who consider themselves real skeptics – who debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience, such as those who are part of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry – complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic. They say they aren’t skeptics because “proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” That group prefers the phrase “climate change deniers” for those who reject accepted global warming data and theory. But 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.
The AP's move to shake things up is certainly an intriguing one. Climate change has never been a more salient topic—though its relegation to the fringes of the 2016 presidential debate would make you think otherwise—and the climate change movement is gaining momentum. So it's good that the AP is thinking about how it wants to frame the issue right now.
But the changes are also somewhat baffling. They offer something to frustrate people on all sides of the issue. Mainstream media outlets often take that as a point of pride, concluding that they're sitting in the sweet middle spot if everyone is mad at them, but such a stance is worthless on an issue like climate change, which simply does not have two sides to it.
There is some good here, though. The AP's rejection of "skeptics" is a wise one, for the reasons it sets out. "Skepticism" implies a level of reasoned analysis that just isn't present among those who dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus around climate change, and it's nice to see the AP doing away with such niceties.
The reason the AP gives for dropping "denier," however, is extra-strange. People who reject the notion that climate change is happening are literally denying its existence. One of the more famous climate change deniers, James Inhofe, wrote a book about it called "The Great Hoax." What more evidence do you need? If Inhofe or others like him want to whine about how mean it is to call them "deniers," maybe they should stop denying the existence of climate change.
To lobby the AP by comparing the use of that term to Holocaust denial is a very audacious move, and one that seems to have cowed the AP a little. But you know what? In at least one important way, denying the existence of climate change is like denying the existence of the Holocaust: To deny either one is to announce that you are part of a tiny conspiracist fringe. The Holocaust stands almost completely alone in the pantheon of evil, but the effects of climate change are going to unleash a great wave of horror if the world doesn't act, and there may come a time when we look back on the people who prevented that action from taking place with the same kind of revulsion that we currently reserve for Holocaust deniers.
It would have been great if the AP had had the courage of its convictions and rejected the specious arguments put forward by the climate change denial lobby. As it stands, the new style guide is a half-hearted attempt at balance where no balance exists. Hopefully the AP will move even more decisively in the future to put climate change deniers in their rightful place.