Bill Nye and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) have issued a statement asking media outlets to stop using the term “climate change skeptic” and that the proper term should be “climate change denier.” Although the request seems like mere semantics, it highlights the difference between a debate within the scientific community and against the scientific community.
Bill Nye and the CSI center their request around two passages, one from the New York Times that calls Republican Senator James Inhofe, “a prominent skeptic of climate change.” The other, from NPR, calls him “one of the leading climate change deniers in Congress.” Nye’s group insists that the two phrases are not the same.
They break it down to their definitions.
“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”
In other words, skepticism requires objective consideration of the evidence, and as Carl Sagan put it, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The CSI’s beef with the word “skeptic” is that those rallying against the idea deny the claims of climate scientists with little evidence of their own to contribute.
Bill Nye‘s group goes back to Senator Inhofe as an example. Inhofe once referred to climate change as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” an extraordinary claim, one that requires extraordinary evidence, but Inhofe still hasn’t been able to provide enough objective proof.
The CSI goes on to say that although not all climate skeptics are deniers, almost all deniers claim to be skeptics, and that responsible journalists need to stop giving deniers the credibility that comes with proper skepticism.
Although the argument may be well reasoned, the CSI appears to be wading into the popular tactic of relabeling. A “skeptic” naturally has a better ring to it than “denier,” just like “pro-life” sounds better than “anti-abortion.” Persuading the media to rethink its terms may grant a small advantage to the vast majority of scientists in the debate, something that seems unnecessary given the large amount of evidence supporting the idea that the Earth is slowing warming.
The relabeling may be especially difficult to accept when the common definition of a skeptic, “a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual,” seems to fit Senator Inhofe’s climate change stance quite well.
In any case, Bill Nye’s group might just want some distance between themselves and the “deniers,” but it may feel too much like a ploy to be effective.
[Image Credit: Mark Schierbecker/Wikimedia Commons]