The Real Skeptics Behind the AP Decision to Put an End to the Term 'Climate Skeptics'

Bill Nye Climate Change
Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") are among the "real" scientific skeptics frustrated with the use of the word "skeptic" to refer to people who do not agree that human-driven climate change is real. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The term "climate skeptics" has become shorthand for people who don't believe—or say they don't believe—in human-driven climate change. But people who consider themselves rigorous, science-based skeptics of pseudoscience—and who proudly identify themselves as "skeptics," along with their other, often-scientific titles, like "astrophysicist" and "cosmologist"—are less than pleased about it. And on Tuesday, the Associated Press agreed, announcing it was changing the AP Stylebook entry on "climate skeptic" accordingly.

"Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers," the AP Stylebook wrote, explaining that skeptics from an organization called the Center for Inquiry "complain that non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase skeptic."

The change is significant. Many news outlets and magazines (including Newsweek) use the AP Stylebook as a north star for all manner of word-use questions. It remains to be seen if outlets will stop using "climate skeptic" to refer to people like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is absolutely sure that climate change is a really big hoax.

But meanwhile, who are the self-identified "real" skeptics behind the change?

"There's a whole concept called scientific skepticism, which means evidence-based inquiry, which is fundamentally how science works. We take a skeptical view of anything that doesn't have strong evidence," said Mark Boslough, a fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a physicist who studies asteroid impacts. "The word 'skeptic' basically implies people who use logic and evidence and the scientific method, and that's just not the case for people who reject the reality of global warming."

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a program of the Center for Inquiry, counts among its fellows the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are current members.

"We should be skeptical of everything. In science, we are skeptical of everything. But being skeptical of climate change is sort of like being skeptical of Newton's laws. [Both are] so well established. It's like saying I'm skeptical that eclipses are caused by the shadow of the moon," Boslough said.

Boslough wrote a blog post expressing his frustration over the use of skeptic to refer to people like Inhofe. The blog post eventually became a letter, which was signed by several Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellows, including luminaries like Nye, Richard Dawkins and Harold Kroto, who took home the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996.

"This is huge for us," Boslough said of the AP Stylebook change.

Still, he would have preferred that the AP Stylebook hadn't cast out denier as an option for labeling people who reject climate science. He says their guidance to use doubter has the wrong ring to it.

"Doubter sort of implies a level of honesty that a lot of these people don't have," he said. "I personally prefer the term denier when it's actually what they're doing." The AP wrote that the decision to banish denier came from the claim by some naysayers of climate change that the word is too closely associated with Holocaust deniers. "In a way, I think that's a trumped-up connection," Boslough says.

While he and several fellows at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry put significant energy into publicly debunking claims that climate change isn't real, he says, there are a few people within his organization who hold other views.

"There are a few of the fellows, none of them are scientists, who do reject the mainstream science. I think in any group there are people who reject mainstream ideas. In some cases, there is a correlation with their political beliefs; people who support libertarian ideas tend to not want to accept the reality of global warming."

Boslough, however, stopped short of calling them deniers.