‘Denier’ Label Used by NYT, Others to Smear Skeptics of Global Warming, Darwinism

So-called "climate deniers" don't deny climate change, much as evolution "deniers" don't deny that creatures have evolved. Instead, both question the causes and extent of the changes.

By David Klinghoffer Published on June 23, 2015

The vaunted New York Times regards it as “progress” that the new standard at the paper is to refer to climate change skeptics as “deniers.” The left-wing website Media Matters interviewed Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on this:

Sullivan believes the paper is making progress when it comes to using the more accurate term “denier” — rather than “skeptic” — to refer to those who reject the scientific consensus on climate change.

In an interview with Media Matters, Sullivan described “denier” as the “stronger term” and the appropriate label “when someone is challenging established science.” Sullivan said that “the Times is moving in a good direction” on the issue, adding that the newspaper is using the term “denier” more often and “perhaps should be doing it even more.”

She also likened the discussion to the Times’ process for evaluating whether to refer to “enhanced interrogation techniques” as torture, stating: “After a long time the Times came around to calling it torture and I thought that was a very good thing. I think we’re sort of in the same realm with the business about skeptics and deniers.”

Sullivan, who briefly addressed the distinction between “skeptics” and “deniers” in her May 7 column, said she doesn’t have any immediate plans to return to the topic. But she reiterated that “language choice is something that interests me a lot because I think it’s something that matters.”

On that last point, there certainly can be no disagreement. Language matters — in part because subtle changes in word choice can serve as a method of intimidating nonconformists. Such blatant manipulation techniques are also routinely used to cow Darwin skeptics, to dissuade the uncertain from expressing sympathy for skeptics, or from thinking independently themselves. I don’t have any doubt that the Times would regard it as appropriate to call us “evolution deniers.”

The term “denier” is obviously loaded. It intentionally calls to mind Holocaust denial — Ms. Sullivan also associates with “torture” — while simultaneously giving a false impression that “the science” on evolution or the climate is all settled and wrapped up. Yet I’m confident that most who direct the “science denier” label against Darwin skeptics are not even aware of the scientific issues in the debate about whether blind Darwinian processes can explain the emergence of complex animal life. Nor are they aware of the positive arguments for intelligent design as an alternative theory.

Intelligent Design is the subject you can say literally anything about, however grossly ignorant, without worrying that you’ll be corrected on it in the mainstream media. Claiming to know that the science is “settled” is therefore a bluff.

The “denier” label is also simply inaccurate, as our colleague Donald McLaughlin has pointed out:

Calling us “deniers” implies that there is something to deny. Since there is no evolutionary explanation on offer for some important biological features observed in nature, precisely what is being “denied”? Reporting accurately on the state of affairs in evolutionary biology, or sharing with students that mainstream science itself questions key planks of evolutionary theory, is hardly “denial.” It’s the very opposite: recognizing and acknowledging reality.

As for the climate issue, the scientists and others labeled as “deniers” do not deny that the climate changes, much as evolution “deniers” do not deny that animals have changed (evolved) over time. Climate skeptics question the causes of climate change, as Darwin skeptic question the underlying causes responsible for evolution, and they question the extent of environmental impacts to date. They also question whether proposed solutions, draconian ones, are more likely to do harm or good.

These issues are certainly not all settled.

It is disturbing to see so highly regarded a newspaper embrace intimidation, calling it “accuracy” and “progress … in a good direction.” If using language to squash dissent is progress, then what is it progress toward?

Some have already called for treating “global warming denialism” as a matter of “criminal negligence.” There is precedent for such tactics: The censors in the strident atheist-Darwinian community do not hesitate to punish scholars for daring to introduce students to the arguments for intelligent design.

Aware of this, Discovery Institute, a hub for intelligent design research, urges high school science teachers to stay away from ID in the classroom. Instead we promote the more modest approach of teaching students about both the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism (as distinct from the air-brushed depiction typical of high school biology textbooks, presenting Darwinian theory as flawless and unquestionable).

Modern evolutionary theory is in fact subject to major challenges from mainstream biology itself, but even introducing students to that fact could still be risky if the censors hear about it. That’s why we have supported academic freedom laws (like those in Tennessee and Louisiana), protecting teachers who discuss those challenges. An instructor should not have to fear losing her job over an ambitious lesson plan.

Where will things go from here? From using disgrace and loss of employment as a weapon, it’s only a short step to wielding criminal law. Is that the kind of “progress” that the influential editors at the New York Times consider “in a good direction”?

I would hesitate to think this of them. But I also would have hesitated to think that, just for wishing to see evolution treated as a normal scientific idea, subject to debate, I would ever have been linked, through guilt by association, with something as vile as Holocaust denial.


A slightly different version of this originally appeared at Evolution News and Views. Klinghoffer is editor of the site and a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.


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