Collin Maessen, who runs the Real Sceptic site, offered to write a guest post about “words and how we use them”. This is an interesting topic in itself, but particularly relevant for the climate science debate as it does seem that discussions can often be derailed by the use of certain words or end up focusing on details of terminology rather than the science. Anyway, I won’t say more. Collin’s post is below. Just for clarity, it wasn’t solicited, it is unedited (it is as Collin sent it to me), I don’t know Collin and Collin doesn’t know who I am. I think it is an interesting post and, as usual, feel free to comment below.
How we say things, the words we use, how we say it, and even our perceptions on the meaning of words do matter. It at the same time makes languages extremely powerful and the cause of a lot of strife.
Anyone participating in any exchanges around the environment, particularly in the context of global warming, will have noticed how heated these exchanges often are. These exchanges have a tendency to completely derail leaving both parties angry and/or frustrated with each other.
This can of course not always be prevented, but in my experience there are a few things that you can do that help. Considering I’ve participated in online dialogue on global warming, and many other environmental subjects, for about 5 years now I’ve noticed a few things; things that might help with keeping any exchange productive.
Something that tends to instantly derail exchanges is to call anyone who expressed doubt on global warming a “denier”. Part of it is the meaning the so-called sceptics have attributed to this word and how they perceive themselves.
The so-called sceptics have linked the word “denier” with holocaust denier and say that this link is intentional in an attempt to smear them. This is not the intent, but the term is inaccurate enough that this narrative can be established. It also doesn’t help that some have made the comparison that they see “deniers” at the same level as holocaust deniers.
The other terms “climate denier” or “climate change denier” are also inaccurate enough that there’s criticism towards this. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve seen responses like “we don’t deny climate” or “we don’t deny that climate changes”. You’ve probably seen them too. With the odd response expressing the perceived link with holocaust denial.
This is why I don’t use those two terms any more, I use climate science denier. It’s far more specific about what they reject and it makes it very clear what you do mean. But this is still a term that I use sparingly as a climate science denier doesn’t see themselves as a “denier”. They see themselves as a “sceptic”, so it can still derail an exchange.
But they aren’t sceptics. The reason they call themselves sceptics is because, according to them, they are sceptical about the science supporting global warming. But being sceptical about that doesn’t necessarily make you a sceptic. Scepticism is about checking if claims are supported by evidence. This isn’t only about looking at the claims of others, it also includes examining your own viewpoints, the positions you hold, the claims you make, and the quality of the evidence you use for those.
That’s why I often use the word so-called sceptics. It expresses your perception of them in a far more neutral way. At the same time it also doesn’t unfairly paint anyone who might simply be misinformed, misled or is uninformed (I’m looking at you, Fox News). It allows someone who isn’t aware of how well the science is established to ask questions and participate without everyone instantly shouting “denier!” at them.
It’s extremely off-putting and confusing for someone who simply wants to participate and learn. This is the exact kind of behaviour that pushed people away and you might actually be laying the groundwork for them becoming a climate science denier.
You might not believe me when I make this point but research supports this.
One study showed the effects of rudeness on how readers perceived a topic, in this case nanotechnology risks. What they found is that rude comments polarized the audience. Those who already thought the risks of nanotechnology are low had a tendency to become more sure when exposed to rudeness. Those that thought the risks of nanotechnology are high also tended to become more sure that indeed the risks are high.
In other words: pushing someone’s emotional buttons, in this case via rude comments, made them more entrenched in their current position.
This is why I’m such a stickler for being polite towards opponents. Sure, by all means speak your mind, but do not call your opponents names or denigrate them. It’s the most effective way to derail exchanges and scare away those that want a reasoned dialogue. Especially in the context of exchanges that take place publicly as this will have a negative impact on your audience.
When you’re in the business of correcting misconceptions it’s tantamount to shooting yourself in the foot.
One other thing that’s very important in the case of public exchanges, especially on the global internet, is culture. People from all over the world participate in these exchanges bringing with them potential language barriers and cultural baggage.
For example I’m Dutch, English isn’t really an issue for a lot of us, but culture often is. Simply because we Dutch are direct and speak our mind while not mincing words. This can make us come across as rather blunt. I’m aware of this and I instantly intervene if I notice how I said something is derailing an exchange.
This is something you should keep in mind. The person you’re talking to might come from a vastly different culture than yours and might because of that interpret what you say quite differently because of it.
It was a bit of long rant but the above essentially boils down to the following:
- Be polite, even if the other person isn’t. And enforce this on your own sites.
- Focus on arguments, not the person. Ask for evidence and sources, if this isn’t provided you’re dealing with someone who isn’t interested in an honest exchange.
- Be mindful of different terminology, language barriers, and cultural differences.
- But above all assume that someone is honestly engaging you, until proven otherwise.
I do try to live by these rules. Sometimes this isn’t easy with how some approach you. And sometimes I make mistakes, after all I’m only human.
But I do try to be polite; I do try to treat everyone fairly and employ my policies consistently; I do make a point of only focussing on arguments. And I keep in mind I’m talking to someone who is also another human being who also wants to do the right thing.
So far this has worked for me as people have said they enjoy the environment I’ve created. They say I’m fair in how I apply my commenting policies and with the appeal procedures that I have.
It’s not an easy thing to do. I often wonder if I wasn’t unfair to someone or didn’t sabotage an exchange by intervening. All what I learned I did learn by muddling through; in a sense I still am.
That’s the part that scares me: that I still might be unaware of behaviour that to this day sabotages rational exchanges.
Collin Maessen is a long time advocate for sound evidence based environmental policies and mostly writes about the subjects of climate change, a range of environmental issues, and the politics surrounding them. He releases his materials via his YouTube channel with supplementary materials, and further original works, on his website RealSceptic.com.