Words Matter: a “denier” is someone who denies, nothing more or less

CATEGORY: WordsMatterThe English language can be confusing, absurd, and infuriating all at the same time. Words Matter is a new occasional feature where S&R authors deconstruct how English words, phrases, and colloquialisms are used and misused.

to refuse to accept the existence, truth, or validity of (Source)
one who denies [deniers of the truth] (Source)

As part of my climate and environmental reporting, I come across the term “denier” all the time, as in “climate denier,” “climate change denier,” “global warming denier,” and “industrial climate disruption denier.” And there are a lot of people identified as deniers who claim that the term is an attempt to place them on the same moral level as those individuals who claim that the Holocaust didn’t occur, aka Holocaust deniers. While there are certainly some who intentionally make that implication, the implication has nothing to do with the word “denier” itself. “Denier” means nothing more than a person who refuses to accept the existence, truth, or validity of something.

The definition of a denier is completely neutral. The definition doesn’t include any guidance about the values, ethics, morals, psychology, beliefs, or experiences of anyone who qualifies as a denier, only that the person is denying something. The definition also doesn’t define whether the thing being denied actually exists, is true, or has validity, only that it’s existence, truth, or validity is being denied. What’s being denied can be literally anything – evolution, that Han shot first, the existence of God, vaccine safety, that Picard was the best Star Trek captain, HIV as the cause of AIDS, that Shakespeare authored his plays, or even 2 + 2 = 4.

Since the definition of “denier” offers no guidance as to motivations or moral equivalencies, any good or bad properties associated with the term are necessarily a function of the term’s context, not of the term itself. In the context of a Sunday church service at a fundamentalist Christian church, someone being an evolution denier is unimportant. But change the context to a high school biology classroom and suddenly that denial may matter greatly. Similarly, a vaccine safety denier may well be harmless if he or she refuses to get the annual flu vaccine, but put that same denier in the context of child immunizations and public health ramifications of a pertussis outbreak and his or her denial may well be a serious concern.

But even in the case of vaccine safety deniers, their denial doesn’t mean they are necessarily immoral. They may simply be so afraid of vaccine side effects that their usual rationality is clouded by their own biases. Or they may not have the mathematical skill to realize that they’re actually making their children (and others) less safe by refusing to vaccinate. Their denial doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, either – everyone’s rationality is occasionally clouded by biases, emotions, and/or ignorance. It’s when someone knows that vaccines are safe and yet claims they aren’t for some other reason that vaccine safety denial becomes immoral. Of course, we tend to use different terms for these kinds of people – terms like “liars.”

It’s true that sometimes cultural context can mean that value-neutral terms can develop values that are partially independent of the term itself. A good example of this is the difference between “ethics” and “morals.” In philosophy they mean the same thing, but in the United State we tend to use “ethics” when we’re talking about professional behavior and “morals” when we’re talking about personal behavior. It’s possible that “denier” did originally have the cultural context of morally repugnant Holocaust denial, but even if that was the case years ago, it’s not the case any more.

Google is an occasionally convenient way to gauge the culture of the United States – search for something and the things that people are most interested in show up in the first few pages of results. When I did a search strictly on the word “deniers” earlier this week (1/14/2013), I found the following:

  • Links to definitions of “denier” were ranked #1, #6, and #17.
  • The Wikipedia disambiguation page was ranked #2.
  • A reference to the French denier coin came in at #27 and a reference to the denier as a unit of fiber measurement came in at #33.
  • The first Holocaust denial link was ranked #56, on page 6 of the results.
  • The first mention of Holocaust denial was in the “Searches related to deniers” options at the bottom of first page. The alternate search terms were “deniers definition,” “evolution deniers,” “climate change deniers,” “climate deniers,” “aids deniers,” “famous Holocaust deniers,” “Holocaust deniers claims,” and “Jewish Holocaust deniers.”

Every other link up to #56 was to a website or blog post or news article related to the denial of industrial climate disruption. It’s probably fair to say at this point that calling someone a “denier” is less likely to invoke Holocaust denial than it is to invoke climate disruption denial.

So why do people who deny one thing or another generally dislike being labeled as “deniers?” It’s probably not because of the spurious connection to Holocaust denial. Instead, people who take umbrage at the term do so because no-one likes being labeled negatively. We psychologically prefer to view ourselves in positive terms than in negative ones, and the term “denier” is a strongly negative term.

Furthermore, in most cases the term “denier” simply and accurately describes what the people so labeled are doing – they’re denying some aspect of objective reality. Vaccine safety deniers deny the reality that vaccines have repeatedly been demonstrated to be safe and that the risks of vaccination are much lower than the risks of going unvaccinated. HIV/AIDS deniers deny the reality that HIV causes AIDS. Evolution deniers deny the reality that species evolve and that God is not a necessary condition for the existence of humanity.

In my opinion, however, there is another aspect to the complaints about the word “denier,” one that goes to the heart of why so many industrial climate disruption deniers claim that “denier” is meant to imply Holocaust denial. I think that some deniers dislike that such a simple, value-neutral word as “denier” can be used to accurately describe them and would prefer that some other term be used instead (we’ll cover euphemisms and misnomers like “climate realist” and “climate change skeptic” another time).

There are over a dozen synonyms for the verb “deny.” Converting them from the verb form to a noun that describes the person doing the action generates the following list of alternate terms that could be used in place of “denier:”

contradictor, disaffirmer, disallower, disavower, disclaimer, disconfirmer, disowner, gainsayer, negator, negativer, refuter, rejecter, or repudiator.

With the possible exception of “rejecter,” however, each of the terms is more confusing than “denier.” How many people would know what you meant if you wrote “Holocaust gainsayer” or “HIV/AIDS disavower” or “industrial climate disruption disconfirmer?” Most people would become confused by the unknown word, lose track of the point you were trying to make, and then give up and move on.

The word “denier” is value neutral and it says nothing about the motivations or ethics of a person who is described as such. It’s only through context that “denier” can be given a moral or ethical dimension. While it’s possible that it was once culturally tied to Holocaust denial, that cultural connection is minimal now, and it probably has been ever since “denier” became so firmly attached to climate change/global warming/industrial climate disruption. Nowadays, “denier” merely means someone who rejects the existence, truth, or validity of something. Any other implications are strictly in the minds of the person calling someone a denier, and in the mind of the person being called one.

Words matter – use them carefully.

16 replies »

  1. There’s also the point that “denier” had the same dictionary definition before 1939. *If* there was a period of time during which the word was connotatively linked to Holocaust denial to any significant degree, that period of time was limited. (Indeed, it’s probably limited to a few years in which a few vocal Neo-Nazis were prominent in the news, and at that only due to shorthand by journalists.)

  2. There are instances of environmental journalists explicitly linking ‘climate denial’ with ‘holocaust denial’. Journalist have a big voice via the platform they are elevated to and should be more careful with their words.

    As someone sceptical regarding the claims made by some climate scientists and advocates of the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, the thing I mainly object to when called a denier is the fuzziness of whatever it is I’m supposedly in denial of.

    ‘Climate denier’. What? Who denies there is a climate?
    ‘Climate change denier’ Eh? I’ve never denied the the climate changes. In fact I frequently remind people that the climate changed a lot long before anyone set fire to coal.
    ‘Industrial climate disruption denier’ Huh? Is there a scientific definition of that?
    ‘Anthropogenic global warming denier’ Well, I’m sure we’ve warmed the planet a bit, but the whole debate is *how much* compared to natural variation. In my view, having considered the science carefully, I conclude “probably not much”, and, “Since we don’t know the energy balance at the top of the atmosphere to an accurate enough value (+/-3.6W/m^2 on a good day when the instruments are behaving themselves) to separate the alleged co2 signal from the noise, it’s an open question.”

    So tell me do, just what ‘truth’ is it am I supposedly in denial of?

    • Tallbloke, I happen to agree that journalists should be more careful with their words. That’s why I don’t personally like or use the phrase “climate denier” or even “climate change denier.” However, both terms are rhetorical shorthand for “someone who denies that the existing increases in the global mean temperature are dominated by human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels and the corresponding accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and that the evidence for human activity being the dominant factor is overwhelming.”

      As for “industrial climate disruption,” it’s the term I use instead of “anthropogenic climate change.” It has the advantage of being scientifically and and technologically accurate (accumulating CO2 is already disrupting climate and will continue to do so, and the dominant source is human industry, especially electricity generation) while being less confusing and less clunky than either “anthropogenic” or “human-dominated.”

      And having reviewed your website, you are absolutely an “industrial climate disruption denier” because you do deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that human industry is responsible for climate disruption. However, this is not the thread to discuss why that is. This thread is to discuss the definition of the word “denier” and it’s associations, not science.

  3. “Denier” means nothing more than a person who refuses to accept the existence, truth, or validity of something.”

    Not in the 21st century it doesn’t.

    Since its use in the phrase “holocaust denier,” the idea of being called a “denier” has become an ideologically tainted form of labeling an opposition with a emotional smear word. This use appears in multiple fields of modern discourse, usually if not always when a beleaguered orthodox view, backed by academic authority, is confronted with new data and ideas it cannot control but which threaten some perceived status quo ante, the reputations of powerful academicians, etc.

    When someone labels you a denier, chances are, that person is the one who is not really reading the data.

    In fact, you are most probably a “denier” primarily or even entirely because you don’t follow the pre-established party line in a particular field of inquiry and are therefore “in denial” of mainstream opinion on the subject. That you may have other reasons for your conclusions, ones of which your labelers are as innocent as babes, these are disallowed by the term. You are a denier. Why listen to a denier? It is not too difficult to see that this argument easily ends up being an apology for the worst sort of intellectual hegemony of an established elite.

    The mental and emotional link back to the phrase “holocaust denier” supplies a useful bonus of ethos to the orthodox speaker here, since it subliminally associates one type of “denier” with the others.

    So, no, I don’t buy the premise of your analysis. I do get your larger point about not letting the labels other people use dictate your responses to them. If all you have to say is that the other person is calling you a “denier” then maybe the label is justified. But, all to often, when I hear the phrase, I know what to expect in advance. I’m going to get a lecture from someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject but is very ready to tell me what I should think because its the safest option.

    Even if the Aids establishment has been entirely “correct” all along in its medical and epidemiological conclusions (which seems pretty doubtful), calling someone like Peter Duesberg a “denier” is not really fair cricket (I’m not saying you have done this, but that others have and do – even Wikipedia does it).

    He was and still is, “denier” or not, a world authority on retroviruses as well as a Nobel prize winner in chemistry. http://www.ted.com/talks/kary_mullis_next_gen_cure_for_killer_infections

    • Your experience and mine appear to be wildly different. I have never seen the term “denier” used in a situation where a “beleaguered orthodox view, backed by academic authority, is confronted with new data and ideas it cannot control but which threaten some perceived status quo ante….” In fact, if I can trust my search results in the OP above, the term appears to be almost entirely used in situations where objective facts and data are being rejected for some reason.

      More importantly, though, you seem to arguing that “denier” is an inherently negative term. While I’m open to that possibility, I don’t think it follows from your starting point. You initially wrote that

      Since its use in the phrase “holocaust denier,” the idea of being called a “denier” has become an ideologically tainted form of labeling an opposition with a emotional smear word.

      Given the Holocaust is established historical fact via documents, first-hand accounts of survivors and liberators, admissions of guilt by Nazi perpetrators and the like, calling someone who rejects that historical fact a “Holocaust denier’ is not a question of ideology or emotion. Someone who rejects that historical fact may be motivated to do so by personal ideology or bias, but the fact remains that that person is denying established historical reality. Ideology and emotion have nothing to do with it.

      There are areas where debate is reasonable due to insufficient or poor quality data. In those areas, calling someone who disagrees with you (global “you,” not you personally) a “denier” is unreasonable. In this way, my example in the OP that Picards was the best Start Trek captain is absurd, since it’s exclusively based on opinion. But in areas where there is sufficient high quality to establish what is real, factual, and true, it is both accurate and reasonable to describe individuals who reject said reality as “deniers.”

      In the sciences, deniers are often those individuals who are incapable of wrapping their minds around new ideas. This happened in the 20th Century with respect to plate tectonics – elder statesmen of geology couldn’t work the concept that the Earth’s crust was broken up into bits that floated around driven by convection in the mantle into their mental picture of how the Earth worked, so they rejected it even in the face of incontrovertible geologic and fossil evidence that the continents were once together.

      In climate, there is an entire group of individuals (see Principia Scientific International) who reject the notion that carbon dioxide is even a greenhouse gas, which flys in the face of over a century of empirical measurements, decades of technologies that only function because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and a well established physical understanding of why CO2 is a greenhouse gas that is is the basis for modern refrigerants. That they are “deniers” of the fundamental reality of carbon dioxide being a greenhouse gas is not a question of ideology or an emotional slur. It is a statement of fact.

      Facts are value neutral. They simply exist, whether we want them to or not. And statements of fact are as value-neutral as the fact itself is.

      • You are correct, we have different experiences. “Facts are value neutral.”

        Sure, but calling someone a denier. for the reasons already stated, is not a fact: it is label.

        “In climate, there is an entire group of individuals (see Principia Scientific International) who reject the notion that carbon dioxide is even a greenhouse gas…”

        This is called a straw man argument.

        • So let’s test that theory. Say a neo-nazi murders a black man because he’s black. I can’t call that man a “racist” because that’s a label?

          Sorry, you’re playing a cynical rhetorical game that seeks to neuter the fundamental connotative and denotative functions of language. When we see this happening, we’re advised to have a good hard look at who stands to gain from rendering words irrelevant. This is very postmodern, and it’s also corrosive to the task of constructing mutually comprehensible meaning.

          In other words, no thanks.

          And that “straw man” thing is horseshit, too. Nobody is making up cases that don’t exist. We’re examining the explicit implications of the model you have constructed.

        • Let’s explore your point about it being a label for a moment. You are, of course, correct – it is a label. But it’s a label in most the basic way – it’s a “a word or phrase that describes or identifies something or someone. (source)”

          In the same way, I’m accurately labeled as an “electrical engineer” because I have both a BS and MS in electrical engineering and because my paying job is to design electronics. Therefore I’m an “electrical engineer.”

          The problem with labels is when a) the label is not an accurate representation of reality or when b) the label is clearly intended as an epithet. In my experience, the phrase has always been used in situations where reality is both knowable and well known. I can imagine situations, such as some social “sciences,” pre- (or insufficiently well-documented) history, and the frontiers of physical knowledge where using the term would be an epithet. However, the vast majority of cases I’ve found are not this, and as I said in my response to your first comment, Holocaust denial is not one of these cases.

          As for your claim that I made a straw man argument, you are incorrect. I brought Principia Scientific International into the discussion as an example of my point – that the individuals that make up the group are denying objective reality, and thus the term “denier” is a value-neutral, factual description of what they are.