Which is the Correct Term: “Denial” or “Skeptic”?

Doomsayers assert not only that they have stumbled upon the truth—that the world’s end is going to occur soon—but also that anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs is merely in “denial”. The doomsayers have the truth, and everyone else is simply denying that truth.

Let’s take a look at some of the doomsday theories and how their proponents use the word.

Harold Camping, who stated that the process of the world’s end would begin on May 21, 2011, with the Rapture:1

We know intuitively there is an end coming, and there will be the finality of God’s Judgment upon the world. And so by nature we should be very, very frightened. A lot of people try to cover it up by just being in denial, or by just not listening at all, or mocking God. They try every possible way to cover their fright. But deep in the heart of every human being, there is fear.

Or how about some of those in the New Age Movement, who really believed that December 21, 2012 would be the end of the world simply because they claimed the Maya had said so:2

The mistake many of the 2012 doubters make is that they view the Long Count calendar as merely a sequence of dates, as our own calendar is… The 2012 deniers ignore the fact that while the Maya had a annual calendar that was designed for everyday use (a multiple of 260 and 365 days called the Calendar Round) just as our calendars are, the Long Count calendar system was predicated upon cyclical cataclysmic events that surrounding the rebirth of their world after it was shattered.

Well, how about that. It looks like those on the side of science and skepticism were right on both counts. The “deniers” have been proven right, time and time again.

Of course, the word is a favorite among the climate change crowd, as evidenced by a piece titled “No Denying Climate Change”:3

Earth is growing warmer; the records prove that. Some still doubt human activity has anything to do with it, but it’s past time for the rest of us to face reality.

So it seems that those who use the word “denial” are just reaching for a way to assert that their misguided beliefs are correct, and that those who do not subscribe to them are the ones who are actually out of touch with reality.

Of course, there may be more sinister reasons behind the use of the word. Some have noted that the use of this word on the part of change believers is an ad hominem attack, done to question the opponent’s character or motives rather than on their actual position.4 One climate skeptic noted that the user of the term “denier” is done deliberately because it conjures up images of Holocaust Deniers. “Global warming alarmists are trying to associate me with these people when they call me a climate change denialist”—and in the process, are trivializing the deaths of six million innocent people.5

So what is the right word? A few environmental journalists are being responsible and avoiding the use of the d-word, and have considered to use skeptic instead. Predictably, however, those who believe that anthropogenic climate change is a real problem have objected to the term skeptic to describe their opponents—it lends too much validity to the skeptic’s argument, and they feel the use of the word skeptic has been co-opted. This puts writers who wish to remain neutral and objective in a tight spot: either word, “skeptic” or “denial”, demonstrates bias one way or the other and acts as a kind of Rorschach test.6

A variety of terms have been used. On the one hand, there are warmists, believers, alarmists. On the other are skeptics, deniers, contrarians, dissenters, realists.7 Some have tried to devise a way to make a distinction between skeptics and deniers, while to others they are one and the same.8

Interestingly enough, sometimes the Doomsayers themselves have co-opted the word “skeptic.” One New Age/2012-believer advised on his blog, “Don’t believe the don’t-believe-the-hype hype”—implying that December 21 could still be the end.9 Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, once divided those involved in the climate change debate into two sides when he asked, “Are you a global warming skeptic, or are you skeptical of the global warming skeptics?”10

Whatever labels are used in the debate, one thing is clear: all the use of derogatory remarks has done is separate the two sides and turned it into an “us” vs. “them.” This is not a healthy way to get to the truth of the matter. Which is why I will always point out why the Doomsayers are wrong, but I will never attack them personally.

So to me, denial is just a river in Egypt.


  1. Camping, H. (2011, May 3). Open Forum [Radio broadcast]. Oakland, CA: Family Radio.
  2. Gleason, R. (2010, January 3). Is there any written record left of the Maya 2012 prophecy? Robert Gleason 2012. Retrieved from http://robertgleason2012.blogspot.com/2010_01_01_archive.html
  3. Anonymous. (2012, December 29). No denying climate change. Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2012-12-29/news/fl-editorial-climate-td1003-20121229_1_climate-change-climate-change-intergovernmental-panel
  4. Ball, T. (2012, December 18). Labeling people “climate change deniers” merely reveals the attacker’s ignorance. Watts Up With That. Retrieved from http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/12/18/labeling-people-climate-change-deniers-merely-reveals-the-attackers-ignorance/
  5. Fuller, T. W., & Fuller, T. (2009, April 11). Skeptic or denier? Taking back the language. NewsFan. Retrieved from http://newsfan.typepad.co.uk/liberals_can_be_skeptics_/2009/04/skeptic-or-denier-taking-back-the-language.html
  6. Yulsman, T. (2010, November 22). Climate change “skeptic” vs. “denier”: Call me “INSANE”. Center for Environmental Journalism. Retrieved from http://www.cejournal.net/?p=4618
  7. Wihbey, J. (2012, August 16). “Denier,” “Alarmist,” “Warmist,” “Contrarian,” “Confusionist,” “Believer,”: The list goes on… and on… and on. The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media. Retrieved from http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2012/08/denier-alarmist-warmist-contrarian-confusionist-believer/
  8. Kloor, K. (2010, November 20). Who’s a skepic/denier/dissenter/contrarian? Discover. Retrieved from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2010/11/20/whos-a-skepticdenierdissentercontrarian/
  9. Chaves, N. (2012, March 6). Not so fast, 2012-deniers. Thoughts about Software, Technology, and Making Things Better by Nick Chaves. Retrieved from http://www.nickchaves.com/post/not-so-fast-2012-deniers
  10. Shermer, M. (2009, September 29). Chill out: An economic triage for global climate change. Skeptic Blog. Retrieved from http://www.skepticblog.org/2009/09/29/economic-triage-for-global-climate-change/

1 comment

  1. Elaine says:

    There is a big difference between denying a historical event that can be proven, such as the Holocaust, and a predicted future event, which cannot be proven or disproven until the projected date has come and gone. Denial is appropriate for refusing to accept a proven reality, and doubting is appropriate for those who are skeptical that the predicted event will occur. For discussing events such as global warming for which the cause is open to debate, I would use terms such as theorize, hypothesize, believe, support, advocate, or doubt.

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