This is a guest post by Richard Betts who is Chair of Climate Impacts at the University of Exeter and Head of Climate Impacts in the Met Office Hadley Centre. The post is about the use of the terms denier and denial and how they influence the dialogue about climate science. Since it is Saturday afternoon and I could do without moderating a contentious comment thread, maybe we call all think about what we might choose to say. Richard’s post starts now:
Here what I think about the D* word(s) – the personal label ‘denier’ and the behaviour descriptor ‘in denial’.
I think the phrase ‘being in denial’ can be appropriately applied to a dogmatic insistence* that anthropogenic climate change is not an issue**. [NB see below for definitions before succumbing to knee-jerk reactions!] ‘In denial’ is quite a common phrase in use for other situations, eg. someone who is unable to acknowledge a problem with their health, relationship, business or whatever. A period of being in denial can be quite a natural reaction to very bad news.
However, the use of ‘denier’ is different, and the offence and distraction that it causes makes it difficult to use the former phrase now.
The reason that ‘in denial’ and ‘denier’ are different is that the former labels the behaviour while the latter labels the person. Most training in education, communications, management, negotiation etc, advises that when dealing with conflict situations, it is important to address difficulties but to focus on what is being done/said and not the person themselves. Labelling the person makes things more emotive and distracts from discussing the real issue. Anyone who’s done teacher training in the UK the last couple of decades will recognise this.
The situation is even worse for the label ‘denier’, because it been used by some in connection with holocaust denial, eg. http://www.populartechnology.net/2014/02/skeptics-smeared-as-holocaust-deniers.html. So not only is this making the mistake of giving someone a label as a person, but the label is associated in people’s minds with something horrific. They will understandably find it deeply insulting. If labelling the person rather than the behaviour is poor communications practice, then giving them an extremely insulting label (whether intended or not) is clearly even worse.
The trouble is, it’s now hard to go back to just describing behaviour as ‘being in denial’. With things having been taken too far with ‘denier’, this has built an association in public consciousness and makes it more difficult to go back to using language that might actually be more appropriate. ‘Being in denial about anthropogenic climate change’ might well have been OK as a descriptor of certain behaviour if it wasn’t now linked with the offensive name-calling of ‘denier’.
I think the whole climate conversation would be better off with the word ‘denier’ being dropped completely, and with ‘being in denial’ only being used very judiciously, when it really is appropriate.
Label the behaviour, not the person, and even then take care to do so only when justified.
*NB I specifically say ‘a dogmatic insistence that anthropogenic climate change is not an issue’ as distinct from questioning whether it is an issue – these are different. Questioning is fine, and indeed this is another reason why both ‘denier’ and ‘denial’ are problematic – they are sometimes very widely applied, to include questioning whether there is an issue and not just insisting that there definitely isn’t. If anyone thinks I am saying they are ‘in denial’, please reflect on whether you are questioning or insisting – if you’re questioning then I don’t have a problem with that, but if you are insisting, then I think you are dismissing large swathes of scientific research. We are not 100% certain that climate change will definitely cause huge negative impacts, but there’s enough reason to think that there is a major risk.
**Also, when I say it’s ‘an issue’, I mean it’s something that we probably need to respond to in some way, through some mix of mitigation and adaptation – I’m not pre-judging opinions about the balance of these potential responses, I’m just talking about recognition of the issue.
Disclaimer: this is my personal opinion, not necessarily that of the blog host, my employers nor any organisations I am associated with.