Scientist Fights Back Against Use Of 'Deniers' Label In Scientific Journal

One of the best rebuttals I've ever read in regards to the use of the word “deniers” in scientific literature to label those of us who are skeptical about Anthropogenic Global Warming comes from Dr. Robert G . Brown of Duke University. Dr. Brown is a theoretical physicist and has a full understanding of the scientific method and the pitfalls scientists must avoid in order to make sure the science is sound.

One of the biggest problems with the use of “denier” is that it is too often applied to skeptics, which are not the same thing. One of Dr. Brown's complaints is the use of that term in scientific literature to describe those who are skeptical of questionable claims about AGW. As he states more than once, all scientists should be skeptical about claims of any kind, even their own, as a means of maintaining scientific honesty. It is too easy for scientists to be caught up in what they want to be true versus what is true, hence the need for healthy skepticism. Unfortunately when it comes to climate science it seems that skepticism is not tolerated, something that makes any claims made by those same climate scientists automatically suspect.

Being a skeptic does not mean that one does not believe in climate change. Quite the contrary. But health skepticism at the cause of climate change must be maintained in order to delve into the true causes, particularly when the the only acceptable answer is that its main cause is human activity.

I won't quote from Dr. Brown's response to Dr. Paul Bain's use of “denier” in scientific literature, but I will use one of his comments in response to the post linked above. I think he does a pretty good job describing why he finds the label so disturbing as he sees it as an indicator of closed minds in a field of endeavor that requires minds to be open to all possible causes of climate change, otherwise any results will be tainted and will smack of Lysenkoism, where politics decides scientific 'truth' rather than facts, evidence, experimentation, and theories.

Writes Dr. Brown in response to this comment:

On the contrary, I don’t think there is any good reason to call people who don’t believe in the “Anthropogenic” part of global warming deniers either, as I don’t think the term has any place in science (as I think I made clear). However, bear in mind that I’m posting as a physicist — not ex cathedra in any sense, but to explain why I find it difficult to escape from my own strongly held beliefs concerning the laws of nature. That the globe has warmed, on average, since the LIA (with some bobbles along the way) is — in my opinion — difficult to doubt because there is a rather lot of evidence supporting the assertion. That takes care of the GW part — people who “deny” that global warming and cooling take place (with mostly warming since the mid-19th century) may not be “deniers” but they are IMO badly wrong, an opinion I will continue to hold until I am shown some fairly serious evidence to the contrary.

It is also entirely possible to doubt the anthropogenic part and not be irrational. I’ve been in a debate with a very cogent arguer in other threads of WUWT who puts forth the proposition that global CO_2 levels are set by temperature only, with a roughly two year lag. His argument is evidence-based, associated with an observed, usually lagged, strong correlation between the temperature anomaly and the derivative of the atmospheric CO_2 concentration. It is quite plausible, and only fails to be completely convincing because it is not unique — one can find a number of related models for the carbon cycle that make more or less of the CO_2 concentration responsible for the temperature anomaly and still retain the correlation in question, as well as models that may or may not retain the correlation but that fit the data within its error bars. There is also a problem of sorts with causal order in the data — again, not something that proves the arguer or his assertion wrong, but still something to be thought about (as it implies that both the CO_2 and temperature change might have a common prior cause that is neither one of them). This approach doesn’t “deny” that warming has occurred, or deny that atmospheric CO_2 concentration increases can cause temperature increases, it merely points out that it is not certain that the CO_2 levels in our atmosphere are primarily set by anthropogenic contributions, that there are plausible alternatives not as far as I know falsified by any argument or evidence, and that it may be GW that is causing the CO_2 increase and not the other way around. There are arguments against this, note well, but IMO they are not certain or settled science — the carbon cycle is too open a question for that and a lot of science is still being done.

However, it is a lot more common for the doubt of AGW or the GHE itself to be expressed as terrible science — propositions that openly violate the first or second law of thermodynamics or “There is no way that a trace gas in our atmosphere can be responsible for warming”, for example. Well, yes there is, and the physics of it is relatively straightforward and well-known. Furthermore, one can simply look at the TOA IR spectra and see the CO_2 hole in radiation from the surface — as close as one might hope to get to direct experimental of the GHE in action. So when skeptics assert “there is no such thing as the Greenhouse Effect”, usually without anything like a well-founded theoretical argument or empirical support, they — again in my opinion — openly invite rebuttal, and I spend a fair bit of time on WUWT rebutting exactly that sort of claim. Obviously, they provide CAGW proponents with an opportunity to commit any number of logical fallacies and claim that because these skeptics have silly arguments, all skeptics are wrong. And even given my strong beliefs that the GHE is totally real and that it is not at all unreasonable that humans have contributed both to the total CO_2 concentration in the atmosphere (although quite possibly less than the AGW crowd asserts that they have contributed) and that the increased CO_2 has raised global temperatures by some amount (although quite possibly a lot less than the CAGW crowd asserts that they have raised them by), I do try to remain open to any specific argument to the contrary (such as the example given above that I could not falsify, although neither could I falsify alternatives that also worked).

The point is that one should not excuse the individuals on either side of the issue from their individual errors against reason. Some AGW opponents are quacks. I’m sorry, but there it is. Anthony is aware of this — all of the scientists on this list are. The fact that some quacks try to invent unified field theory in physics (and somehow always seem to find my email address so that they can explain it to me) doesn’t mean that physics in general or the search for a unified field theory in particular is quackery. Similarly some quacks opposing CAGW doesn’t mean CAGW is either right or wrong, or that skepticism in general is quackery, it just means more “noise” in the discussion. In general, the list is pretty good at policing this sort of thing without resorting to censorship or (usually) name calling — one reason I like to hang out here — and the level of the science presented on both sides tends to be pretty good.

Note well, some AGW proponents are just as quackers! Ask Al Gore, for example, to present actual evidence defending half of the assertions he makes in the international news. A few other names come to mind as well, especially ones that have more or less “confessed” to at the very least abhorrent scientific practices in the Climategate emails — gatekeeping, trying to get journal editors fired, concealing evidence that does not support a desired “cause”, and the extraordinary steps of trying to get scientists actually fired from faculty positions at other institutions for the sin of disagreement with their published results and public position!

Shameful. One can indeed think of some nasty adjectives to describe the individuals who engage in such inappropriate activity as if it were science.

Science, however, does not benefit from throwing around pejorative terms (even in the specific cases where one might think they are justified). It’s one thing that does bother me about this list — certain members knee-jerk assume the worst about any scientist or politician that does — in all honesty — accept the conclusion of AGW, or CAGW. They not infrequently blow off steam with a bit of name-calling (and I’m probably not entirely free from blame here — it is human nature and this is an informal venue). I obviously understand that — but again it degrades the quality of the scientific debate, which should not automatically impugn the motives of someone that disagrees with you but rather should focus on the details of the disagreement, the arguments, and above all, the data and what can legitimately be inferred from it.

In any event, I hope this makes my position here clear. To summarize — one should never use pejorative terms like “denier” in a scientific paper published in a reputable journal, not even to describe quacks who “deny” the laws of thermodynamics (whether or not they understand them). In general one should just ignore them. I would go one step further, and say that the term skeptic has no place in the debate, and is a purely political term that needlessly and incorrectly polarizes the scientific community and stifles the scientific process itself. All scientists worthy of the name are skeptics, and the best of them are the most skeptical of their own pet theories and beliefs, for it is here that we are most easily blinded the most by that bete noire of the scientific process, confirmation bias. We all see what we believe, and it is only by doubting our own beliefs that we can come to be reasonably sure of them, in time.

It is this that Feynman was attempting to convey in his wonderful speech — one can always find evidence confirming any belief if one looks for it and fails to accurately report all of the evidence that didn’t work out or confounds it. It is here that — in my opinion — climate science has horribly failed the people of the world. Whether or not the AGW hypothesis is correct — with or without the “C” — there has been a most unseemly rush to present only one side of the evidence, almost certainly to achieve certain political ends. Contrary evidence or arguments have been actively suppressed. Data and methods have been concealed as long as possible, and when finally revealed have proven to be at least — questionable — in many cases.

In the end it is this dishonesty that corrupts the scientific process, and we are paying for that corruption every day not just in climate science but in medical research, social science research, and many other scientific venues in which confirmation bias and cherrypicking of results runs rampant. In the case of climate science, the worst case bill — either way — could be in the trillions. Perhaps instead of throwing around terms like “denier” intended to shut down debate, we could open up the debate and get the science right.


Too many of the AGW and CAGW faithful have their blinders on and are incapable of seeing evidence, data, or theories that contradict their deeply held beliefs. Call it an ideological not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees problem. Their minds are made up and no amount of debate, discussion, or failure of their pet theories to predict actual climate behavior will change their minds. On the other hand, if the climate scientists who espouse much of this not-to-be-questioned theories were to take a closer look at their work, their data, and their assumptions, they might do one of two things: open up all of their data, algorithms, experimental processes, and any other relevant information for everyone to see, or; decide their theories and predictions are wrong and start over, this time without falling into the Feynman trap.