There are a lot of words one could use to describe Sen. James Inhofe’s position on climate change, but some scientists and science communicators are most concerned with two of them: “skeptic” and “denier.”
In a statement released this week, several dozen people from the science world asked the media to stop calling Inhofe (R-Okla.) and others who do not believe in the scientific evidence supporting climate change “skeptics.” Instead, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry argued, it would be more accurate to call Inhofe and the others “deniers.”
“We are concerned that the words ‘skeptic’ and ‘denier’ have been conflated by the popular media,” reads a letter released by the group. The statement is signed by Bill Nye and Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Duryan, along with several prominent scientists.
The group issuing the letter has “skeptical” in its name. The implication here is that the word is properly applied to the work of the letter signers, but not those with an opposite view of climate change. “Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” the statement says.
Inhofe has said that he doesn’t believe catastrophic climate change is real and that “global warming” could be “beneficial to mankind.” He is sometimes seen taking to the Senate floor on cold days to inform his colleagues that “global warming” must be false. He also wrote a book called “The Greatest Hoax, How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”
At issue, according to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, is how news organizations describe Inhofe’s position. A New York Times piece from November referred to Inhofe as a “prominent skeptic of climate change.” Days later, the group’s statement noted, NPR called Inhofe “one of the leading climate change deniers in Congress.”
“These are not equivalent statements,” the group said.
Although some scientists and educators have previously objected to the use of “skeptic” to refer to people who agree with Inhofe, the debate has taken on a new urgency: Inhofe is probably going to lead the Environment and Public Works Committee when the Republicans take over the Senate in January, giving him even more influence.
The Washington Post doesn’t have a set policy on the usage of the words; past news coverage has used the terms “denier” and “skeptic” interchangeably. For instance, here is a headline referring to Inhofe as a “denier of human role in climate change.” This week, Wonkblog went with “skeptic,” but only between quotation marks.
Of the two words, “denier” is older, lexicographer Kory Stamper told The Post.
“Its earliest uses were religious: deniers of the Gospel, deniers of Jesus Christ, and so on,” Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, wrote in an e-mail.
Now, the word generally carries one very specific connotation, as part of the phrase “Holocaust denier.” Stamper notes that “denier” tends to “imply a resolute refusal to look at established facts or evidence; it’s got a much more dogmatic ring to it than ‘skeptic’ does.”
By contrast, “skeptic has been in solid and varied use from the early 1600s onward,” Stamper said.
But its earliest usage applied to a mindset that we might understand as similar to agnosticism these days: Early on, a skeptic was “someone who thought that true knowledge was impossible, or that all knowledge is uncertain.”
Stamper points to the following line from John Donne’s Juvenalia (1631): “The Skeptike, which doubts all, was more contentious, than either.”
Although skepticism has kept this association with religious non-believers, or atheists, its usage today is much more broad. It can mean someone who doubts “a particular point of knowledge.” It can mean someone who doubts that a certain statement is true. Or it can refer to a disposition.
“Nowadays, the second ‘general doubter’ sense is the most common; the use of ‘skeptic’ to refer to an atheist is perhaps the least common in modern prose, though still common enough to merit entry into most dictionaries,” Stamper wrote in an e-mail.
“And that’s where the rubber meets the ‘skeptic’ vs. ‘denier’ road: Writers tend to use words that are more familiar to them, and ‘skeptic’ is much more common in modern English prose than ‘denier’ is. ‘Denier’ also has that extra whiff of dogmatic, insistent rejection of established fact that ‘skeptic’ doesn’t (due to its common appearance in ‘Holocaust denier’), so maybe uses of ‘climate-change skeptic’ are seen as less judgmental or biased as uses of ‘climate-change denier’ are. It’s hard to say definitively.”
The implication is that there may be both “deniers” and “skeptics” when it comes to climate change, something suggested by a 2013 piece in Scientific American: “There are people who agree that humans are warming the planet, but then wonder about the exact details of the effects,” it reads. “How much will it exactly warm? Will it warm equally everywhere?”
Inhofe’s record takes it further than Scientific American’s tentative model for a “skeptic” on this topic. His book specifically calls global warming a “hoax,” merely a liberal conspiracy that’s designed to advance a liberal environmental agenda.
So, what would Inhofe call himself? We asked him — and in short, Inhofe dismissed the entire argument as “extreme environmentalists” arguing over “semantics.” In a statement, his office said: “Senator Inhofe is focused on how the President’s global warming agenda is putting small businesses out of work, making it more costly for farmers to deliver food to our tables, and sending jobs overseas where energy is more affordable.”