How should reporters write about lawmakers and others who dispute the scientific consensus that climate change is largely driven by humans? A group of 48 scientists, science writers, and other experts—including popular educator Bill Nye—have some strong views on the subject.
The group issued a statement last week taking the media to task for using the phrase "climate skeptic," saying that the word "denier" is more accurate. In the statement, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry disapprovingly cites a November New York Times piece that described GOP Sen. James Inhofe, who calls global warming a "hoax," as a "prominent skeptic of climate change."
The science advocacy group says that the terms "skeptic" and "denier" have been wrongly conflated in the press. "Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration," writes the group, which also includes Nobel Prize winner Harold Kroto and Ann Druyan, who helped create both Cosmos TV series and was the wife of the late Carl Sagan.
The letter arrives at a time when political battles over climate-change policy are escalating. One of the biggest fights will come when ascendant Capitol Hill Republicans—including Inhofe, who will be chairman of the Senate's environment committee next year—launch efforts to thwart Obama administration greenhouse-gas regulations.
The overwhelming view of scientists is that greenhouse-gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human activities are the main driver of global warming. For instance, the American Meteorological Society states: "It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases."
The Dec. 5 statement from Nye and the others says the distinction between "skeptic" and "denier" is important in political debates. "As scientific skeptics, we are well aware of political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong. The most appropriate word to describe the behavior of those individuals is 'denial,'" the science experts write.
"Not all individuals who call themselves climate change skeptics are deniers. But virtually all deniers have falsely branded themselves as skeptics. By perpetrating this misnomer, journalists have granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry," the statement adds.