Wrong, wrong, wrong: The anti-science bullsh*t which explains why the right gets away with lies -- and why the mainstream media lets them

It's bad enough that D.C. science committees are filled with deniers. The press needs to call them what they are

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published October 13, 2015 2:32PM (EDT)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, from left, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gather on stage after speak at the Homeschool Iowa's Capitol Day, Thursday, April 9, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)      (AP)
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, from left, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gather on stage after speak at the Homeschool Iowa's Capitol Day, Thursday, April 9, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (AP)

On September 15, Pulitzer-prize winning Inside Climate News reported that Exxon had known about the dangers posed by global warming due to fossil fuels since at least 1977, and spent several years engaged in serious scientific research before abruptly switching into the denialist mode, where it became a leading force for disinformation and denial. This stunning new revelation of just how long oil companies have known the truth about global warming while promoting denial and lies about it should have served as a wakeup call for the media to re-examine how it has naively misread decades of climate disinformation, and failed to adopt a sufficiently critical perspective. But not for the Associated Press Instead, the next week AP announced it was extending further journalistic cover for the still ongoing deception.

On the one hand, AP took a big step forward by deciding to stop using the term “climate change skeptic”, following concerted pressure from scientists and activists. But they also took a big step backward by deciding to not use the term “climate change denier” instead, and to actively nix it as well. “Climate change denier” sounded too much like “Holocaust denier,” AP explained, so it was out, too. They added the following to their style guide (which many journalists outside AP use as well):

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 is, quite simply, wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

You can tell it's wrong because of just how pleased the deniers are with AP's decision, as Science magazine reported:

Meanwhile, some traditionally associated with the “skeptic” or “denier” side are claiming victory. Marc Morano, who runs the contrarian site Climate Depot, told National Journal that he preferred the term “skeptic,” but that “doubter” still suggests there’s room for debate. By ditching “denier,” AP is “entering the realm of objectivity,” Morano said. Meanwhile, Anthony Watts, a former TV meteorologist who runs the popular contrarian blog Watts Up With That?,also praised AP’s decision as a “positive and long and overdue change” to ditch the “ugly climate term ‘denier.’”

Meanwhile, ScienceBlogs writer Greg Laden tweeted: "The term 'denier' is a widely used term [in] social science research. AP is being anti science," and at Media Matters, researcher Denise Robbins referenced Laden in a collection of scientists, climate communicators and journalists criticizing AP in similarly harsh terms. This included leading climate scientist Michael Mann, who said that “To call them anything else [than 'science deniers'], be it ‘skeptic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate;” the Washington Post's media reporter Erik Wemple, who wrote that AP "succumbed to a specious argument" by suggesting that the term "denier" always implies a connection to Holocaust denial; the Huffington Post's Washington Bureau Chief, Ryan Grim, who wrote that the term climate change "doubters" is "almost always simply false;" and ThinkProgress climate blogger Joe Romm, who wrote, “Does the AP recommend newspapers use the phrase 'smoking health risk doubters' or 'tobacco science doubters'? Of course not.... The media doesn't even pay attention to people who deny the health dangers of tobacco smoke anymore. So why treat those who deny the reality -- and danger -- of human-caused climate change any differently?”

When the reality-based community is giving you harsh reviews like that, and “those who reject mainstream climate science” are congratulating you for “entering the realm of objectivity,” you know you're doing something seriously wrong. The only real question is, “What?” I wanted to answer that question on a detailed micro-level, so I contacted AP to interview the panel who made the decision. For all I knew, there may have been thoughtful deliberations behind the scenes, despite the end results. Sometimes well-intentioned people simply focus on the wrong thing. Minority views in one deliberation may hold the seeds of future wisdom. I wanted to know more than the public record told, but AP was not talking. “We have done interviews about our amended Stylebook entry and now we're done,” was the one-sentence explanation offered by Paul Colford, Director of AP Media Relations.

Add that to what was already known, and it's hard not to conclude that AP knows they stepped in it. The earlier report from Inside Climate News should have alerted them in advance, and if not, the warm embrace of denialists Morano and Watts surely removed all doubt. If they won't less us understand their reasoning process by looking inward at it, we can still learn something by looking outward, at the social and scientific context they have chosen to further obfuscate, for who knows how many crucial years to come. This wasn't just a one-time error in judgement. It's an ongoing journalistic sin we're talking about, a sin of commission, a continuing misrepresentation of reality, something that no journalistic entity worth its salt ought to be a party to.

AP's new style guidance clearly resulted from a letter to the media last December asking journalists to “stop using the word 'skeptic' to describe deniers.” [letter/press release] It came from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and was signed by 48 of its fellows, including Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kroto and philosopher Daniel Dennett. AP referred to them specifically (though a bit inaccurately) in its announcement:

Scientists who consider themselves real skeptics – who debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience, such as those who are part of the Center [sic] 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 it's more than a preference. It's a matter of accuracy, something that science and journalism are supposed to have in common. And it's downright inaccurate for AP to pretend it's simply a matter of preference. Having diminished CSI's objection, AP then elevated the deniers:

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.

This is a classic example of false balance on AP's part, with multiple problems on both sides of the scale and one big thing wrong at the middle: “doubt” is not mid-way between “skepticism” and “denial” . It far closer to the former than to the latter, which is why the deniers were so pleased with it.

Joe Romm cited three problems with AP's reason: First, that AP had an easy alternative, pointed out by Justin Gillis in the NY Times in February: “others have started using the slightly softer word ‘denialist’ to make the same point without stirring complaints about evoking the Holocaust.” Second, that the most prominent deniers, like James Inhofe “knowingly use phony arguments to stop the world from acting in time.... Since when should anyone care about the phony concerns of such self-destructive anti-scientific people?” Third, Romm noted that many deniers actually like the term. If they don't have a problem with it, why should we?

All that is true, but there's a further point worth making: climate change denial is actually much worse than Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial deals with the deaths of millions in the past, which it did nothing to cause, however morally odious it surely is. Global warming denial deals with the deaths of millions in the future, which it helps to cause, by crippling efforts to prevent them. And that's something much worse, as is reflected in law: It's not a crime to lie about murders in the past, except to hinder a police investigation, or prosecution; but it is a crime to tell enabling lies about future murders—it's called conspiracy to commit murder.

The most recent estimate (2014) from the World Health Organization (a 128-page report) projects that “Under a base case socioeconomic scenario, we estimate approximately 250,000 additional deaths due to climate change per year between 2030 and 2050.” That's 5 million deaths over just that 20 year window. Major impacts will come via diarrhea, malaria, childhood undernutrition, and heat exposure in elderly people. But the total will undoubtedly be significantly higher:

A main limitation of this assessment is the inability of current models to account for major pathways of potential health impact, such as the effects of economic damage, major heatwave events, river flooding and water scarcity. The assessment does not consider the impacts of climate change on human security, for example through increases in migration or conflict. The included models can capture only a subset of potential causal pathways, and none account for the effects of major discontinuities in climatic, social or ecological conditions.

With all those other factors added in, it's conceivable that global warming could cost twice as many lives, or more, the equivalent of a Holocaust every decade from 2030 on. And global warming denial is a contributing cause to all those millions of deaths. This is what the best available science is telling us. But AP says we shouldn't use the term “denier”, because it has a “pejorative ring.” Which begs the question: isn't a pejorative ring precisely what's called for? Isn't it both morally necessary and empirically accurate? The problem isn't that “denier” has a “pejorative ring,” it's that it's not nearly pejorative enough. “Climate holocaust co-conspirator” would be more apt.

In fact, AP's “climate doubter” stylebook decision is a telling example of how the media itself is sleepwalking into this oncoming endless holocaust, by failing to assimilate important scientific information, critically reflect on the role it is playing, and change accordingly. Just a few days prior to AP's announcement, Denise Robbins reported on two new media studies about climate change reporting which shed further light on this sleepwalking. The first study, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives “found that the media can breed cynicism about climate change when reporting emphasizes 'the failures of climate politics,'" she reported. But it “also found that consuming stories about political activism and individual actions—'especially news that featured a local focus, a compelling narrative and an accessible “everyday hero”'—can have the opposite effect on readers.”

The second study, from Rutgers University, “examined how four major U.S. newspapers frame their reporting on climate change,” and “found that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today often include "negative efficacy" (framing climate change actions as unsuccessful or costly) as opposed to "positive efficacy" (framing climate actions as manageable or effective). The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times in particular framed climate action as ineffective more often than effective.”

These studies remind us that the media are not detached outside observers, however attractive that fiction might be for some. You either align yourself more or less with the climate deniers—consciously or unconsciously—or you align yourself against them. There is no “neutral” ground outside of or above the debate, however much one might wish for it. And you don't have to be a denier yourself to effectively align yourself with them. As my recent interview with Robert Gifford underscored, there are dozens of recognized psychological barriers to effective climate action (he calls them “dragons of inaction”) which are quite distinct from denial, but still have a similar impact and result. We're just beginning to grapple with how much the challenge of climate change is a challenge to human cognition. Which is why journalists need all the help they can get in grappling with nature of denialism, and why they should pay more attention to the social science research into it that Greg Laden pointed to.

One guidepost is the 2008 essay collection, Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of ignorance:

Agnotology—the study of ignorance—provides a new theoretical perspective to broaden traditional questions about "how we know" to ask: Why don't we know what we don't know? The essays assembled in Agnotology show that ignorance is often more than just an absence of knowledge; it can also be the outcome of cultural and political struggles. Ignorance has a history and a political geography, but there are also things people don't want you to know ("Doubt is our product" is the tobacco industry slogan). Individual chapters treat examples from the realms of global climate change, military secrecy, female orgasm, environmental denialism, Native American paleontology, theoretical archaeology, racial ignorance, and more. The goal of this volume is to better understand how and why various forms of knowing do not come to be, or have disappeared, or have become invisible.

More recently, reflecting on a one-day conference he participated in last year, Manufacturing Denial And The Assault On Scholarship And Truth, biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci described the scope of research invovled:

Denialism Studies (I’m rather happy to use that term!) is a highly interdisciplinary field, arguably one of the most interdisciplinary I can think of, including history, political science, law, natural science (from physics to biology), psychology, sociology, philosophy (in various forms, from political philosophy to ethics to epistemology), to mention just some of the principal contributors. And for once, this is an academic discipline that first and foremost deals directly with urgent issues that concern us all.

Most importantly, for illuminating what AP refuses to, he wrote:

Participants at the conference agreed that what the large variety of denialisms have in common is a very strong, overwhelming, ideological commitment that helps define the denialist identity in a core manner. This commitment can be religious, ethnical or political in nature, but in all cases it fundamentally shapes the personal identity of the people involved, thus generating a strong emotional attachment, as well as an equally strong emotional backlash against critics.

This is an absolutely crucial point: denialism is a matter of social identity. It may appear to be about matters of fact, but they are actually secondary. ScienceBlogs writer Greg Laden described what this means in the present case:

Climate change deniers are not “doubting” climate change, or any particular aspect of climate change science. A single denier might be seen on one day claiming that adding CO2 to the atmosphere does not increase global surface temperatures (it does). In another conversation a day later, the same individual can be seen arguing that yes, it does do that, but not much. Next day, OK, it does do that but it will stop doing it and the temperature will go down. Or the warming is good. Or the warming is real, and will have effects, but we can fix that. Or we can’t really fix it, but since the Chinese are not on board with changing things, what we do does not matter. And so on and so on.

And, no, that is not the rapid evolution of thinking of a denier. The same denier will go right back to the “CO2 does not cause warming” argument the moment they find a sufficiently uninformed audience.

This is not doubting. It is not being skeptical. It is denying, and it is denying pretty much the same way that Holocaust deniers are denying, in an irrational, politically motivated, goal-post moving, dishonest, and damaging way.

As Laden points out, deniers can soften their stances sometimes, then revert back at the drop of a hat. They are not expressing genuine beliefs about facts. They are, as Pigliucci indicated, expressing and defending an identity.   And that is a much more fluid matter, far removed from any sort of physical science discussion or debate.

This is not to say that there cannot be anyone who genuinely is in doubt about climate change. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence—about as strong as that connecting smoking to lung cancer—should be enough to do that. But what about the possibility, however remote, that such a genuine doubter exists, and that AP is therefore justified in using the term?

In the NY Times story referenced earlier, Justin Gillis described some who'd like to claim such a stance:

Yet the critics of established climate science also include a handful of people with credentials in atmospheric physics, and track records of publishing in the field. They acknowledge the heat-trapping powers of greenhouse gases, and they distance themselves from people who deny such basic points.

“For God’s sake, I can’t be lumped in with that crowd,” said Patrick J. Michaels, a former University of Virginia scientist employed by the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

Contrarian scientists like Dr. Michaels tend to argue that the warming will be limited, or will occur so gradually that people will cope with it successfully, or that technology will come along to save the day – or all of the above.

The contrarian scientists like to present these upbeat scenarios as the only plausible outcomes from runaway emissions growth. Mainstream scientists see them as being the low end of a range of possible outcomes that includes an alarming high end, and they say the only way to reduce the risks is to reduce emissions.

Let's unpack this a bit. First of all, regarding the contrarian scientists' “track records of publishing in the field,” as Gillis goes on to note, such papers “disputing the risks of global warming have fared poorly in the scientific literature, with mainstream scientists pointing out what they see as fatal errors.”

But it's more than that. As I wrote about recently, not only do these papers contain fatal errors, but shared patterns of errors, as revealed in a study of 38 contrarian papers, “Learning from mistakes in climate research.” As reported in the abstract of that study:

A common denominator seems to be missing contextual information or ignoring information that does not fit the conclusions, be it other relevant work or related geophysical data. In many cases, shortcomings are due to insufficient model evaluation, leading to results that are not universally valid but rather are an artifact of a particular experimental setup. Other typical weaknesses include false dichotomies, inappropriate statistical methods, or basing conclusions on misconceived or incomplete physics.

In short, what we're seeing here is not a clash between differing mature scientific views of the same data. The contrarian science is demonstrably flawed, and the flaws are repeated, rather than corrected over time. Patrick Michaels was a co-author of four of the papers examined in this study. Moreover, the lead author, Rasmus Benestad, told me, “The paper was inspired by an article and a book called ‘Agnotology.’ Thus, from a broader social science perspective, Michaels can be “lumped in with that crowd”: he is propagating systemic ignorance, which reflects and/or supports a definite political, ideological and/or socio-economic agenda. Is he different from non-scientists? Yes, of course. But not as different as he'd like to believe—as science itself is beginning to show.

There's a second way to pierce the veil of innocence Michaels and others try to cloak themselves in, and that's to contrast their behavior with what true innocence would look like. For example, Gilles writes:

The dissenting scientists have been called “lukewarmers” by some, for their view that Earth will warm only a little. That is a term Dr. Michaels embraces. “I think it’s wonderful!” he said. He is working on a book, “The Lukewarmers’ Manifesto.”

But let's suppose—contrary to fact—that the evidence did indicate that Earth would warm only a little. Would this mean we should not work to prevent global warming? Not at all. Predictive evidence and modeling based on it are probabilistic predictors for the future. Even if a lukewarm future were the most likely, there would still be some probability that things could get significantly worse, especially if some climate tipping point were crossed. Given the enormous cost of being wrong, it would still be prudent to take preventive and mitigative action—especially actions that have large co-benefits, such as reducing deaths due to particulate pollution, an especially huge factor for developing nations like India, China and Brazil.

Do we see any such recognition in Michaels or other contrarians? Gilles has already indicated the reverse: Instead of recognizing that some risk still exists, as well as significant co-benefits, they go the opposite way, looking for interlocking reasons to justify doing nothing:

Contrarian scientists like Dr. Michaels tend to argue that the warming will be limited, or will occur so gradually that people will cope with it successfully, or that technology will come along to save the day – or all of the above.

That combination of arguments is reminiscent of what Laden wrote regarding deniers' ever-shifting rationales, while the last suggestion is a clear example of one of Richard Gifford's dragons of inaction: technosalvation. As he described it to me: “It's not my job to do anything, the engineers will fix it.” This is profoundly different from “I'll do everything I can, and so will the engineers,” the attitude that the consensus view on global warming supports.

Indeed, quite a number of Gifford's dragons show up in denialist arguments. They aren't the same as denying the underlying science—the data, the theory, the methods, etc.—but they go along with it, help support it rhetorically, and reflect different aspects of a denialist identity. Over time, it's possible that some better term will emerge to describe this broader constellation of psychological attitudes and modes of thought. But since they all build upon and reinforce a foundation built on science denial and they justify a closely-related policy denial—denial that there's anything that can or should be done—the term “denialist” seems perfectly well-suited, at least until some significant advance in our understanding of social psychological processes produces a better alternative.

So, what should AP have done with its stylesheet? Here's my suggestion:

Our guidance is to use climate change deniers or climate change denialists for those who refuse to acknowledge the established scientific consensus, and to use climate action deniers or climate action denialists for those who at least partially recognize the established scientific consensus, but continue to deny that anything can or should be done.

We can then leave it up to Michaels and others like him to argue over which kind of denialist they actually are.


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Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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