Ignore Science? There's a Word for You

Climate science is settled. Healthy skeptics accept the facts.

Posted Oct 27, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

People who ignore well established climate science prefer to consider themselves skeptics, but language is not on their side. Merriam-Webster defines scientific skepticism as "an impartial attitude of the mind previous to investigation." That is, a skeptic is a person who seeks the truth, but who has yet to be convinced of the facts. 

Journalist and wordsmith Merrill Perlman, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, notes that, while skeptics may initially challenge the facts, once science is established, they acknowledge it:

Healthy skepticism allows someone to accept as fact that which has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

So a climate science skeptic is, at best, a contradiction, given that 97 percent of scientists accept that the climate is changing because of human activity. A healthy thinker should no longer consider this fake news but should be able to see it as a fact.

Refusing to believe the facts makes a person a cynic, Perlman says, citing the Associated Press Style Book, the gold standard for journalists:

A skeptic is a doubter. A cynic is a disbeliever.

A skeptic looks for the facts, but a cynic refuses to accept the facts in front of him.

Anybody who has spent time with scientists of any stripe knows they are strong-minded individuals who like to challenge one another’s ideas. They don't easily agree.  So a 97 percent consensus seldom happens—not on whether mammograms are effective for women under 40, or if kids wear too much safety equipment or too little, or even if coated wood siding is better or worse than cement board. Having a mere 3 percent of scientists not signing off on human-caused climate change means the science is pretty well set.

Media outlets across the world are slowly updating their style books to acknowledge the climate science.  And the word “skeptic” tied to the climate crisis is on its way out. 

The Associated Press was revised in 2015 to replace the word skeptics with "climate change doubters" or "those who reject mainstream climate science." 

The Guardian, a news outlet based in Britain, is more direct and absolute. As part of their revised style book, they call deniers just what they are: "climate science deniers." They're not skeptics looking for more information. Their minds are closed. They deny, not challenge. And they deny science itself. As we continue to wound our only planet, and as our grandchildren face a future of environmental misery at the hands of the deniers,  we might find still more potent words for these people. Those terms, though, might not find their way into a style guide.


• Can We Break the Spiral of Silence on Climate Change? There's only one way to find out: Talk about it.

What Power Do We Have To Combat Climate Change? The power we learned in church: the power of the word.