The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (John McConnico/Associated Press)

The Associated Press (AP) today announced a change to its famous stylebook, discouraging the use of the terms “climate change deniers” and “climate change skeptics” in favor of an alternative: “climate change doubters.” The switch in terminology, noted the wire service in an online posting, solves a number of problems encountered by journalists writing on this divisive topic.

“Scientists who consider themselves real skeptics – who debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience, such as those who are part of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry – complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic,” notes the AP posting under the byline of Vice President and Director of Media Relations Paul Colford. And that’s only the beginning of the clash that motivated this AP change. To break down the two sides:

*Scientists who are part of the vast and overwhelming consensus that the planet is suffering a man-made climate crisis object that the term “skeptic” gives too much credit to the other side. The term, they object, suggests that the minority position is actually based on empirical data. “Deniers” is a better term, they say.

*Those pegged as “deniers” objected that the term left them in a dreaded thinkspace. “The reason we don’t use ‘denier’ is that there is a connotation rightly or wrongly and a complaint by some that it has the concept of ‘Holocaust denier,'” said AP science writer Seth Borenstein in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog.

So the AP came up with “doubters.” When there’s space for more words, an approved alternative is “those who reject mainstream climate science.” Here’s the wording from the stylebook change:

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.

A mainstream media outlet, the AP clearly sought to fashion a compromise that would address the concerns of both sides in this debate over news terminology. In the process, however, it managed to create a contradiction. That contradiction comes to light when we place the approved and disapproved terms side by side:


Climate change doubters
Those who reject mainstream climate science


Climate change skeptics
Climate change deniers

What is the distinction between “those who reject mainstream climate science,” on the one hand, and “climate change skeptics/deniers,” on the other hand? We put that question to Borenstein: “‘Doubter’ is the closest one-word phrase that you can come to ‘rejecting mainstream climate science,'” responded Borenstein, who is not part of the AP style crew but did provide guidance on this process. “Using climate doubters is accurate and it is precise,” he tells us, “but ‘those who reject mainstream climate science’ gives you an extra level of precision.”

Will Borenstein be comfy using this term? “I’ve been rolling with it for a while, not that anyone noticed,” he says. Correct: A Sept. 15 article by Borenstein on Arctic sea ice levels contained the following passage. “The five years between 1979 and 1983 averaged 2.76 million square miles during the summer minimum. The last five years average 1.72 million square miles, a decrease of 38 percent and more than a million square miles. That means there’s no recovery in Arctic sea ice, despite claims of some climate change doubters, said [scientist Julienne] Stroeve and Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who wasn’t part of the government measurement team.”

A media uproar, as Borenstein notes, didn’t erupt over that terminology, though Twitter certainly lit up this afternoon over the AP announcement.

“We’re getting good and bad from both sides, which is just about right,” says Borenstein.

The AP takes a step like this only after piling up a great deal of e-mails and filing in and out of meetings. Stylebook editors Sally Jacobsen, Dave Minthorn and Paula Froke understand the influence of the document that they curate. In this case, however, they have succumbed to a specious argument that the term “denier” can’t be paired with another term without tinging it with Holocaust implications. Seems like a dicey precedent. “This change in terminology would give an increasingly marginalized minority of mostly non-scientists and crackpots new credibility,” writes Kert Davies of the Climate Investigations Center in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog. “It would also satisfy the wishes of the ‘deniers’ to not be called ‘deniers.'”