The AP's Depressing Sop to Climate Deniers

New style changes reflect the power of a misinformation campaign.

By Nathan Pippenger

In his address to a joint session of Congress yesterday, Pope Francis called for action on global warming—knowing full well that his audience included climate deniers and climate skeptics. People who read about the speech, though, may not see the words “deniers” or “skeptics,” since, per a new AP Stylebook recommendation, those are not the preferred nomenclature. Instead, the AP suggests “climate change doubters” and “those who reject mainstream climate science.” The use of “skeptics” evidently drew complaints from actual self-identified skeptics—people who spend their time debunking pseudoscience and don’t want to be associated with climate deniers. But as it turns out, “denier” is likewise out of bounds, since it “has the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier” and might cause hurt feelings. Henceforth, then, the AP will write not about “deniers,” but rather “those who reject mainstream climate science,” and not “skeptics,” but rather “doubters.”

Rare is the reader who will be able to parse the distinctions between a “doubter” and a “skeptic,” or between “deniers” and “those who reject mainstream climate science.” Erik Wemple, who is also skeptical (doubtful?) about the wisdom of these new terms, worries that the AP has “succumbed to a specious argument.” When Wemple put the matter to an AP science writer, he was told that “‘Doubter’ is the closest one-word phrase that you can come to ‘rejecting mainstream climate science.’” Of course, that’s not true. You could use the word “rejector.” Or the already-in-use “denier.” Tossing these two aside in favor of “doubter” is misleading in at least two ways. First, it almost certainly imputes a false ambivalence to the views of the person in question: those who reject climate science tend to be quite enthusiastic in their rejection, certain that they are right and the scientists are wrong. Indeed, you need to be almost grotesquely cocksure to reject the overwhelming scientific consensus in the first place, a mindset which is poorly captured by the much weaker term “doubter.”

But that’s not the worst of it: “doubter” lends a patina of reasonableness to the deniers’ position. The severity of “rejecting” something normally implies either that the rejector is being unreasonable, or that they had an unusual warrant for reacting so strongly—that the thing being rejected is itself unreasonable. In contrast, something that we “doubt” is usually less of a settled issue, which is why a moderate state of mind—dubious, perhaps, but not dismissive—is appropriate: while our doubt may in the end be vindicated, we may just as well have to reverse our judgment in light of new facts. If anything is a poor fit for this model of epistemic uncertainty, it is the overwhelming consensus on climate change. “Doubter,” to the contrary, is a one-word mangling of what the language of rejection is intended to convey.

The Associated Press is, above all, an organization which deals in words, and so it’s hard to believe they couldn’t have figured that out. Instead, what the AP writer who answered Wemple meant to say was that “doubter” is the closest one-word phrase you can use without offending climate deniers. The choice, then, had nothing to do with the meanings of the terms, and everything to do with the social cost of offending climate deniers. Some observers are uninterested in that choice: David Roberts, who has written smartly on media coverage of climate denialism, thinks this battle over language “doesn’t really matter.” Instead, “what is important is properly comprehending the phenomenon itself”—that is, why denialism persists and continues to shape policy debates, despite overwhelming evidence that it’s wrong.

In a narrow sense, Roberts is right: the outcome of this particular debate will not affect climate change policy. But the AP’s capitulation is distressing for other reasons. In the past, this blog has argued that the accuracy of journalism is especially at risk when the industry is under financial pressure, and that material inequality eventually comes to distort the epistemic dimensions of democracy. The AP’s decision is dispiriting evidence of both of these broader trends. For years, mainstream sources covered climate change with timidity, possibly because they feared losing readers and viewers to conservative competitors. At the same time, a well-financed, well-organized disinformation campaign not only fueled the false narrative of a “debate”; it labored intensely to make climate denialism acceptable in polite society. That’s how, in 2015, a major news organization can drop the word “deniers” for having “a pejorative ring.” Of course it has a pejorative ring! It should have one.

Denialists bear much of the responsibility for inaction on climate change, and the costs are going to be catastrophic. Only a successful propaganda campaign could have made it seem unfair or biased to refer to such people in a way that is less-than-flattering. Insofar as the AP’s decision can be seen as one more victory of that campaign, one more way it’s infiltrated our language and our thinking, it’s a depressing sight. And, as if to add insult to injury, the AP—instead of admitting that its foremost concern was the feelings of climate deniers—claimed that it was adopting the changes to “help our reporters and editors present the news accurately, concisely and clearly.” If only.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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