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Sun rising over Earth's horizon

At Associated Press, no more climate skeptics or deniers

Doubting or rejecting the science on climate change no longer makes someone a “skeptic” or “denier” in the views of a leading news organization. The Associated Press (AP) announced yesterday that it’s instructing its journalists to use the terms “doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science” in their stories. The organization also said it now discourages the use of the terms “skeptics” and “deniers.”

The news organization, which operates hundreds of bureaus around the world and serves thousands of media outlets, is adding new text to its widely used AP Stylebook under its entry on global warming, said AP spokesman Paul Colford. The new text will say: “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.” Colford told ScienceInsider in an email that this change comes on top of a separate expansion of the global warming entry in the 2015 Stylebook.

The decision’s impact is likely to be widespread; AP’s decision will affect not just the organization’s own articles, but also those by the many newspapers, magazines, and other news outlets that use AP’s style guidelines.

The decision is drawing mixed reactions. Some science advocates said AP should have taken a stronger stand against climate science contrarians who wrongly claim the mantle of scientific skepticism. Other observers said AP did a good job striking a difficult balance on a touchy matter.

“It’s extremely important that the AP are doing this,” says Harvard University science historian Naomi Oreskes. She notes longtime attempts by industry and conservative groups to stir up doubt about well-established climate science, in part by persuading journalists to give their views equal weight. “It’s terribly important that journalists do not fall for that trap, and that reporters distinguish clearly between genuine scientific debate and others types of disagreement, dissent, and denial.”

Meanwhile, some traditionally associated with the “skeptic” or “denier” side are claiming victory. Marc Morano, who runs the contrarian site Climate Depot, told National Journal that he preferred the term “skeptic,” but that “doubter” still suggests there’s room for debate. By ditching “denier,” AP is “entering the realm of objectivity,” Morano said. Meanwhile, Anthony Watts, a former TV meteorologist who runs the popular contrarian blog Watts Up With That?, also praised AP’s decision as a “positive and long and overdue change” to ditch the “ugly climate term ‘denier.’”

A battle over words

AP’s move comes 9 months after dozens of scientists and science advocates—including Arizona State University, Tempe, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, Brown University biologist and evolution defender Ken Miller, and TV personality Bill Nye “the Science Guy” —criticized the media for using the terms “skepticism” and “denial” interchangeably. The open letter argued that most politicians and activists who reject climate science don’t embrace skepticism, which entails the use of logical and critical thinking skills to assess lofty claims, and that “denial” is the more appropriate term.

In a staff memo accompanying Colford’s announcement, top AP Stylebook editors echoed that line of reasoning in discouraging use of the term “skeptic.” Still, in discouraging use of “denier” as well, the editors noted that “denier” has its own problems. “Those who reject climate science say the phrase ‘denier’ has the pejorative ring of ‘Holocaust denier,’” AP editors Sally Jacobsen, Dave Minthorn, and Paula Froke wrote in the memo.

Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, a blog affiliated with the Democratic-aligned Center for American Progress, called the change “pointless.” Although AP’s recommended phrase “those who reject mainstream climate science” is “not half bad,” it’s so wordy that the weaker term “doubter” may win by default, Romm argues in a blog post. “Does the AP recommend newspapers use the phrase ‘smoking health risk doubters’ or ‘tobacco science doubters’?” Romm wrote. “Of course not—and yet scientists have the same level of certainty about human-caused climate change as they do that cigarettes harm your health.” (The Sierra Club, an environmental group, mocked the change using similar reasoning.)

Ronald Lindsay, CEO of the Center for Inquiry, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Amherst, New York, agrees that “doubter” isn’t a great substitute for “skeptic” or “denier.” “Referring to deniers as 'doubters' still imbues those who reject scientific fact with an intellectual legitimacy they have not earned,” he says in a statement. Still, Lindsay expressed relief that politicians, think tanks, and activists at odds with climate science—he cited Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), who has repeatedly called manmade climate change a hoax—will find it tougher to take on the “skeptic” mantle. The term “those who reject mainstream climate science” is “acceptably clarifying,” he said.

Use of the term “denier” is accurate in some cases, says Ed Maibach, a climate communications researcher at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. But rejection or doubt of established climate science among members of the general public is usually the product of deception, he says. “I find it offensive to call these people deniers, because it wrongly implies they are bad people, like Holocaust deniers,” Maibach wrote in an email. “‘Doubter’ and the clunkier ‘those who reject mainstream climate science’ strike me as fair terms to describe both members of the public and the very small number of scientists who are not convinced.”