Sep 28 2015

Denier vs Skeptic

The AP has recently published an updated version of its Stylebook, which contains the following entry:

To describe those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces, use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science. Avoid use of skeptics or deniers.

This debate has been going on as long as the debate about the nature of recent climate change. This is more than a nitpick, as words have real meanings and they often reflect our understanding of an issue. Those who do not accept the current consensus of climate science would prefer they be referred to as “skeptics.” This has caused a problem for the skeptical community, because the majority of scientific skeptics accept the consensus of scientific opinion on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). They feel that AGW deniers are deniers and they taint the brand of “skeptic” by adopting that term.

There is, of course, a continuum of scientific acceptance without a sharp demarcation. Following Aristotle’s golden mean, I would place proper scientific skepticism as a virtue positioned between two extremes, with denial at one end and true-belief or gullibility at the other. This scientific continuum also does not capture the entire picture, as there are those who are anti-science or who follow non-scientific philosophies.

One problem for those who lie somewhere on the scientific spectrum is that everyone tends to use themselves for calibration. In other words, most people think that their specific position on any scientific issue is at the golden mean, and anyone who believes more than they do is a true believer and anyone who doubts more than they do is a denier.

This sliding scale definition, however, misses the real point – skepticism is not about what you believe, but the process you follow in forming your beliefs (and here I use “belief” as shorthand for degree of acceptance of specific claims).

Here is my concise definition of scientific skepticism:

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion and takes a position of humility toward complex areas of knowledge requiring extensive expertise.

In order, in my opinion, to qualify as a skeptic one has to rigorously following a method of inquiry that approaches what I just described. This means carefully examining your own ideology and biases, and fully accounting for the consensus of scientific opinion, without overstepping your own expertise in the relevant area.

True deniers follow a different approach, whether they explicitly know it or not. Denialism is a form of pseudoscience. Deniers tend to start with their conclusion, because they are ideologically opposed to the current consensus of scientific opinion, whether it be on climate change, evolution, the safety of vaccines, the legitimacy of mental illness, or the historical accuracy of the holocaust. They then follow a process which is fundamentally different from scientific skepticism, even though they try to portray it as skepticism.

– Deniers do not fairly assess the scientific evidence, but will cherry pick the evidence that seems to support their position.

– They will make unreasonable or impossible demands for evidence, move the goalpost when evidence is presented, and refuse entire categories of legitimate scientific evidence.

– They will attempt to magnify scientific disagreements over lower level details as if they call into question higher level conclusions. (For example, biologists might disagree over the details of evolutionary history, without calling into question evolution itself.)

– They primarily focus on sowing doubt and confusion over the science they deny, rather than offering a coherent alternate theory or explanation.

– They will exploit ambiguity (and even create ambiguity) in terminology or employ shifting definitions in order to create confusion or apparent contradiction.

– They will attack scientists personally, and engage in a witch hunt in order to impugn their reputations and apparent motives.

– They will cast doubt on whether or not a scientific consensus exists, attempt to claim that the tide is turning in their favor, or claim that a secret consensus of denial exists but is suppressed. They may also cite outlier opinions as if they were mainstream.

– When all else fails they will invoke a conspiracy theory to explain why mainstream views differ from their own.

Too often, I think, the debate focuses on whether or not a view is “mainstream.” I have been frequently accused of accepting whatever the mainstream view is, whether that be acceptance of AGW or rejection of ESP or similar claims. My views tend to be similar to mainstream scientific views for good reason – if different people follow the same rigorous methodology, they should reach similar conclusions.

I also think it is completely legitimate to respect the views of those who have greater expertise than you in a specific area. Respect does not mean blind acceptance. You also have to understand that the views of any one individual may not be representative. I always attempt to understand, as best as possible, what the consensus of scientific opinion is on any question, how robust the consensus is, are there any minority opinions, and how robust or legitimate are they? In some areas there isn’t even a consensus, just active controversy.

When there is a robust consensus of scientific opinion without serious opposition, in a field that itself is scientifically legitimate (I don’t put any value on a consensus of opinion of homeopaths), you would do well to take that consensus seriously. I would not casually dismiss a consensus of scientific opinion or indulge in unsupported conspiracy theories to reject the consensus.

Regarding AGW specifically, part of the difficulty with using a binary term like “denier” is that, as always, there is a spectrum. There are those who deny that the planet is warming, or accept that it is warming but deny that humans have any significant role, or accept AGW but reject current proposals for how to fix it, or even that it is possible to fix it.  How do we fairly deal with this situation?

That is the question faced by the AP and why they updated their Stylebook. Their solution is not unreasonable, but it has problems still.

The fact is, there are global warming deniers – those that tick every box in the denialism checklist. When writing about such deniers, those pretty far toward the denialism end of the spectrum, then “denier” is a reasonable shorthand that fairly captures the reality.

The problem is, however, that those who are not that far toward the denial end of the spectrum, but still harbor doubts or may think that political ideologues are exploiting the fact of AGW to further their own political agenda, may feel they are being painted with the same broad brush. I understand this, but I don’t think there is a clear solution. They are, essentially, falling through the cracks of the simplified naming system.

Journalists cannot spend time on a nuanced discussion of the spectrum of opinions on AGW every time they write about it, or correct misinformation being put out by a true denier. A shorthand is often necessary for efficiency. I also think that calling the entire spectrum AGW “skeptics” is far worse, because it confuses the public over what skepticism is and give far too much credit to the far denier end of the spectrum.

I think the AP solution is a reasonable compromise. When referring to the broad group, use a term like “doubters” that is a bit mushy but then, so is the group. A soft term might be best when referring to a continuum. I have done this myself in the past. However, I still reserve the right to use “denier” when I think it is appropriate – when discussing a particular individual or position that is far enough toward the denier end of the spectrum.

I also think that readers need to keep aware that not all articles are about them. Everyone wants their personal position to be presented positively, or at least fairly. Sometimes, however, an article is simply not about you. I say this because I get e-mails almost daily complaining that an article I wrote was not fair to the e-mailer’s position.

What typically happens is that I focus an article on a particular claim or set of claims. For example, I might say – this person rejects GMOs for these stated reasons, and this is why their reasons are not valid. I may then get an e-mail complaining that those are not “the” reasons why people reject GMOs and I was unfair to focus on them and ignore the “real” reasons.

First, do not confuse your position with the range of positions that are out there. Your reasons are not “the” reasons – they are your reasons. Further, I am often responding to a specific person, so clearly there is at least one person making the claims I am analyzing.  Finally, one article is never going to address every nuance, every tangent, or every issue regarding any topic. I have to find some way to focus an article. I may have even already written about the other issues, or will get to them eventually.

The bottom line is that people often take these issues very personally. Just yesterday I received an e-mail saying that the writer was “offended” by my opinions. How can you be offended by a scientific opinion?

This, I think, is a core bias, and one that needs to be specifically worked against. Don’t take scientific claims or opinions personally. Try to emotionally divorce yourself from any particular conclusions. The process is what matters, not acceptance or rejection. Conclusions should flow from the process, and you should not be invested in the conclusions because they should be provisional. If new facts come to light, you should be able to chuck out an obsolete conclusion as if it were sour milk.

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