Guest Post – Label the behaviour, not the person – Professor Richard Betts (Met Office)

This is a guest post by Professor Richard Betts, re-posted (with permission of the author) to enable everybody anybody, including myself, who are unable to comment at the other blog, to comment  and discuss it here.

As it appeared originally at AndThentTheresPhysics blog:

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.

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17 Responses to Guest Post – Label the behaviour, not the person – Professor Richard Betts (Met Office)

  1. Barry Woods says:

    The general public are oblivious it seems to climate change, now, whether it is climate silence, climate fatigue, or just to busy with their life to care. If their is climate porn that has switched people off, it is just a w#small subset of science porn in the media.. scare headlines, medical, technological, etc, scientist say, then to be followed by a contradictory headline the next week.

    so the people actually interested in climate change, policy, economy, technology, politics and science do need to stop calling peole names, and making sweeping generalisations and just talk to each other. For most people this is possible..

    my thoughts about labels (and a lot of it is just lazy, withought thought) from a while back, when the ‘watermelon’ label was thrown around..

    extract:

    “Whilst I completely understand where James is coming from. I detest ‘watermelons’ as yet another label, It will offend far more people than ‘warmists’ does, and worse using this world will alienate many grassroots environmentalists.

    Whilst James had a point about the politics of it all, the un, ngo’s jumping on an agw bandwagon, to pursue many other agendas.. We must recognise that for many people that are scientists, activists, politicians, etc they are genuinely, sincerely concerned about AGW..

    Using the label ‘watermelon’ to describe them will just make these people think sceptics are ‘climate cranks’

    I really dislike ‘watermelon’ as a wholey negative label

    My daughter was voted onto the Eco team, my sister in law, is a green party press officer.
    How will this help.” B Woods – comment at Bishop Hill

    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2011/9/28/dellers-on-reason.html

    Dr Tamsin Edwards is in the comment later, describing how she used to use denier, in a oh they are all creationist sort of way, but has now since stopped because has learntof wide range of opinions (she is on pg 3 of the comments)

    extract: (full comment on pg3)

    “……..A few thoughts….

    Shub, I am an example of a consensusist who has stopped using denier directly because of Barry, Bish and this forum.

    Name calling is ever so counterproductive. Today I was defending you lot to (particle physics) friends, yesterday to climate/stats friends, saying that denier offends and there is a spectrum of opinions anyway.

    Scientists usually end up saying denier because they only really hear about those denying CO2 is a GHG and that the earth is warming, and they don’t like skeptic (because they are themselves skeptical) and other terms haven’t stuck. Some soften it with “denialist”. They really don’t intend it to echo Holocaust denier I don’t think. They think of it more as equivalent to creationism.

    But this is only because of an important reason…

    Most. Scientists. Don’t. Know. You. Exist.

    Really! They are not aware that a significant part of people trying to prod science for weak spots actually are fine with AGW but not sure of magnitude/timing/impacts/policy. When I explain this they say “oh, that sounds perfectably reasonable!”. After all we argue about the first two or three in conferences and the literature ourselves! They agree Mann analysis was wrong, and would agree on lots of other things like “All models are wrong” (“but some are useful” 🙂 )

    So give them a chance. Barry has won me over to you with respect, goodwill, and true listening. Please follow his example if you want to engage with climate scientists. Bish’s too.” – extract – Dr Tamsin Edwards 2011

    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2011/9/28/dellers-on-reason.html?currentPage=3#comments

    Thus the real issue, imho, is the labels used to dismiss somebody, by a negative association, be it, sceptics en par with holocaust denial, or creationists, or flat earthers, or conspiracy theorists, cranks, all linkages that major politicians have used.. or a blanket ‘alarmists’ “scam”, “hoax” used sweepingly against climate scientist with a broad range of views, neither is helpful (though, it is asymmetric, when Minsters of State, Prime ministers, roll out, flat earther, cranks, double deniers, Nuremburg trials – all from senior UK politicians into the media.

  2. Good summary Richard. The same applies even more to the suggestion I’ve seen on Twitter this week of denialist replacing denier. Another label that is bound to be seen in the baleful light of the original, whatever the dictionary might say.

  3. stewgreen says:

    anyone who uses “denier” is a Dehumaniser

    • stewgreen says:

      As it is used demean & disempower opponents – instead of debating them.
      It is ridiculous to suggest that ‘denier shouters’ actually genuinely want to debate someone they have just called a denier.
      We & Betts know this already.

      • stewgreen says:

        Furthermore it is used with the PR trick of making a false dichotomy : “you are either with us, or against us”
        ie “you have to stick to the party line on every aspect of climate and policy or we will label you a denier as well”
        .. And the product of this is that warmists/greens fail to challenge things which needed challenging, weak arguments and evidence get a free pass. There often comes a circling of the wagons which hinders truth.

  4. Blair says:

    Richard,

    I am one of the people who has suggested denialist. You are correct, as I wrote at my blog, anytime someone who disagrees with you labels you the label is going to make you uncomfortable. As I also wrote, however, the particular word chosen previously has a strong historical and non-scientific usage in certain regions. As such even if you don’t find it negative, others might. This distracts from the discussion.

  5. It’s been my experience that many who use the label have no intention whatever to engage in discussion.
    After a few comments in which their beliefs are questioned or challenged by my & others presenting studies, data etc which is inconvenient to their belief, this is the result: http://imablawg.blogspot.com/p/imablawg-image-gallery.html
    I agree as well that denialist is inappropriate. It is demeaning as well, implying a denying of science or data and being inapplicable in a policy discussion.

  6. Betts is right to point out that his fellow climate scientists are put off from casual participation by the polarizing rhetoric.

    However polarizing rhetoric has two roots in the climate debate (1) from the period of ascendancy in climate rhetoric when the movement felt it had no need for any further allies or an obligation to be nice to opponents. This is the 2004-2009 period – AR3 through AR4, Gore, AIT, Bush-era ‘anti-science’ fervour, the Nobel Prize, and all the way to Copenhagen. In the UK, I can think of Climate Camp, Monbiot, battles over Swindle and the CCA.

    This was people not caring how they were and what names they called whom because they were winning.

    (2) The second one goes deeper and it derives from the mode of interaction and the idea of who are legitimate participants in the global climate debate. This is at the technocrat-policy wonk-environmental activist-ENGO-quango-conference of parties level. At this level, perspectival homogeneity is extreme – everyone assumes and speaks with a green voice and green ideas are the lingua franca of the debate, even if you are halfway skeptical. In this world, the legitimacy of climate claims is a given. The activist arm of the ENGOs and the bureaucrats bring decades of campaigning, PR, lobbying and experience with hardball-politics with them. What they lack in raw political advantage and money, they make up for with exploitative media tactics and a win-at-any-cost approach. This side of things will call you ‘denier’ at the first opportunity, *if it thinks you are important*.

    Polarizing rhetoric is constantly employed in the climate debate because what the climate activists are petrified of is the slow degradation of political gains and their existence being forgotten. Because the climate movement is elite-driven, it is unfamiliar with debate and democratic modes of exchange.

    It is therefore not an accident that Dana Nuccitelli chose a severed head for his article on Matt Ridley. Take a longer-term view: these guys keep blundering from one stupid thing to another – the 10:10 video, the Greenpeace threats, the Gleick theft, to the severed zombie head.

  7. Jaime says:

    It’s very often the case that people bandy around this term denier without actually qualifying what exactly it is that their opponent is supposed to be denying and this can be irritating in itself. At least with Richard’s cautious rephrasing of ‘being in denial’ he qualifies this by saying that a number of sceptics are dogmatically insistent that man-made climate change is not an issue, rather than questioning whether it is an issue. The crux of the matter is how you define ‘issue’. From Richard’s point of view, the issue would seem to be the ‘fact’ that there is “enough reason [scientific research] to think that there is a major risk”. Quite how Richard defines “major risk” I do wonder: a major problem with associated low probability, medium size problem with medium probability, or a very high probability of climate change being a bit problematic – or some other combination thereof? Whatever the case, many might disagree with Richard on this, which might tentatively place them into his category of ‘being in denial’; then again it might not, as long as they are not overly dogmatic in their disagreement!

    In my experience the bulk of climate change scepticism appears to fit into the category of questioning whether man-made climate change is a serious enough issue to warrant the vast expenditure, the swingeing taxes, and the wholesale restructuring of the energy generation/supply infrastructure which is ongoing in order to mitigate a predicted disaster. This most often takes the form of questioning the quality of the research, the quality of the data, the reliance upon a somewhat partisan set of observations and the pointing out of contradictory scientific research and contradictory real world observations. None of this I would label as ‘denying’ or being in denial.

    Lastly, I agree totally with Richard Drake that the alternative term ‘denialist’ is just as insulting, negative and counter-productive a term a denier; it’s just a variation thereof and has in fact been employed just as derogatorily for years by the likes of people such as Lord Deben.

  8. Jaime says:

    It’s very often the case that people bandy around this term denier without actually qualifying what exactly it is that their opponent is supposed to be denying and this can be irritating in itself. At least with Richard’s cautious rephrasing of ‘being in denial’ he qualifies this by saying that a number of sceptics are dogmatically insistent that man-made climate change is not an issue, rather than questioning whether it is an issue. The crux of the matter is how you define ‘issue’. From Richard’s point of view, the issue would seem to be the ‘fact’ that there is “enough reason [scientific research] to think that there is a major risk”. Quite how Richard defines “major risk” I do wonder: a major problem with associated low probability, medium size problem with medium probability, or a very high probability of climate change being a bit problematic – or some other combination thereof? Whatever the case, many might disagree with Richard on this, which might tentatively place them into his category of ‘being in denial’; then again it might not, as long as they are not overly dogmatic in their disagreement!
    In my experience the bulk of climate change scepticism appears to fit into the category of questioning whether man-made climate change is a serious enough issue to warrant the vast expenditure, the swingeing taxes, and the wholesale restructuring of the energy generation/supply infrastructure which is ongoing in order to mitigate a predicted disaster. This most often takes the form of questioning the quality of the research, the quality of the data, the reliance upon a somewhat partisan set of observations and the pointing out of contradictory scientific research and contradictory real world observations. None of this I would label as ‘denying’ or being in denial.
    Lastly, I agree totally with Richard Drake that the alternative term ‘denialist’ is just as insulting, negative and counter-productive a term a denier; it’s just a variation thereof and has in fact been employed just as derogatorily for years by the likes of people such as Lord Deben.

  9. Jaime says:

    Sorry, managed to post twice somehow!

  10. I’m with Richard Betts on this one, although I’d prefer to focus on the issue in climate change and policy (rather than on the behavior of the climate gangs).

    My two interventions at ATTP got deleted. One was a response to Dana, who claims he has never called anyone a denier ever. He has, of course.

    The other was a response to ATTP, who demands that I justify my claims and then deletes my attempts to do so.

  11. DGH says:

    Would someone please nominate Richard Betts for AGU’s Climate Communicator Award?

    With Gavin and Michael stepping down at RealClimate they are looking for new contributors. How refreshing it would be to replace their snark with Richard’s patience and even tone. He may disagree but he’s never disagreeable. Here’s a fellow who enjoys the respect of both the climate science establishment and the skeptic blogosphere. Thanks Richard.

    As for the term “denier” the Danas of the world use it to marginalize their opponents. The bar they set is very high – if you dare question the economics of wind power or if you argue that climate sensitivity is at the lower end of the IPCC range – then you’re a denier. Cold snaps are weather and heat waves are climate change. Question that dogma and you’re a denier. There’s no better example of the attempts to marginalize critics than Lewandowsky/Cook placing Richard Betts in the Recursive Fury Climate Science Conspiracy Theorist camp. (No, Cook’s post-hoc excuse wasn’t compelling.)

    Barry – Thanks for posting this. Since he entered the scene as a unabashed Watts troll I’ve avoided commenting at ATTP’s blog.

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