Words Matter or Word Matters – Skeptics or Deniers

Source: http://forecastthefacts.org/
Source: http://forecastthefacts.org/

This is a topic that is much, much larger than a single blog posting – but that’s okay.  We have got to start someplace.

I mentioned in my last post that I am enrolled in a MOOC entitled “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial” and one discussion topic focuses on the characteristics of and differences between skepticism and denial.

Why does the choice between these two words matter?

Valid question – let’s explore some of the possible answers together.

John Cook, Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia, offers the following explanations for the importance of choosing the right word to describe a person’s stance on a scientific question (in this case, climate change and global warming).  According to Cook (2015), skepticism is an integral part of the scientific method and, as a result, scientists are skeptical of new claims until the evidence supporting that claim becomes overwhelming.  A person who denies well-established science, such as the evidence supporting climate change and global warming, first reaches a conclusion and then rejects any evidence that conflicts with their beliefs (Cook, 2015).  As John Cook argues, skepticism and denial really are “polar opposites” (nice turn of a phrase, don’t you think?).

John Cook isn’t the only person, or even the first, to concern himself with the topic of scientific denialism and how the scientific community ought to respond.  Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee (2009) found that science denial consisted of five characteristics, including fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories, and has been used by deniers to support their rejection of a wide range of scientifically valid studies on human evolution, the link between smoking and cancer, and human-caused global warming.

There are other blog posts, peer-reviewed papers, and articles in the popular press which toss this issue around in much greater detail – too much detail for a single blog post – and I would encourage you to take some time and research the topic for yourself.  There are a number of good search engines for doing scientific research and one of my favorites is Google Scholar.  It can be challenging to find an entire paper posted online, particularly papers which have been published in peer-reviewed or scholarly journals.  However, a quick trip to your local library may help you to find a copy of that paper or, if you are lucky enough to be a student or work at an educational institution, you can probably retrieve papers online through your institution’s library.

What do you think?  Is it a big deal to use the word “skeptic” to describe someone who denies well established science?

I believe it is a big deal because influential climate change/global warming deniers try to label themselves as “skeptics”, suggesting that their denial has scientific merit. The popular press does a very poor job distinguishing between these terms as well, adding to the confusion of the general public about the differences between skepticism and denialism and, worse, the level of scientific consensus associated with global warming and climate change.

What is the level of scientific consensus for human-caused global warming?

That sounds like a great topic for a later forum posting, don’t you think? (Spoiler alert – it is huge!)

So do I, so until next time…….



Cook, J. (2015, April 22). Taking back skepticism [HTML document]. Retrieved from http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/taking_back_skepticism

Diethelm, P. & McKee, M. (2009). Denialism: What is it and how should scientists respond? The European Journal of Public Health, 19(1), 2-4

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