The Semiotics of ‘Denier’

Keith Kloor’s weblog Collide-a-Scape is a place I hung out in for a couple of years between my own blogging experiences. For a while, Keith was pretty focused on climate issues–he got picked up by Discovery and has (much to his relief, I’m sure) widened his scope significantly. He has run one of the best blogs in the biz for several years now and more power to him.

Keith returned to the subject of labeling recently, specifically the new craze for calling your political opponents anti-science. In the climate change debate, it’s not unusual for either side to employ as the epithet du jour. However, I’d like to focus on the more common term used by climate activists against their opponents–the word (and its variants) ‘denier.’

It gained currency after the journalist Ellen Goodman used it about those skeptical of climate change, likening them to skinhead neo-Nazis in the UK who, among other nastinesses, staunchly maintained that the Holocaust never occurred. It became and still is popular.


It’s obviously hate speech, of course, but a surprising number of climate activists can’t let go of it. They use all the tired defenses of the term that were used by those who thought it was okay to call black people the ‘n’ word, Jews kikes, Hispanics spics, ad nauseum. (I am not for a second saying the term ‘denier’ is anywhere near as harmful or hurtful. It is not. But the process works in the same way.) They said the word antedated its hijacking. They said that it was the plain truth. They said that some of those so accused had embraced the term.

They didn’t seem to accept the modern truth that those who use derogatory language are not the ones who can define its level of vitriol and hatred. That is better left to those on whom the label is used.

But the term ‘denier’ goes beyond insult. It is part of a code that very consciously defines the user. There is a structure to the writings of climate activists, from the speechifiers like Al Gore or Bill McKibben to the bloggers like Eli Rabett and Joe Romm to the various commenters that serve as their shield and sword. It includes pseudo-scientific terms such as the Overton Window and the Dunning Kruger syndrome and is populated with references to pop culture. There was a time when you couldn’t get through a comment thread without being exposed to at least one YouTube clip of Monty Python.

Their communication is to a surprising extent aimed at other members of their tribe–they’re not interested in converting the wicked skeptic or engaging in the occasional newcomer to the debate. They are essentially counting coup. If you wander from blog to blog, as I do, you would often see commenters and even bloggers recounting their confrontation with evil skeptics in prose somewhat more breathless than deathless.

As a form of self-validation I suppose it works. It is an accepted symbolic structure that marks the user as part of a tribe, someone who shares the values of those back at the activist blogs where the user will return. It’s an effective symbol for many, which I guess is why it’s still in use.

But it says something about the mindset, the level (or lack thereof) of humanity inherent in this tribe, that they would be so happily ignorant of the actual meaning of the word or its effect on its targets.

As others have often asked, what is it that skeptics are held to deny? The existence of climate? Climate change? Human contributions to it? The greenhouse effect? Its magnitude, consequences, duration?

Why is it  a blanket term applied to people with extremely diverse views, ranging from Nobel prize winners to distinguished physicists to Monckton and Morano to even, well, me? If you looked at all those tarred with the term you would quickly see that the only thing they hold in common is a belief (in varying degrees of strength) that the science isn’t settled, that the consensus has tried to rush to judgment, that we don’t know as much as some have tried to tell us we do.

It’s a nasty word used by nasty people to deliberately insult and demean those on the other side of a political issue.

21 responses to “The Semiotics of ‘Denier’

  1. Good morning!
    I write climate articles (from the Skeptic side) and post them to a site where I am fairly well outnumbered (deviantart). I sometimes also repost articles from blogs such as yours.
    I’d like to repost your article to where I post my arguments, if I may? I always post links back and proper attribution.

  2. I rarely get bent out of shape about the denier label because I never gave Holocaust deniers much status. Those that would claim to be holocaust deniers are largely doing so to be cruel, not because they believe it and it is merely a part of a larger set of undesirable attributes (eg neo Nazism, racism). A more worrying claim would be that the Holocaust did happen and the Jews deserved it.

    Holocaust denial and Flat Earth belief have a similarity in that the things they question are so simple. They can be answered with a pure yes/no and quickly proved wrong with very tangible evidence. So if I get angry at all it’s because of the suggestion that scepticism of CAGW is clearly stupid. As if climate science was just one question and not thousands.

    The word is clearly used as an insult but even that is a positive sign for me. It says they’ve run out of arguments. They’re not even very creative insults and I like to think I craft a special insult for each and every person I choose to offend.

    As a sceptic I do deny something fundamental – the right for other people to do my thinking for me and no amount of name calling will change that.

  3. And yet the word found its way into the first speech of our glorious leaders second term.

  4. Tom I’ve used the term many times, but never considered that its origin had anything to do with the holocaust, and I certainly wouldn’t use it if I thought somebody might think I was implying some similarity between that and climate change. I think most people fall into that category. However, I should only use it for people whom I am quite sure are denying some very solid fact that few knowledgeable people would disagree on.

    • activists use it to tell others, and to reinforce their own tribe – that the person called a denier is en par with Holocaust denier, creationist, anti-science, 911 denier, etc.. which ever comparison is mad, bad, stupid, or evil enough, so that the audience clearly gets the message, don’t listen to ‘deniers’ and only ‘deniers’ ask questions..

      Maybe not so well known in some countries. but very high profile environmental media environmental stars (in UK), Johann Hari, Mark Lynas, and George Monbiot, were comparing in print any sceptical of climate change were on the moral equivalent of holocaust deniers..

      and it seems to have stuck and gone beyond the UK.. ie Hari wrote in 2005 making the equivalence.

      best not to use it, under any circumstances really, ie now a ‘fighting word’, as Lucia puts it.

  5. Relative to your point about people being attached to certain blogs and their themes and habits, I’ve noticed that none of the people at Planet 3.0 have come here to discuss anything after you made your comment about trying something new, with a link to this site. I wonder why? Some people who are incredibly slow, i.e. me, are just now figuring out that a lot of blogs have no real interest in a full and complete presentation and discussion of the science issues involved! They serve instead the purpose you described here. When one is expecting to get the former, wandering in naively as one has, and actually gets the latter, one starts to get angry. When one realizes that a lot of the readers are general public who have even less ability to discern the full suite of issues than does oneself, and who are therefore being deceived to some degree, one starts to get even angrier.

    One can only wonder just what is wrong with these people.

    • After many disputes and ‘vigorous discussion’ at those blogs and the very few which can be considered neutral territory, I don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with them. It’s just how they’re playing this particular game. And they don’t explain the rules.

      I admit that I don’t really ever want to meet most of them in the flesh….

  6. Hi Jim

    The same happened with the other blog I’m running–3,000 Quads, which has been up for over a year. I know they’re reading it–they’re responding to some of the points I make there–but they don’t choose to engage.

    I confess I don’t understand it either.

  7. After a lengthy absence from the blogosphere, I’m looking back in a little.

    You mention in comment about your desire to engage. I’m only in the most
    technical sense ‘on’ P3.0, and perhaps it is with the main actors there
    that you, for whatever reasons, want engagement. If so, definitely can’t
    help you.

    If your interest is broader, then with whom (people of what sort of background,
    what sort of interest/knowledge/…) is it that you want that engagement?

    And most importantly, what engagement do you want? What does
    ‘engagement’ look like? I could, for instance, stop by and tell you
    a lot about marine remote sensing and answer what questions you had
    about the science there. Though a much better venue for such would
    be my own blog, where readers are invited to pose questions or topic
    suggestions — an offer you’ve never taken up, so I infer you’re not
    concerned about the science in the areas I’m able to talk about
    seriously. Plenty of things to be interested in past my areas, so
    no problem.

    • Hi Robert

      Thank you for dropping by. I’ve visited your blog occasionally, but I think I’ve been unlucky about the top post on those occasions, as they have been on topics that aren’t part of my self-assumed remit. (I like your takedown of Paul Ryan.) You have a post up on sea level rise that I will comment on. I may pose one or two questions there as well.

      I’d be perfectly happy to engage with you–I have a lot of respect for what you’ve written. I got tossed the task of maintaining the sonar equipment on an LST I was stationed on and we were engaged in some scientific project that never got explained to me (but involved temperature measurements and actually used bucket tosses–something that got me in no end of trouble when I mentioned it on a climate blog a couple of years ago).

      The areas of climate change impacts that I consider most worrisome include sea level changes (the others are ice melt, peat defrosting and deforestation for planting biofuels. So I’ll take my questions over to your place–but you’re more than welcome to ‘engage’ here.

  8. Great blog. I am discouraged from using many sites due being accused of being both a Denier by consensus blogs, and a catastrophist by sceptic blogs. There seems to be this trend that if you do not agree with a position you deserve to be insulted. I got hell from Skeptical science for suggesting that this who believe in the end of the world scenario could be labelled in the same way as they use deniers, and been called anti semitic for no fathomable reason by a blog nearing a million posts. Behaviour like this is bullying and an abuse of power. The old rationale of ‘well it’s my blog, if you don’t like it tough luck’ is not a valid excuse for that abuse of power. We see some sites where the rules are imposed extremely tightly on those who post material which may challenge the ideas of the blogs owner, but are relaxed to the point of non existence for those who agree to toe the party line. I have high hopes for this site.

  9. There is a great discussion on Skeptical science at the moment which is a wonderful example of lack of insight or even paradox. The thread relates to the recent Norwegian paper on forcing which suggests things may not be as bad as initially feared. Skep Science proceed to tear apart the paper and discredit it time and time again. They then point out that skeptics ( or other insults they use) like the paper, and this is bad because skeptics usually ignore peer reviewed paper and discredit them. I wonder if they have noticed similar behaviour from their own side with this Norwegian paper because they don’t like the results? Are they denying the science?

    • Gareth,
      Setting aside the oxymoron of “great discussion at SkS for a moment, you are spot on with what the believers do. But please do not forget the asymmetry, in legitimate science: Those proposing a hypothesis must defend against all challenges. The skeptics of the hypothesis must onlybe correct once.

  10. Hari 2005:
    “The climate-change deniers are rapidly ending up with as much intellectual credibility as creationists and Flat Earthers. Indeed, given that 25,000 people died in Europe in the 2003 heatwave caused by anthropogenic climate change, given that the genocide unfolding in Darfur has been exacerbated by the stresses of climate change, given that Bangladesh may disappear beneath the rising seas in the next century, they are nudging close to having the moral credibility of Holocaust deniers. They are denying the reality of a force that – unless we change the way we live pretty fast – will kill millions.”

    2006: monbiot “Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and as unacceptable as Holocaust denial.”

    2006: Lynas “I wonder what sentences judges might hand down at future international criminal tribunals on those who will be partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths from starvation, famine and disease in decades ahead. I put this in a similar moral category to Holocaust denial – except that this time the Holocaust is yet to come, and we still have time to avoid it”.

    2007: fed Ellen Goodman : “Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.”

    then there are others saying ‘climate treason’, and others saying ‘Nuremburg trial’ for climate – and I’m sure very many other USA, examples could be found (in the main stream media (Hari, Independent, Monbiot – Guardian) very politicized and a huge deterrent to speak up at all.

    2008 – Grist Climate Nuremburg (quoting monbiot)

    2008: Hansen -Crime Against humanity:

    2009: Krugman – Guilty of treason

    20011- Chris Huhne – UK Minsiter Enrrgy & Climate Change– “Defying climate deal like appeasing Hitler-

  11. You made the hat: you get to wear it.

    Don’t want to be called a “denier”? Easy: stop talking rubbish.

    • Another drive by idiot,,, sigh,,, for this I log on from so far away… At least provide some content for our amusement< Craig.

      On 1 May 2013 00:50, The Lukewarmer's Way

    • Craig,
      What rubbish is Tom talking?
      (I know I am baiting a troll, but I am going to try some new ideas).

      • Tom Fuller

        I think he’s a drive-by, Hunter. I’d like to find an elegant way to refer to someone who passes gas in an elevator right before the door opens on his floor, but I think I’ll just leave it at that.

        On 1 May 2013 05:35, The Lukewarmer's Way

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s