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BOB: One Roman Catholic congressman, Republican Paul Gosar of Arizona, was so disturbed by reports that the Pope might discuss climate change (and he did) that Gosar actually boycotted the address to Congress. The climate, Gosar reminded the Pontiff in his statement, quote, “has been changing since first created in Genesis.”
You might be tempted to call Congressman Gosar a “climate change skeptic” or “denier” -- but the Associated Press would advise against it. This week, the AP announced a change to its stylebook on “global warming.” In a guide that dictates usage for the AP and many US news organizations, the editors suggest “climate change doubters” or the wordier: “those who reject mainstream climate science.” Avoid the terms “skeptics” or “deniers.”
Seth Borenstein is a science reporter for the AP. He provided guidance on these Stylebook changes. Seth, welcome to On The Media.
BORENSTEIN: Thank you for having me.
BOB: Why doubters instead of deniers?
BORENSTEIN: Well this is all about precision. We at the AP hadn't used deniers, skeptics, or doubters in any regular way, there was no Stylebook entry there. So when we were deciding to not use skeptics, the logical decision is what to use. And if you go through the possibilities, one of the problems with denier is that it has a connotation. A connotation that is associated with the Holocaust in many ways.
BOB: If the subject is precision, it strikes me that obscuring clear language because of negative associations is a very dangerous accommodation. And secondly, doubt means a feeling of uncertainty or a lack of conviction. Deny is to state that one refuses to admit the truth or existence of. And those who deny human responsibility for global warming are doing just that. They're not expressing "I'm not really sold on this," they're expressing "no this doesn't exist." Wrong word, Seth.
BOB: As someone who has covered climate change for more than 20 years, the trouble is the spectrum of those who reject mainstream climate science is not a simple binary thing. It's not deny/accept. Let me give you one good example. John Christy is a professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. He acknowledges that the world is warming, he acknowledges that it is manmade. Where he differs from mainstream climate science is how bad it is. How much of a threat it is. So can you call him a climate denier? No. So the best phrase overall, the most precise phrase, is those who reject mainstream climate science. But you have to shorten that at some point, especially in a headline. Climate rejecter sounds like an engine part.
BOB: (Laughing) Yes it does. And maybe we need 474 words for snow. But it's just hard for me to get my head around the idea of substituting a word that is insufficient for one that does most of the job pretty well.
BORENSTEIN: It does most of the job pretty well according to one side. Granted that side has the majority of science on it.
BOB: Seth, I apologize, I'm going to cut you off here. One side? This is the very definition of false balance.
BORENSTEIN: No one has accused me of false balance so don't you go there. All you have to do is Google my name, Seth Borenstein, look at the images and see what the group that you call deniers, we call doubters, look at what they've done to me personally and to the AP. To say that I'm giving in to them is just not something that's ever happened. It's not something I've ever been accused of before.
BOB: May I say that there are two sides to the political debate. But if there's fundamentally no scientific debate, why would you think of this in terms of both sides that require fair treatment any more than you would treat Holocaust deniers as having one side in the issue of history? I just don't get it.
BORENSTEIN: There is no false balance in the way AP covers the science. But there's a difference between the science and the semantics. We're not talking, you and I, about the science right now. We're talking about the semantics. And there are different sides on the semantics. I've been using climate doubter for months and no one has said anything.
BOB: Seth I hate to rub your nose in this, but if the AP's deliberations on this matter began with the complaints by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, it issued a press release this week which congratulated the AP for getting the work "skeptic" out of the conversation but which once again registered discomfort with the term "doubter" which they said "remains problematic and confusing."
BORENSTEIN: They're not satisfied... I don't think the AP's job is to satisfy the Center for Inquiry. They raised a legitimate question in the use of skeptics. And it's triggered this whole thing. And we went for the more precise language. Climate denial is the phrase invented by advocates and used by advocates. So are you, Bob, suggesting that we should adopt an advocacy role here?
BOB: I don't believe that just because a correct word is embraced by advocates makes the word any less correct. I'm not sure that the solution is to take from our quiver a very good arrow. If someone is merely a doubter in the continuum of thought on this subject, so be it. But if someone is an outright denier, call a thing by its name.