The concern for the Left is that “doubter” carries a connotation of questioning or concern. But the science on climate change is objectively overwhelming—97 percent of the world’s scientists agree that the climate is changing as a result of human activity and that its effects are being felt.
The AP guidance for “those who reject mainstream climate science,” then, would seem acceptable. But it’s “doubter” that has proved controversial.
“Those who are in denial of basic science, be it evolution or human-caused climate change, are in fact science-deniers,” climate scientist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress. “To call them anything else, be it ‘skeptic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate.”
Even the word “skeptic” has proved controversial. In an open letter last year, scientists and educators with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry urged the media to stop conflating skepticism with a rejection of science.
“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” they wrote. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”
Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, which was behind the letter, said that “doubter” fell in the same category by implying that there was some “genuine skepticism and inquiry.”
“This isn’t like Bigfoot or aliens, where we can debate. Climate change is a real-world problem going on right now,” he said. “If we bestow deniers with legitimacy, it’s bad for us as a species. It means we can’t move forward on confronting the problem.”
Paul Colford, a spokesman for the AP, said the change was discussed “at length” and that the AP had “decided that the description we added to the entry was the most precise.”
But “denier” has also proved controversial, something the AP cited in its release on the change. The word deliberately carries with it connotations of Holocaust denial. In an email, George C. Marshall Institute CEO William O’Keefe said the word "was intended to be pejorative and was seen that way."
In April, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-leaning partnership of state lawmakers and corporations, threatened to sue activists over the term. In a “cease and desist” letters to some left-leaning groups, ALEC said that statements charging the group denied global warming were “inaccurate” and “false and misleading material.”
The debate over what word is appropriate is still ongoing. The New York Times covered the debate in February and followed up with a May column by public-editor Margaret Sullivan. Society for Environmental Journalists executive director Beth Parke has said there’s no “collective opinion or institutional stance” among the member journalists but that the discussion is continuing.