This question keeps coming up and in returning to it I will not simply be rehashing the same old arguments. Rather I hope to demonstrate that there are solid political reasons to use the term Denier when it is accurate and appropriate.
It’s not that simple
Leaving “skeptics” and “deniers”
The politics of naming
It’s an ugly word
It’s not that simple
One reason the question whether the term is accurate or not is not asked is because it is assumed that the term is used to describe all who hold a different view, ie doubting anthropogenic climate change and/or evolution. In my case I am quite explicit that the term is used only for some, and it based on their actions, not their conclusions. So why the assumption? and who does that assumption benefit?
Another reason seems to be the belief that the word Denier is used carelessly as a rhetorical ad hominem attack in an attempt to discredit the opposition by associating them with Holocaust Denial. This is certainly part of the argument Royce Christian gives in his “An open letter to Mike Kaulbars.”
One blogger outraged at the perceived ad hominem refers to those who use the word Denier as “Vocabulary Fascists.” Deliberately ironic? Actually I use the word Denier thoughtfully, deliberately, and as I will discuss, not as an ad hominem.
A third reason reason for the objection is the apparent belief that those who doubt are a uniform, homogenous group that can be or are described with a single term, or that the various terms to describe doubt are synonyms and interchangeable. Neither assumption is true.
There is no taxonomy of doubt, no science where each term (taxon) within the group (clade) is unique and defined such that the full range of doubt is encompassed and the terms exclusive of one another (although fellow nerds will find “A Thesis Experiment in Cultural Lexicography” an interesting curiousity). If there were it would make the whole question much easier.
Here are the terms that I think might describe the range of doubt we encounter:
The Naïve doubt, but for the most part they don’t know and don’t care. They might also be called ‘uninformed’ except that they do have an opinion. Their doubt is really a convenient rationalization for not thinking about it, and really they’d rather discuss something else.
Doubters (used by Joseph Romm to differentiate them from Deniers) actually do doubt, but do not hold particularly strong views about it. Their information is largely from the mainstream media (sadly) and their doubt is vaguely based on the perception of scientific controversy, from that concluding that there is a lack of scientific certainty.
These first two groups make up the bulk of the population and for the most part do not concern us here. The Naïve will go along with the majority whatever that is, and the Doubters are open to education.
The Agnostic has an ideological commitment to asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge and does not doubt one hypothesis in favour of another, but rather claims to exist in a state of universal doubt. This group is small and does not particularly concern us.
When I last discussed this issue I noted that “‘Contrarian‘ is easily rejected as it seems to be a term used mostly within the investment community for a specific investment behaviour, and hence to broaden the definition just confuses things.” And I will stand by that.
Leaving “skeptics” and “deniers”
Skeptics are those who acknowledge the scientific evidence, but thoughtfully maintain doubt based on some small evidence or logic that, though meagre, is nonetheless reality based. They are honourable people who push science forward through their constant, reasoned questioning and thoughtful critiques of the dominant paradigm.
Skepticism is a disciplined intellectual activity based on facts. Just what it means in the modern sense is explored intelligently at places like the Skeptics Society and here. No doubt there are many more, but those give you a sense.
By contrast those who distort and lie (see “Debunking Nonsense” at right, and every post on this blog), who demonstrate no understanding of the science, who have no evidence or rational logic for their position but persist in denying the very existence of the overwhelming scientific evidence, can only be called Deniers.
So, far from being synonyms the terms describe two radically different groups. This point is made repeatedly throughout the discussions of the issue. For eg here, and here, and here, and here, and here (you get the idea).
Johnny Rook even goes so far as to break down the Deniers into:
3) Literate conservative/libertarian ideologues
4) The right-wing booboisie
The politics of naming
James Hrynyshyn argues for the term Pseudoskeptics, but it defines them by what they are not rather than what they are. It fails to capture their essential defining characteristic of irrational denial, and hence I would argue is inaccurate.
From Chi Xi Stigma to Rumplestilskin it is a fundamental human truth that to defeat ‘the monster’ it is necessary to call it by it’s true name. We do not solve problems that we have misdiagnosed, and the problem we are dealing with here is denial, not skepticism.
Part of every political struggle has been to get actions and behaviours recognised for what they are. “Silence is consent” is axiomatic, and one form of silence is the passive acceptance and use of euphemisms that hide the ugly reality. Denying service to people of colour or homosexuals is not a question of the service provider’s rights, but of racism and homophobia.
Certainly my own father was always offended when we called him a sexist. He had many good qualities, but he really was a sexist. Failing to identify his behaviour for what it was only perpetuated the myth that his behaviour was somehow acceptable when it most certainly was not.
It is the Deniers who benefit by the confusion of skeptic vs Denier, so it is small wonder that most of them reject the term or try to synonymize them. The confusion hides the reality of their behaviour and gives them undeserved authority. I for one do not wish to grace the irrational thugishness of Deniers with the cloak of legitimacy and respectability that the term “skeptic” would confer. Also it would be a great insult to the skeptics.
No doubt is happens that some science proponents do intend a Holocaust reference when using the term Denier, but I have never seen it. Rather time and again it is the Deniers who invoke it in an attempt to appear the victim. They dodge the question of their actions by trying to turn the discussion to terminology, framing themselves as guileless seekers of truth unjustly cast as irrational anti-semites. Here again the ploy is to gain the respectability of skeptics while behaving as Deniers.
It’s an Ugly word
“Denier” is an ugly and crude word to describe an ugly and crude behaviour.
This blog use the term “Denier” regularly. For the most part this blog does not discuss the the Naïve, Doubters, Agnostics, Contrarians, or Skeptics. When I do I will use the appropriate term. If I say “Denier” it is because I am referring to those engaged in denial and it’s behavours.
Some argue that the term Denier should not be used as it puts the other person on the defensive. True enough, and good reason to never use the term carelessly or inaccurately.
But it should always be used when describing denial.
Denier “Challenge” aka Deathwatch Update: Day 46 … still no evidence.