Many defenders of science have tried to clarify the difference between skepticism and denial, but nobody has nailed it as succinctly as Dr. Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick & the Climate Wars, in a recent interview in Slate:
“When it comes to climate change, true skepticism is two-sided. One-sided skepticism is no skepticism at all.”
Bravo! It’s long past time to reclaim the term “skeptic” from true-believers who are only skeptical about things that conflict with their pre-existing beliefs.
One-sided skeptics scrutinize climate science for the tiniest flaw or uncertainty, but usually swallow whole any cherry-picked fact, anecdotal “evidence,” logical fallacy or wild conspiracy theory that supports their worldview.
True skepticism — questioning all claims, consciously putting aside one’s biases, insisting upon seeing all the evidence, and subjecting it all to equal scrutiny — is too central to scientific inquiry to let it be hijacked.
I would have preferred that Mann had stopped with the quote above, but he added
“I will call people who deny the science ‘deniers.’ I won’t be deterred by the fact that they don’t like the use of that term and no doubt that just endears me to them further. It’s frustrating of course because a lot of us would like to get past this nonsensical debate and on to the real debate to be had about what to do.”
While sharing Mann’s frustration, we now avoid using the term “denier” at ClimateBites. Though accurate and concise, labeling people “deniers” simply shuts many more doors — and minds — than it opens. I have heard several anecdotes about partially open-minded skeptics, including meteorologists, taking offense at the label, which they associated with Holocaust denial. No doubt, at least some undecided onlookers feel the same way, and that’s our real audience. Bottom line: In most situations, the costs of branding people “deniers” simply outweighs the benefits.
And whenever possible, it’s usually wiser to avoid labeling people altogether, and focus instead on the psychological process of denial — to which we are all susceptible. Since we all do it, we can even find some common ground there.