There’s been a running discussion among a group of journalists about what to call folks who do not accept the scientific finding that the earth’s climate is changing and has already changed because of human activities. “Skeptic,” “denier,” “denialist,” and other contenders are all considered, and generally rejected by the journalists. “Skeptic” is the preferred self-identification, while those who accept the scientific finding tend to prefer calling their opponents “deniers.”
I favor “denier.” I think they fall into a broad trend of science denial which encompasses creationism and anti-vaxx and, indeed, Holocaust denial. Keith Kloor, who helped kick off the discussion, takes liberals to task for what he sees as inconsistent use of “denier”. His aim, he explains, is to “discuss the intellectually inconsistent use of ‘denier’ as a pejorative term.” As proof of inconsistency, he notes that Bill Maher is not called a “denier” often enough, and neither is the Huffington Post, for their anti-vaccine advocacy.
Let’s say first that, just as “evolution denier” is a less common term than “creationist,” you tend to see fewer references to “vaccine deniers” or “germ theory deniers” than to “anti-vaxxers.” There’s an established term of art, and it gets applied quite frequently to Bill Maher. And a search for references to Bill Maher as a denier or denialist turns up lots of results. Many of the same folks who call out creationism and global warming denial also call out antivaxx, including antivaxx by Bill Maher or the Huffington Post. Speaking for myself, I’ve twice organize panels at Netroots Nation to talk about science denial, and both times I treated antivaxx as part of the problem, along with creationism and climate change denial.
But that’s probably the smallest reason that this is a red herring. Kloor’s point is not just that “denier” is applied inconsistently (which it isn’t), it’s that the people referring to “global warming deniers” tend to be liberal, and that liberals are not giving enough attention to the deniers in our own midst:
Why aren’t Bill Maher and the Huffington Post labeled similarly as “denialists” when they promulgate misinformation and myths that threaten public health?
Except those sources are labeled as such, and liberals do call out the public health threat posed by Maher and HuffPo. And Kloor basically closes with that thought, quoting the Hoofnagles as they call out Maher’s denialism:
both liberals and conservatives alike must own up to their own extremists. Liberals must own up to the fact that they don’t have a universally-solid grasp on scientific truth, and just like the right wingers, we have people and movements within the left wing that are cranky and denialist. I would say left wing crankery includes animal rights extremism, altie/new age woo, and anti-technology Luddites.
It’s a fair point, and I think it misses two important things. First, that liberals do call out our extremists. We tend to call out even our not-very-extremists. The Hoofnagles write that Maher is “the left-wing version of Dinesh D’Souza or Jerry Falwell,” except that he isn’t nearly as rabid (has he called Republicans “the party of death”? has he endorsed al Qaeda’s critique of western civilization? has he claimed his political opponents are a “domestic insurgency…working in tandem with bin Laden to defeat Bush”? has he founded a university dedicated to cranking out creationists and ill-informed lawyers?). Falwell and D’Souza succeeded by being extreme. Maher has a talk show on HBO that no one watches. Jon Stewart does for liberals what Rush Limbaugh does for conservatives, and Jon Stewart (wrongly) thinks extremism is inherently a vice.
Second, and more important, is that the assumption here is of some perfect parity between liberal denialism and conservative denialism. But Bill Maher and HuffPo’s germ theory denialism have little to no impact on the public discourse, or on public policy, while nearly every Republican in Congress is a climate change denier. And even those who agree with the science won’t say so or act on that knowledge, because doing so would doom them politically. By contrast, denialisms associated with the political left are political nonstarters, rejected by leaders within the liberal movement. Does anti-vaxx influence the CDC? No. Does woo influence the CDC or NIH? No (though they could always smack it down even harder). Does PETA set the agenda for NIH, HHS, or the Department of Agriculture? No, no, and no. Anti-GMO activists don’t even seem effective within liberal policy circles. 9/11 truthers are mocked by liberals while “birthers” are embraced and promoted by the conservative movement. And again, it was basically impossible to win a Republican House, Senate, or Governors’ primary in 2010 if you accepted that global warming is happening because of human activities. If views on vaccines were a litmus test, I’m confident that supporting vaccination would be the position demanded by liberals.
And that difference matters. We spend more time on global warming denial because global warming denial actually influences public policy, and antivaxx doesn’t. Treating the two as equivalent, deserving of equal levels of activism, privileges a desire for perceived balance over any actual reflection of the significance of the two movements.