Neutralizing Some of the Language in Global Warming Discussions

February 22, 2011 · 6 comments

By Keith Seitter, Executive Director, AMS

The topic of anthropogenic global warming has become so polarized it is now hard to talk about it without what amounts to name-calling entering into the discussion. In blogs, e-mails, and published opinion pieces, terms like “deniers” and “contrarians” are leveled in one direction while “warmist” and “alarmist” are leveled in the other.  Both the scientific community and broader society have much to gain from respectful dialog among those of opposing views on climate change, but a reasonable discussion on the science is unlikely if we cannot find non-offensive terminology for those who have taken positions different than our own.

As Peggy Lemone mentioned in a Front Page post last week, some months ago, the CMOS Bulletin reprinted a paper originally published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences by Anderegg et al. that simply used the terms “convinced” and “unconvinced” to describe those who had been convinced by the evidence that anthropogenic climate change was occurring and those who had not been convinced. This terminology helps in a number of ways. First and foremost, it does not carry with it the baggage of value judgment, since for any particular scientific argument there is no intrinsically positive or negative connotation associated with being either convinced or unconvinced. In addition, this terminology highlights that we are talking about a scientific, evidence-based, issue that should be resolved through logical reasoning and not something that should be decided by our inherent belief system. (And for that reason, I work very hard to avoid saying someone does or does not “believe” in global warming, or similar phrases.)

The sense I have gotten is that those who do not feel that human influence is causing the global temperatures to rise would prefer to be called “skeptics.” However, I have tried to avoid using this term as a label for those individuals. Skepticism is a cornerstone upon which science is built. All of us who have been trained as scientists should be skeptics with respect to all scientific issues — demanding solid evidence for a hypothesis or claim before accepting it, and rejecting any position if the evidence makes it clear that it cannot be correct (even if it had, in the past, been well-accepted by the broader community).

I have seen some pretty egregious cases of individuals who call themselves climate change skeptics accepting claims that support their position with little or no documented evidence while summarily dismissing the results of carefully replicated studies that do not. On the other side, I have seen cases of climate scientists who have swept aside reasonable counter hypotheses as irrelevant, or even silly, without giving them proper consideration. Neither situation represents the way a truly skeptical scientist should behave.  All of us in the community should expect better.

We will not be able to have substantive discussions on the many facets of climate change if we spend so much time and energy in name-calling. And we really need to have substantive discussion if we are going to serve the public in a reasonable way as a community. Thus, it is imperative that we find some terminology that allows a person’s position on climate change to be expressed without implied, assumed, or imposed value judgments.

There may be other neutral terms that can be applied to those engaged in the climate change discussion, but “convinced” and “unconvinced” are the best I have seen so far. I have adopted this terminology in the hope of reducing some of the polarization in the discussion.