What to call a scientist or policy wonk, whatever, steadfastly insistent on not accepting the general climate science as viewed from the “consensus” perspective, in particular that Earth indeed is warming and primarily because of human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide? Are they merely “skeptics,” a term many scientists and journalists prefer to apply, with honor, to themselves? And if so … are all those “skeptics” so homogeneous? If a Pat Michaels or a Richard Lindzen is a “skeptic” … what is Marc Morano?

A few recent examples illustrate the ongoing word-war. At “Climate Progress,” Joseph Romm — no shrinking violet and not one to pull his punches — lamented the term “denier” in the climate context because of its echo of Holocaust denial, and he re-proposed the terms “delayer” and “disinformer.” The journal Nature Climate Change has published a paper titled “Promoting Pro-environmental Action among Climate Change Deniers,” prompting outrage among “skeptical” bloggers, such as “Watts Up With That,” at the apparent legitimacy the journal thereby conferred on the term.

A perennial topic with no end in sight, the debate over such language can quickly turn into name-calling over name-calling — an inward-gazing meta-discourse changing no one’s views or practices, and perhaps only solidifying them. University of Illinois climate scientist Don Wuebbles tries to get around it all by using the term “confusionist,” but there’s little sign of its picking up much traction generally. (Wuebbles, of course, would himself be dismissed as just another “believer” by those same forces he characterizes as “confusionists.” )

“Reaching consensus on the best term here is like trying to reach consensus on a prognosis for action in the face of anthropogenic climate change,” wrote Max Boykoff, a climate communications scholar at the University of Colorado-Boulder, in an e-mail interview. “It can become distracting from the more productive work that can be done.”

In a sound bite-driven, communications-constrained environment — where each extra word and letter counts against your Twitter limit of 140 characters — perhaps such shorthand is evitable. Memes require compression.

But perhaps too an occasional revisiting of the word games can be useful, particularly if it reminds everyone, left and right alike and especially media, of the dangers inherent in loose lips and imprecise categories.

Internet Polarization and ‘In-Group’ Thinking

The problems here indeed are age-old. With labels come power. As debate club strategy goes, define the terms and you’ve already won the argument. Equally valid, however, is the old diplomatic truism that establishing common language is a necessary starting point for any breakthrough.

What to call the opposition on the battlefield? When to call male bovine excrement just “BS,” and when to pull back and leave room for compromise?

From one perspective, watering down “denier” might seem wimpy. Such timidity can be a symptom of being too “academically trained, scrupulous, conscientious” for one’s own good, as Yale University’s David Bromwhich has said. It’s a conundrum with which the political left in America has struggled; one common diagnosis to explain the rightward tilt of the country is that liberals have ceded too much rhetorical ground, lost the fighting spirit, and failed to “call out” nonsense in plain language.

Likewise, anyone engaged in public communications on the political right has his or her own dynamics to contend with: “outrage discourse” is now wired into the conservative media DNA, as a 2011 study in Political Communication suggests. To pull back may be to lose face — or worse, to lose eyeballs or audience share.

The problem may be exacerbated by novel communications trends. Though there are many factors behind the rise of polarization broadly in America, the Internet may play a strong role in enabling it.

Matthew Nisbet, a science communications scholar at American University, notes that with the Internet, “there’s a lot of net positive in terms of social network formation and exchange of ideas.” But it’s also the case that strong words drive Web traffic and clicks, and demonizing the opposition promotes audience loyalty and “in-group” solidarity, Nisbet said in an interview.

Despite ongoing debate over this “cyber-balkanization” issue, the research literature tilts toward supporting the idea that the Internet is facilitating more polarization. That’s the takeaway of papers such as “Political Polarization on Twitter” and “New Media and the Polarization of American Discourse,” though other peer-reviewed research diminishes its significance. In any case, there is very little research literature specifically establishing causation between the Web and greater polarization on climate change. But it’s very plausible that this is a valid phenomenon, and that it is driving the polarization of language, too.

The Language of Righteous Outrage

Consider the history of the some of the primary terms appropriated in the climate debate.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, OED, the term “denier” — starting with its coinage in 1475, during the language’s transition period — has traditionally been used in a theological context, as in “Deniers of Christ Jesus.” But meanings shift; slippage occurs; and new coinages take place.

The use of “climate denier” now has the unique distinction of being both inappropriately specific — tied to the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis — and so mundane as to be a cliché. Hence, deploying “climate denier” is a kind of fulfillment of Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

On the other hand, “alarmist” — used as a pejorative to tar the likes of Al Gore and James Hansen — was originally coined by godfather-of-conservatism Edmund Burke as a kind of virtue. “We must continue to be vigorous alarmists,” he wrote in 1793, ringing the alarm bell against French revolutionaries.

“Warmist,” on the other hand, with its whiff of cultish-ness, shows up first in the mainstream media in a 1989 New York Times “On Language” column. There is something sweetly innocent, and pre-political, about its presentation: “Those who accept the global-warming theory are said to take the warmist position.”

While preferred by some, “contrarian” connotes a kind of clever pose or affect, and suggests flippancy and lack of seriousness. The OED defines it as a “person who (habitually) opposes or rejects prevailing opinion or established practice; someone who behaves in a contrary manner.”

“Skeptic” is a particularly vexing case. It comes originally from ancient philosophical discourse describing one who, “like Pyrrho and his followers in Greek antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever.” So to be a truly original “skeptic” — early modern philosophers such as David Hume would refine this position and make it more sophisticated — was to be a sort of professional “know-nothing,” or paradoxically, to believe in the wisdom of ignorance.

Skepticism Over Skepticism?

The use of the word “skeptic” is illustrative, perhaps representing the richest linguistic turf on which all sides battle. The word is often used as an epithet — as in, “Those scoundrel climate skeptics who sow doubt using money from the oil companies!” But it is also cleverly co-opted by those whose fealty to the “establishment” climate science is unquestioned: Just consider John Cook and his blog SkepticalScience.com, the motto of which is “Getting skeptical over global warming skepticism.”

What to do with outlier definitions, or notions that “skeptic,” in principle, applies to all true scientists? Take for example the position of Berkeley physicist Richard A. Muller. A longtime “skeptic,” he famously co-authored new research that he says validates once more the phenomenon of global warming, a shift of position that earned many headlines. (See related story with this posting.) In October 2011, he published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal headlined “The Case Against Global Warming Skepticism.” It includes sentences such as, “Now let me explain why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”

Compare that with what he said subsequently at The Commonwealth Club of California, as part of the Climate One series on June 21, 2012:

There are deniers on both sides. I call the deniers the people who pay no attention to the science. They start with the assumption that there is a great conspiracy, and that whatever is happening in the climate is good …. Then on the other side, there are the exaggerators, who are just as bad as the deniers ….That includes Al Gore. He’s on the other extreme, and he doesn’t pay any attention to the science, on one side. And the deniers don’t pay it — [it’s] the same. In the middle, even close to the middle, there are the skeptics, who have done a really wonderful job of pointing out the flaws in the science. There are what I call the warmists … actually many of them have done really good work, but they have convinced themselves that this is now a really dangerous thing and they have become political activists. I see it as symmetric.

There is a kind of admirable originality, and a little mischief, involved in such linguistic pretzels. But this novel form of “false balance” — i.e., deniers on all sides — is less amusing when citizens with low information — the majority — are seen as the primary audience for climate communications. The word “skeptic” becomes, in effect, meaningless. The outcome of this sort of cognitive dissonance can be nothing other than utter confusion in the minds of citizens and a powerlessness to respond.

American University’s Nisbet notes that, at the very least, dumping other “skeptical” figures such as Bjorn Lomborg, Richard Lindzen and Roger Pielke, Jr., into some larger “denier” camp is illogical and inaccurate. Their positions simply do not conform to the same patterns as, for example, Sen. James Inhoufe (R-OK) or his onetime aide-de-camp Morano; therefore, there need to be gradations and careful distinctions.

For his part, MIT’s Lindzen told the BBC in 2010 that he rejects the “skeptic” label because it should be reserved for situations where one is contradicting a “strong presumptive case,” which he insists is not the case with climate change. “I like ‘denier,’ that’s closer than ‘skeptic,’” he said when asked about labels he preferred for himself. “Realist is not bad.”

Reducing Media Coverage to Tit-for-Tat

Less dizzying ranges of labels than Muller’s have been proposed to describe the citizenry and levels of credulity on climate information. For example, the Yale/George Mason “Six Americas” report organizes its survey respondents’ views as follows: Alarmed; Concerned; Cautious; Disengaged; Doubtful; Dismissive.

Two years ago, an intriguing moment in the scholarly world presented itself with the publication of a paper in PNAS, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change.” The study, which explicitly mentions the words “denier,” “skeptic,” and “contrarian,” simply split its sample group of scientists into two camps: “convinced of evidence” (CE) and “unconvinced of evidence” (UE).

The study prompted a tough letter of critique from climate communications scholars Boykoff and Saffron J. O’Neill. They wrote, “The use of the terms skeptic, denier, or contrarian is necessarily subject-, issue-, context-, and intervention-dependent…. Continued indiscriminate use of the terms will further polarize views on climate change, reduce media coverage to tit-for-tat finger-pointing, and do little to advance the unsteady relationship among climate science, society, and policy.”

The PNAS study authors defended their right to use such terms by citing prior uses in the European Journal of Public Health and Environmental Politics, as well as science historian Naomi Oreskes’ 2010 Merchants of Doubt. They contended that “denialism has been well established in the literature as a relevant and appropriate concept and frequently applied to the [anthropogenic climate change] discourse.” They conceded that their “unconvinced” category “may encompass climate change skeptics, deniers, and contrarians” alike but asserted that such a catch-all category is nevertheless “objective and useful.”

In any event, that scholarly exchange highlighted the need for those involved in climate communications to be more “subject-, issue-, context-, and intervention”-specific and precise, adding further explanation whenever possible.

Inevitable Limits of Language and Politics … and ‘Rallying the Bases’

Neither Nisbet nor Boykoff says he finds the term “denier” useful.

For Boykoff, the work of communicating is all about bridging spaces and broadening the “spectrum of possibility for appropriate action.” And he adds this note of worry about how vitriolic language can end up ironically legitimizing positions that are only slightly less marginal: “If one wanted to rally their bases, invoking terms like ‘warmist’ or ‘denier’ can be more useful than ‘contrarian’ or ‘realist.’ These ‘epithets’ can also produce the ‘radical flank effect,’ as has been discussed mainly in sociology, where more extreme/strong language can make the use of ‘contrarian’ seem more reasonable.”

Nisbet says that “denier” serves the function of “morally stigmatizing the opponent.” While that’s one possible strategy, he says, “it potentially loses your audience in the middle,” where the only real compromise can take place. For him, that’s a coalition of environmental advocacy and center-right groups who might find common ground over something like a carbon tax, as part of a larger tax reform package.

But the National Center for Science Education notes that when it uses the terms “climate change deniers” and “climate change denial,” they are “intended descriptively, not in any pejorative sense, and are used for the sake of brevity and consistency with a well-established usage in the scholarly and journalistic literature.”

Spencer Weart: From ‘Skeptics’ to ‘Deniers’

Another way of justifying the term “denier” is to place this point of view in the history of science, and as the scientific evidence gets stronger, to allow for ever stronger language. Spencer Weart’s 2011 article “Global Warming: How Skepticism became Denial,” published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, contends, “At some point they were no longer skeptics — people who would try to see every side of a case — but deniers, that is, people whose only interest was in casting doubt upon what other scientists agreed was true.” That “some point” assertion raises key questions, as Weart locates the beginning of “rough consensus” as far back as 1989. Could one still be a legitimate skeptic prior to 2007 IPCC report? And as evidence mounts further, is there some further linguistic penalty that might be applied, as in “flat earther,” which we might label someone denying a spherical Earth today?

The reality is that improving the precision and accuracy of the terminology may not be sufficient in our information age. The prevailing view of politics in the modern era has been that getting the language right was a decisive step, a view articulated in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”

As Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann eloquently wrote about the relevance of Orwell’s view today:

There are real limits to how what’s wrong with politics can be fixed linguistically. To my mind, an even more frightening political prospect than the corruption of language is the corruption of information. Language, especially in the age of the Internet, is accessible to everybody. Some users of language are more powerful than others, or more honest, or more adept — but the various ways of speaking about politics can at least compete in the public square. Information, on the other hand, is much less generally accessible than words. When the process of determining the facts of a situation has been intentionally corrupted by people in power (whether, let’s say, Saddam Hussein had the ability to produce nuclear weapons, or whether a new drug has harmful side effects), there often is no corrective mechanism at hand. Intellectual honesty about the gathering and use of facts and data is a riskier and more precious part of a free society than is intellectual honesty in language. We ought to guard it with the same zeal that animates Orwell’s work on political speech.

John Wihbey

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...