22 November 2010

Groupthink or . . . Beware of Climate Labels

What should WE call THEM?
climate skeptics
climate deniers
yellow bellied sap suckers
this question is insane

pollcode.com free polls
Over the weekend I was on an email list of prominent environmental journalists, bloggers, academics and activists in which one blogger raised the question of what terminology to use to describe those folks, you know, the skeptics or deniers.  I watched in disbelief as people that I respect entertained the question in all seriousness.  A climate scientist helpfully made the political connection explicit by recommending the term "inactivists."  Several of the people on the list had in the past used such terms to try to delegitimize my work.

I about blew a seam.  Seriously.  I emailed the list explaining that this exercise was insane, and about as useful as debating what to call people with dark colored skin -- I can think of a lot of terms used for that purpose.  But why go there?  The answer? Because there is an US and a THEM, and being able to tell the difference is important if we are to put people into bins and delegitimize them.

Of course on the email list there was no consensus as to who the US is and who the THEY is, but they did agree that WE needed terms for THEM.

It would have been totally depressing except for the fact that one journalist spoke up to show some uncommon common sense, suggesting that describing context might be more useful than stripping it away.  Some folks did not engage, so perhaps there is additional hope.  Our ability to have healthy discussions on climate change remains quite challenging.

I've asked to be taken off the list, as I am clearly not one of them.  Put me in the category of people who think that trying to divide the world according to views on some aspects of climate science is just a bad idea. It is especially a bad idea for journalists and policy wonks.

You can participate in the farce by entering your vote in the poll above.


  1. 'Inactivist' is brilliant. I didn't see that one in Keith's blog. Inadvertent? Or said explicitly do we think. Hmmm.

    I enjoyed your lecture last week.

  2. I've gone for "yellow bellied sap suckers". I'd have gone for "this question is insane", but in truth I don't think the question is actually insane. I think it's important as a lede into a critical examination of a culture of glib journalistic oversimplification and the risks that poses to objective journalism.

  3. As I said to Roger in our thread, I believe he has overreacted, and that our taxonomic concerns need not be in opposition.

    I also pointed out to Roger that he himself has relied on using the term "climate skeptic" many, many times in his blog. So I fail to see why he objects to exploring whether it it is an accurate, umbrella term, which is the point of my post.
    --Keith Kloor

  4. 'Inactivist' is brilliant. I didn't see that one in Keith's blog.

    I enjoyed your lecture last week. The next day we (Spurs) beat Arsenal 3-2 at their place. A good day.

  5. Roddy,

    I limited my focus to what the journalists said, since that was what interested me the most. Otherwise, my post would be too sprawling.

  6. -3-Keith

    "I also pointed out to Roger that he himself has relied on using the term "climate skeptic" many, many times in his blog"

    I just did a search and found only a very few times on this blog that I used the term "climate skeptic" without quotes.

    What is "many, many"? Give me some numbers ;-)

  7. For what it is worth. I'll repeat what I just posted at Keith's site.

    Critic seems to cover the various skeptical positions better than most words.

  8. You know, there's ten types of people in the world.

    The ones who understand binary, and the ones who don't.

  9. Seriously though, the fact that many scientists are arguing "seriously" over this insanity makes me wonder whether if these people would pass any mildly rigorous IQ test with a score over 80.

    When a group of people so high minded and supposedly "Intelectuals", the best, the most refined we have can only think clearly when they divide stuff in binaries, then what is, I ask you, the real statistical difference between such people and fighting monkeys?

    Sorry for being so rude, but I really frustrate at the thought of the so-called "illuminairies" of this world making a shame of themselves. It's utterly depressing

  10. What next? Measuring the length of peoples' noses?

    We should have more of these polls because it describes the nature of the "We" better than the "Them".

  11. Well, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, although actually a rather nice and attractive looking little bird, is of course considered a pest species ;o)

  12. What is interesting is the speed and pleasure with which "others" label "them" using their preferrd perjorative. Rarely, if ever, do academics, intellectuals or commentators (using 3 labels) ask first what term the "others" would use to describe or delineate their own position. What this indicates is that labels are meant to diminish, dismiss and demonize "others" who have the temerity to resist the dogmatic enticements of conformity.

  13. The questions is insane without knowing who "them" are. Based on dictionary definitions, these terms have accurate usages. It's also true that they are overused and misused for political purposes. But if we try to switch to other words to convey meaning, they will also get loaded in time as well.

  14. "I watched in disbelief as people that I respect entertained the question in all seriousness."

    So what does that tell you about your own judgment as to who to respect? Are these the same 'good climate scientists' you've talked about in the past?

  15. I didn't take the poll, since it doesn't reflect my current view. IMHO, even climate skeptics is too broad. Skeptical of climate? Climate exists, there's no denying that.

    AGW is the central issue.

    While in the past I've used some inflammatory wording (haven't we all?) in some of my missives, I think that the pro and con descriptors that best reflect the polarized AGW issue are:

    AGW Proponents (instead of alarmists, greenies, eco-wackos etc)

    AGW Skeptics (instead of deniers, neoclimatecons, anti-science crowd)

    I've started using the former much, much, more in my recent writings.

  16. We could have fun here . . .

    What should WE call THEM



    Greenie Weenie Socialist Ecojusticers

    Climate Jihadis

    Anti-Science Wannbe Involved Folks

  17. This is fundamentally about class and culture. Contempt for those perceived as lesser is perfectly normal.

    This is what James Lovelock (who identifies with a superior social / intellectual class) thinks of current academics.

    on Climategate scientists

    I was utterly disgusted. My second thought was that it was inevitable. It was bound to happen. Science, not so very long ago, pre-1960s, was largely vocational. Back when I was young, I didn't want to do anything else other than be a scientist. They're not like that nowadays. They don't give a damn. They go to these massive, mass-produced universities and churn them out. They say: "Science is a good career. You can get a job for life doing government work." That's no way to do science.

    I have seen this happen before, of course. We should have been warned by the CFC/ozone affair because the corruption of science in that was so bad that something like 80% of the measurements being made during that time were either faked, or incompetently done

    on scientists in general

    Sometimes their view might be quite right, but it might also be pure propaganda. This is wrong. They should ask the scientists, but the problem is scientists won't speak. If we had some really good scientists it wouldn't be a problem, but we've got so many dumbos who just can't say anything, or who are afraid to say anything. They're not free agents.


    Lovelock seems to believe they are so dishonest, stupid and controlled, they aren't doing science (as he understands it).

  18. Roger,

    I agree with you on most things (and liked your book), but I don't know. We simply can't think and argue clearly about anything without generalizing. If only one person takes a position, you'd hardly bother arguing against it--you argue against some influential position, which is to say, you generalize the thinking of a group of people. To do this, you must come up with labels, and think clearly about the best label to use.

    Now, in this case, there is a tendency to group everybody who isn't "us" into a single category, which is unhelpful. But there are many more reasons to classify people's positions than to delegitimize them.

  19. In all cases involving a THEM, I go with yellow bellied sap suckers. It just feels right.

  20. I voted 'this question is insane'.

    There have only ever been 3 ways in recorded history to end conflict.

    Annihilation, Accommodation or Assimilation.

    Complete Annihilation of a belief system is rarely achieved.

    To the extent combatants engage Us vs Them rhetoric, accommodation and assimilation become unlikely routes to conflict resolution.

    General Patraues uses 'reconcilable' and 'irreconcilable' and includes some pretty nasty people in the 'reconcilable' column.

  21. -18-Bryan

    Why do you think it is important in this particular case to come up with a label?

  22. If we must label the two sides, I propose "The Convinced" vs. "The Open Minded."

    BTW, any person in the first camp should never refer to himself as a "Scientist."

  23. Alarmists and non-alarmists.

    It's a political divide which focuses on whether govt should take certain actions or not. We may disagree about the science, economics, politics, etc., but we still have to vote (or at least the govt has to make decisions about whether to act or not).

  24. -21-Roger:

    I was reacting to what I interpreted as your objection to labeling positions or "sides," in a very broad sense. Perhaps your intent was much more narrow than that, but that is not how I read it.

    In this case--I think an effort to apply useful labels would have to begin with a little clearer thinking on the range of extant opinions--to have only two categories is clearly an over-simplification. So I think I agree with you in the specific case, but was concerned about whether you were over-generalizing about, well... over-generalizing.

  25. -24-Bryan

    My concerns are not about categorization in general, but rather this form of categorization in this particular case. Thanks!

  26. -21 Roger

    After posting a quick reply, I gave it a bit more thought, and perused a range of your historical posts, as well as thinking about other sites I read. From that quick look, I see that you manage to engage the debate rather effectively without reference to blocs of opinion, which is not true of most other blogs. I need to think more about the utility of such labels before rising to their defense again.

  27. I don't think a conversation among journalists who are agonizing over the proper use of particular words is "insane". That is a gross exaggeration. And I also don't believe that when we consider the use of terms such as "skeptic" or "denier" that our real motive is to make a distinction between "us" and "them" — and delegitimize anyone who has any doubts about AGW. Certainly, no responsible and knowledgeable journalist I know is in that game.

    Nonetheless, there are real problems with these labels. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer either.

    For more on my take, see "Climate change 'skeptic' vs 'denier': call me 'INSANE!'" at CEJournal: http://www.cejournal.net/?p=4618

  28. I am just repeating what I posted on the pole, however, I noticed Fred's list since.

    We need a similar poll for the other camp. My list would go like this: Alarmist, Reality deniers, Climate Activist, Water Melons, the question is irrelevant.

  29. If one were so disposed, it would not be difficult to tell the "us" vs the "them". "Us" is everybody and anybody that doesn't delete inconvenient comments, doesn't embark in a series of ad-hominems, understands that it is possible for two reasonable people to reach different conclusions on the same topic starting from the same information, etc etc.

    But maybe the real sign is almost like in that famous barber's story: "us" is whoever doesn't really believe there is an "us vs them".

  30. Michael Gersh 22

    Very good Michael. I think you have summed it up perfectly. Scientists have always taken pride in being sceptical, as it is only by questioning the accepted hypotheses that new understanding is gained. Climate science is trapped in a logical loop focused on CO2, unable to stop & look critically at its belief systems.

  31. Heretics? Blasphemers?

    That is a gross exaggeration. And I also don't believe that when we consider the use of terms such as "skeptic" or "denier" that our real motive is to make a distinction between "us" and "them" — and delegitimize anyone who has any doubts about AGW. Certainly, no responsible and knowledgeable journalist I know is in that game.

    Were this true, then "denier" -- with its often-stated and explicit connection to "Holocaust denier" -- wouldn't be on the list.

  32. Orwellian language is in evidence. Where I come from, a skeptic is someone who seeks out facts, and when better evidence comes into focus, one's previous conclusions are subject to change. This describes MOST actual scientists. "True believers" is terminology that usually connotes some sort of religious or cultish type of behavior. It is breathtakingly revealing that the so-called "scientists" call those who do not truly believe what they believe "Skeptics." (Or "sceptics" for you guys from Blighty.)

  33. Hmmmm, I have come pretty much full circle on this one. I started the day off yesterday by happily voting “Insane” until I was blue in the face but then I thought about it and had a look over at CS and decided that perhaps it was a question worth musing about (I am afraid that along with an inability to be grammatical correct or to spell, in any language, so is the willingness to discuss pretty much everything a consequence of growing up in Denmark. I blame the school system.), however I then went to a P.J O’Rourke talk yesterday evening. He spoke touchingly about his friend Christopher Hitchens (P.J had promised him never to tell him if he prayed for him). Now O’Rourke is, of course, Catholic and therefore a “believer” but there is a world of difference between his brand of Catholicism (for instance while he believe abortion to be a morale sin, he believes in free abortion as a matter of law) and Opus Dei which again is different from the person who define himself as being Catholic by reason of being brought up Catholic but wouldn’t get out of bed for the Pope. Christopher Hitchens, I think we can agree, is a “denier” arguing that a person could be an atheist and wish that belief in god was correct but that he, himself, as an antitheist, is someone who is relieved that there’s no evidence for such an assertion. However, that is again very far from the stereotype model who “like don’t believe in a god, really, as such but I am sort of, you know, spiritual”. See what I am getting at? Believes, of whatever nature, are very much an individual thing with endless combinations and it is therefore very difficult to find an appropriate “umbrella” terminology so maybe we shouldn't even try. The problem is also that the recipient (the reader of the newspaper that the journalist writes in etc) in most cases is unlikely to have an in-depth knowledge of different scientists or politicians views and therefore the “message” they get via a “label” becomes very simplistic and often probably plain wrong. I went for a drink with a lawyer friend the day after Roger’s debate in London and as a result of me going to the debate he informed me that he really wanted to get to the bottom of me being a denier. Since I am in no way, shape or form a denier (nor is Roger as far as I can tell!), I was slightly intrigued. He then corrected himself and said “well, a skeptic then” to which I could only reply “skeptic to what?” Now this guy is not stupid but still his worldview was that you are either a “believer” or a “denier” so I decided to give him a very brief intro into my views (a gal can only talk about climate change for so long before the average guy’s face go blank) which is pretty much that happy to believe in AGW, CAGW (I don’t know, I am a lawyer for god’s sake! Give me some further and better particulars), do I need to know for certain before I think it is worth having a look at a few “no regrets” etc? Nope, not at all. Do I think it is fair to discuss how we go about things including what is realistic and how we define “no regrets”? Yes, I do. The guy was still awake so I introduced the Kaya identity, which made sense to him and so did asking questions about if the targets set by the governments are realistic. So since the guy basically agreed with me I asked him if he would label himself as a “denier” or “skeptic” which of course he wouldn’t :o) so I think I am pretty close to press the "insane" button again simply because I don't think it is possible to come up with one "fit all" terminology. Gosh this is far too long. Sorry.

  34. Oh, I forgot to add that P.J O’Rourke said about Christopher Hitchens that while they agreed about very little, he was always good to talk to and he much enjoyed discussing things with him……think there is a lesson here somewhere, somehow…:o)

  35. As a birder, I object to Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. We have enough confusion already, what with warblers almost always being named for a place or niche in which they're not usually found, red-bellied woodpeckers having usually inconspicuous red bellies, etc..

    In harmony with the level of maturity of the discussion on the list, I suggest the term 'poopy-heads'.

  36. By the way, following your initial post on the subject on the other list, I have decided to call my brother in law, the Chelsea fan, a 'Man. Utd. Denier'.

    It has a nice ring to it.

  37. Tom Yulsman,
    You have got to be kidding.
    The whole point of the AGW community is to delegitimize the skeptics. Journalists have been tossing 'denier' around happily and with no compunction fromt he time it was introduced.
    In fact the clinical cold approach of the poll and the post it comes from is completely similar to historic efforts to dehumanize people. The entire topic is an exercise in exactly that.

  38. Where I come from, a skeptic is someone who seeks out facts, and when better evidence comes into focus, one's previous conclusions are subject to change. This describes MOST actual scientists.

    And Kuhn be damned, eh?

    I know far too many scientists whose pet theories could most efficaciously be changed with a crowbar. A metaphorical, rhetorical crowbar, of course.

  39. Roger, I don't have time to dig through your archives to make my point (that you've used climate skeptic or skeptic on many occasion), but below are enough examples I chose at random, which include your sentence and the link to the post:

    In an article about climate skeptics...

    Are you a "climate skeptic"...

    Bjorn Lomborg has experimented with many stances on climate change over the past decade, from cherry-picking skeptic to adaptation advocate to supporter of geoengineering..."

    In other news, Rajendra Pachauri says that he hopes that climate skeptics rub asbestos on their faaces...

    It is really, really great to see Lomborg move from climate skeptic to geoengineering advocate

    Wallace was also the Chair of a 2000 NAS report on reconciling surface and satellite temperature trends. He is no skeptic.

    --Keith Kloor

  40. -39-Keith

    You obviously didn't even read the examples that you cited above (or else you wouldn't have included most).

    I'm sure I've used this phrase in the past in exactly the way that you describe. But if so it is very, very rare not "many, many times" as you assert. Only one of the cases you cite above fits your allegation.

    But let's say that I have used the term with reckless abandon, your efforts to create a category of people in a political debate based on their views of science is still a bad idea.


  41. Okay, I give up. All I meant to illustrate is that you use the terms climate skeptic and skeptic as shorthand, too. That's it. Can you at least concede that much?

    My post was not intended to create a category--how could it when these categories already exist?! As demonstrated by your use of just such categorization in the above examples.

    My post was intended to explore how valid certain categorical terms are, and I used as my starting point the two that I see most commonly used: climate skeptic and climate denier.

    As I suspected, most of the people who responded on that email list preferred to use some variation of skeptic as shorthand, although there were other suggestions that could be more narrowly focused.

    It just boggles my mind how you continue to hold to this notion that even having this conversation is "insane"--esp since you also use such shorthand terms. We all do. The purpose was not to divide (that's you reading into it) but to better clarify these terms.

    --Keith Kloor

  42. Realist sounds about right. OTOH, heretic would seem to fit those that refuse the state religion.

  43. I've never had any problem with having the term skeptic applied to me. I find the idea that people think skeptic is an insult amusing. Any scientist who isn't a skeptic has ceased being a scientist. In science there is no truth, only hypotheses that have withstood all attempts to disprove them to date.

    I think a more accurate description of the actual climate scientists and meteorologists would be climate model skeptics. The main point of contention is that carbon dioxide has a strong positive feedback on temperature.

  44. Tom Yulsmann says
    >And I also don't believe that when we consider the use of terms such as "skeptic" or "denier" that our real motive is to make a distinction between "us" and "them"<

    Hmm... I wonder how that is possible....to call people names without implying that all people given a name do not belong to one camp...

  45. Do white people get to decide what people of African descent in America are 'called?' Did we white people get to vote on a list? To make the point, I'd love to write up an appropriate list here, but I'm sure Roger would not appreciate it. ;-) Which is exactly my point.

  46. How about Objectivists or Realists,