Just semantics.

by Jen

This week, there was some interesting discussion about an all-too-common sentiment voiced by a guy you’ve probably never heard of (George Will, conservative columnist) on a show you probably don’t watch (ABC’s This Week).

So, maybe you

a) agree with him, (really?)

b) wonder: why doesn’t he accept scientific reasoning?

c) ask: why bother engaging with him, or even his ideas? The guy is a climate denier, there’s no reasoning with him, why bother replying at all?”

Will’s comments, and the possible strategies we might take in responding, are a good case study on the question of whether to debate or ignore denialists. Moreso, they illustrate quite nicely the challenge of communicating with those who might be influenced by his flippant remarks, regardless of how we feel about him as an individual.

I’ve long agreed, to an extent, with Mark Hoofnagle’s stance that the figureheads of denialism should not be debated or even acknowledged, but only ridiculed and their denialist rhetoric exposed as deception. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that some cranks (as Hoofnagle likes to call them) are beyond reach.

Some of these denialist leaders, (cranks?), are actively responsible for denial movements, though. As individuals, they may not be worth the effort of debate, but their potential influence on the attitudes of more reasonable people calls on the scientific community to defend itself.

As PZ Myers argues,  there is often good cause to engage with those who deny positions of scientific consensus:

The conflict is necessary, as is bringing the battle right to them and confronting them with their failures. You don’t persuade people to shun liars by letting the lies pass.

Consider an article by David Roberts (from grist.org), written in response to Will’s comments:

In a sane world, the response to this kind of thing would be disgust and secondhand embarrassment — fremdschamen, as the Germans call it. Will wouldn’t be invited back on. But in the chummy world of D.C. punditry, that’s not how it works. You can’t blithely deny the connection between smoking and cancer or HIV and AIDS, but you can still be blase about your climate denialism.

While he dismisses Will’s comments in Hoofnagle style, he also highlights the inconsistency of a climate denial stance (without invoking too much scientific rationale, which can be off putting to a lot of readers). It’s a good start.

An even better response by Jocelyn Fong, however, does engage with a level of scientific reasoning, not to argue with Will’s comments but to highlight the rhetorical fallacy therein:

Here’s the problem: “Weather is not climate” is a bad mantra, for the same reason that “Did climate change cause the heat wave?” is a bad question. In reality, weather is the data that, over time, reveal the climate. When someone asks if climate change caused a weather event, they are wrongly implying that the climate is an agent acting on a separate subject.

Her reply goes a step further than Roberts’ to address the intellectual need of a reader who might be thinking, “Ok, I’ll accept that you think Will is a crank… but I’m confused on this matter myself. Help a layman out?” These small steps may be the most important ones to make in encouraging public acceptance for science.

A lot of writing on science denialism tends to set up what I believe is a false dichotomy between efforts to marginalize denialists and debate with them. Will’s comments presented an opportunity for science communicators to make salient arguments about climate change. To waste more than a few sentences ridiculing his absurd reasoning or neglect outright the chance to educate a public who might be momentarily willing to pay attention is poor communication strategy indeed.


There are times when I read news about the ‘debate over climate change,’ or opinions on whether scientists and journalists should ‘debate with denialists,’ or not… and I want to remind people what debate really is:

de•bate  -n

A contest of argumentation in which two opponents defend and attack a given proposition with the aim of ‘winning’ the debate.

contrasted with dialectic:

di•a•lec•tic  -n

A discussion between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, with the aim of establishing the truth of the matter.

There is a gray area between ignoring and arguing with denialists that we can occupy, and there really is no prototypical “denialist.” There are only people, with brains, who learn and form opinions about science with the help of those who mediate science communication.  It seems to me there’s a lot of focus on debate where we ought to be aiming for a dialectic; science is, after all, concerned with determining the truth.We may not be trying to win the debate as denialists are, but we cannot abandon the podium and turn our backs on our audience either. Most of them aren’t denialists or scientists, and they are the ones we should be constructing a rhetorical strategy to reach because they are the ones making behavior choices, en masse.

Of course, maybe I’m just arguing semantics.