"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The D-Word and the S-word

The D-Word

I don’t usually call anyone a denier or a denialist by name, though I’ve been in a lot of internet arguments and may well have slipped up a time or two.

 I do use the words “denier” and “denialist” generically to refer to a position in the climate debates - I certainly think there is denial going on, and I haven’t been reluctant to point that out.

There is a question as to who is doing the Godwin violation - those using the word or those complaining about it. As someone who grew up in a Holocaust refugee community, as someone who lost his paternal grandfather and his oldest cousin to the death trains, as someone whose aunt still bears a number tattooed on her arm,  I have a pretty strong claim to be part of that group that Keith Kloor refers to as

“Jewish academics, writers, and scientists involved in the climate debate who do use the “denier” term and don’t make that association, so they don’t believe they are trivializing the holocaust or exploiting the original ugliness of the term."
I think bringing Nazis into the question is in the eye of the beholder. Specifically, the Godwin’s Law violation in the climate context is usually (though as Mr Fuller is quick to point out, not always) in the eye of the accused denier.

That said, I agree with Keith that referring to an individual as a “denier” is 
“as inflammatory as calling a climate scientist a fraud, or climate science fraudulent. These are conversation stoppers”
Indeed, when someone is directly offensive to a correspondent, as Willard pointed out to me recently, it may well be because they want to terminate the conversation. If someone is badgering me about renouncing the so-called scandals of so-called “Climategate” I know they have long since checked their rational capacities at the door.

I won’t call them the D-word in response, though you can be assured that I am thinking it.

I will just check out.

The S-Word

This largely comes up in the context of a campaign, recently spearheaded by Mark Boslough, to stop using the word "skeptic" in news reports about people who take a stance in opposition to the climate science consensus. (There's a petition here.)

I support this petition, insofar as it doesn't explicitly demand the used of the "D-word".  Naysayers are not real skeptics and the press shouldn't dignify them with such a compliment. Certainly, for example, the likes of Senator Inhofe with his bible-thumping can't fairly be called a "skeptic", though the press habitually does exactly that.

The trouble is this - the communication landscape has been so thoroughly polluted that people arriving on the landscape as genuine skeptics, interested and willing to engage on the evidence, are frequently successfully recruited by the denial camp.

To those who would ask, incredulously, how could anyone still be legitimately on the fence about this issue, I respond that you must not be taking the long view

Every day, ten thousand people in the US (a quarter million worldwide) think about climate change for the first time. And each of them has to make their way through the thicket of confusion and misdirection that has been thrown up all around this issue, given that Authority has been Questioned, so successfully that a person coming into the area unprepared has no clue who the authority is.

The uncommitted people most willing to engage on the science, and most important to reach, are the big fish in the small ponds, including the most scientifically adept high school kids. There's also engineers and medical types trying to get a grip on this matter every day. They'll be a bit smug to begin with. The fabric of misdirection and outright lies they encounter will not make it easy for them to navigate the issue if they don't have a personal connection to an earth scientist.

And when they try to claim a skeptical stance, it really is a bad idea to get all huffy and jump to calling them "deniers". That's a prediction with a tendency to fulfill itself.

Gaining Trust and Thereby Generating Mistrust

The trouble with the Kahan/Leiserowitz etc. analysis of the debate is not that it's wrong. It is, in fact, correct in addressing part of the problem.

It's correct that there is a spectrum of concern on the issue and that it is increasingly correlated with the usual left-right specturm. It is of course correct that any policy measure requires political support, and that on matters of such fundamental importance, majority support is important.

This means that anyone engaged enough to vote needs to be convinced that the consensus position is sound. And of course, the vast majority of people are not won over by evidence and reason, but by proxy arguments, essentially arguments from authority. We simply don't have the time to resolve every issue from first principles.

That's the whole idea of representative democracy, after all - we delegate decisions to people we trust. At least in principle. What we have to do in these matters is to determine who the real experts are. And in the presence of systematic antisocial behavior, this becomes very difficult.

There really is no fundamental doubt among the relevant professions that CO2 accumulation is increasingly risky with every passing year and that the current policies are woefully ill-advised. There really is no doubt that organized denial, partly motivated by protecting enormous wealth, is trying to prevent action The existence of people who are not engaged with the science who believe these things is a good thing.

But it has a very unfortunate side effect, insofar as the next level of sophistication is concerned. When a skeptic of the sort willing to engage scientifically arrives on the scene, he or she will be far more likely to encounter people who "believe in" or "don't believe in" "the science" than people who are actually in a position to explain it effectively. When beliefs are challenged, defenses go up. And the first defense of the novice is to accuse the challenger of "denial".

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent. And on this score Keith Kloor is right:
If your objective is to get more people seriously engaged with the climate change issue, you probably want to avoid  unwittingly antagonizing them with derogatory language.
Keith goes on to say
And by them, I mean the lurkers and fence-sitters in the mushy middle who tune in and out of the volatile climate discussion.

But that's not who I mean. I mean the people willing to engage the science.  The trouble arises when a somewhat sophisticated person challenging the science looks around for someone to discuss it and as is more likely than not encounters a person less sophisticated trying to defend it. I don't know that there's much precedent for this constellation of factors.

As I've said before, climate science has the worst relationship with its hobbyist community in the history of science. This entanglement with politics is part of it. Every time we listen to the Kahans and Leiserowitzes and their advice on how to "move the needle", how to move the bulk of the population to be more amenable to a reasonable climate policy, we create more people who are poor ambassadors for the science itself to those who want to engage the science. That in turn may or may not create more favorable conditions for climate policy among the tuned-out mushy middle, but this is a long run problem.

In the long run, it is crucial to make the science sufficiently accessible that people can access it. This despite the fact that more people are trying to subvert that goal than to facilitate it.

I don't know whose job it is to solve this. But it helps to start by understanding it.

TL;DR - Politics Isn't Everything

Willard says this is too long, and should be three or even four posts, but I think it is a single coherent argument. Admittedly, there are multiple points in the argument.

1) There is lots of denial about climate.
2) The only reason to call a specific person a denier is to cut off conversation with them, to state you find them uninteresting.
3) There are better ways to do this.
4) True skeptics, genuinely neutral and curious about climate science, are born every day.
5) Deniers have resources and talents intended to win them over.
6) Some skeptics succumb, and become deniers.
7) Playing the political battle is necessary.
8) But playing on the political battlefield creates unsophisticated allies.
9) Unsophisticated allies will tend to use the "D-word" to cut off conversation when threatened.
10) Skeptics will be turned away from reality by being accused of denial.
11) Skeptics have difficulty finding scientific exposition suitable for their interests and skills.
12) The combination of the previous two patterns contributes to the recruitment of deniers.
13) The political battlefield alone is not sufficient. Science must be made accessible.

Willard also says I've made these points before. Maybe so. But people still don't seem to get it, so I might as well repeat myself.


Steve Easterbrook said...

All excellent points - thanks for connecting them together.

I think you missed one aspect of this that bothers me. As you point out, there tend to be more people creating FUD around climate science than there are competent experts to explain it in the ways you're advocating. That means the people who do have the skill to explain well can easily be subjected to a "denial of service" attack (pun intended). Some of the more prominent scientists are occasionally subjected to a "Distributed Denial of Service" attack. When they're bombarded with FUD on many different social media channels at once, it's quite understandable that, being entirely human, they get angry, and use whatever they can reach for easily to shut the attackers down. Calling people deniers (and worse names) doesn't achieve anything constructive in terms of science education, but sometimes it's just a way of venting frustration.

Plus, we're all still figuring out how to interact in a social media environment that keeps evolving. In that sense we're all somewhat unsophisticated for at least some of the time.

Sometimes I swear at trolls, and sometimes I call them deniers. And usually I don't care what the effect is, I just need to get it off my chest. Being angry about denial of AGW is an entirely human response.

Eric Steig said...

Excellent post. I will keep these ideas in mind in future discourse.

...and Then There's Physics said...

Good post, and I think you've done something I've seen noone else do and which I think is important. There is - IMO - a massive difference between using "denier" to label an individual and using it to simply describe some group whose names you don't specifically define.

Also, I think you're making the perfectly valid point (at least I think this is a point you're making) that those who are currently complaining about the use of "denier" appear to be using the Holocaust to score some kind of point, which is essentially what they're complaining others have already done.

Victor Venema said...

I agree with most, especially that you have to see every new person as truly interested in learning.

However, I wonder if there really is a lack of resources for a real skeptic to learn about climate change. There are so many wonderful books and a real skeptic would naturally start with a book written by an expert and not with some random text found on the internet.

And, as a scientist, I also cannot say that I am overwhelmed with questions on my specialty, the removal of non-climatic changes from climate data.

Most of the climate "debate" is about stuff that is no longer current research, such as all the claims that the greenhouse effect does not exist or that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas. A "hobbyist" with time to learn about this topic may very well be more competent at answering such questions than a scientist.

Willard said...


Here's why I think this post could make four posts instead.

Your first part could be a whole post if you take time to tell a story that motivates the "If someone is badgering me about renouncing the so-called scandals of so-called “Climategate”." Instead, you dismiss that theorical person who doesn't know better than push your buttons as not being rational. This is not even true, BTW, as you did try to reason with that "someone":



Your second point is would important it deserves a whole post. To be honest, it does seem to me that you discovered that point as your wrote. If you start reading back your post starting with that point, I'm quite confident you'd see the other sections differently.

Also, and more importantly, if you leave that section in one post, you can link to it over and over again, as it should.


Your third section is the worse. See how it starts:

> The trouble with the Kahan/Leiserowitz etc. analysis of the debate is not that it's wrong. It is, in fact, correct in addressing part of the problem.

This presumes a lot from the reader. This positions by opposition to a set of claims you don't even take the time to spell out. The "problem" and its "part" refers to nothing specific. Your solution is nowhere to be seen.

I have no idea what to "move the needle" is supposed to refer in that sentence:

> Every time we listen to the Kahans and Leiserowitzes and their advice on how to "move the needle", how to move the bulk of the population to be more amenable to a reasonable climate policy, we create more people who are poor ambassadors for the science itself to those who want to engage the science.

Worse, look at your expression "the Kahans and Leiserowitzes." In a post about labeling, for Frege's sake!

You can do better than that, but it takes time, and space.

My guess is that you've got this idea on the back burner for some time, and never got the chance to get it out of your chest.


Finally, there's the TL;DR. This shows you know how to make an argument. Yet, again, this would deserve more thought. It's quite obvious you're still far from having reached (13) with (12).


All in all, a good pitch for some good sections in your book. Perhaps a chapter, but some pieces are missing.


To prove I read you, here's my take home:

Using the D word is as silly as using the S word, the Postel's law should prevail [1], if only you want to win friends and influence people [2], most importantly newbies, to whom you have some science Kung Fu to teach [3], and time is running out.

This takehome is not far from what I wrote at AT's:


Hope this helps,


[1] "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others"


[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Win_Friends_and_Influence_People

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vMO3XmNXe4

Andy S said...

I try not to use "denier" publicly, although I'm sure I have had the odd lapse. It is not so much that it's a conversation stopper (I have no longer have any interest in online "conversations" with people I would consider to be deniers), but because it is a distraction from science and policy. The distraction suits the misinformers because it shifts the conversation--if that's what it is--towards the meta-stuff where they are as equally well-armed as the realists.

Denial is the psychological processes that allow people to trump facts and expert consensus because of their emotional, cultural and political biases. It is thus central to the Kahan/Hulme/Betts model, but of less interest to the Information Deficit model that, at root, assumes than climate contrarians are rational people who are simply misinformed.

What is foolish, though, is to blame the contrarians' obstinacy on the sometimes intemperate language of the realists. That's naive and ineffective. It's also patronizing, depicting entrenched contrarians as upset children who need to be spoken nicely to before they can be expected to listen.

Michael Tobis said...

relevant: http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2009/02/global-warming-denial.html

Mack said...

Micheal, I prefer to be called a denialist rather than denier...it's more professional.
Btw some deniers(or denialists) can actually be in double denial..eg an AGW denier and a denier who denies it's the Sun ,stupid...here's an eg...this guy Doug Cotton..where I start out nicely talking to him here.
but then finally lose my patience with him here..

Tom said...

Tobis denier

Update: Don't miss Sou's comment #15 at the Shewonk thread on the delicate balancing act of the denier sites. I hadn't thought of this. It argues against participating.

Blogger Tom said...
What many of us hear:

(equations, rhetoric, hysteria, etc.)... 'You are the scummy equivalents of skinheads who deny the Holocaust ever occurred.'

January 12, 2011 at 3:37 PM Delete
Blogger Michael Tobis said...
Right, Tom, that's, um, the point.

January 12, 2011 at 3:53 PM

I believe that climate denialism is a social, not an intellectual or philosophical, movement.

Post title: What Deniers Hear

Bell uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the “Gish gallop”, - See more at: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/01/forbes-rich-list-of-nonsense/#sthash.uFgMvPwW.dpuf

"Skeptic" is hardly the name for this! "Denier" or "denialist" really isn't bad, but in addition to rubbing some people wrong, it doesn't capture the mindboggling recklessness of their activities.

If I bend over backwards to treat the deniers with respect on the grounds that there might be a few genuine skeptics in their ranks, meanwhile looking under every rock for any point of disagreement with people who have their heads screwed on right, my site starts to look like, well, Judith Curry's.

It is one thing to engage, carefully and consciously. It's another to butter up the lazy denialists and bash the diligent efforts of genuine scientists.

Remember the story on here about how the denialists made a big fuss about something perfectly reasonable

Denialist websites issue headlines like
Greenpeace Leader Admits Organization Put Out False Global Warming Data

Post Title Spot the Denier Bug

Find a typical article on a typical denialist site, and spot the biggest error!

RC has been able to generate rapid responses to denier pseudoscience

One thing an anti-Morano would do would be just to monitor Morano and take advantage of his efforts as an early-warning system for new denialist nonsense.

Morano is taking his nomination as chief denier literally

Post Title: The Opposite of Denialism

OK, the new meme among the denialists is that the tide is with them,

I don;t think this is what the denialists have in mind when they ask me what would "falsify the hypothesis".

The denialists have picked it as one of their favorite refutations but it really doesn't refute much of anything.

The author of the denialist-celebrated point of view, by the way, has also written a brief celebration of what he calls "post-autistic economics",

No question that a full-blooded GCM is not for amateurs, but with this much at stake you'd think the denial camp

The article is rife with the usual denialist sleight of hand and drivel, but it is not at all clear that the author is insincere.

but it's still frequently brought up by the do-nothingists (who don't like to be called denialists but don't deserve to be called skeptics).

OK, we really need a name for those people that is less respectful than "skeptic" and more so than "crypto-Nazi", even though the latter, as an interpretation of "denialist", is a specious back-formation.

one of the most irritating aspects of denialism

Tom said...


Elena said...

I usually firget to use such words like you mentioned, maybe becuase I'm a girl and not interested to harm others verbaly.
But, and there is a but, when I see people who attack my climate change allegations and say that this is all nonsense, then yea, I can use some nice words to make them understand that Earth is diying while they get cash from industry cartels.
If they read this they will understand that the problem is real and what are the solutiuons in this case.