In Brief
There is a major difference between skeptics and deniers. Skeptics seek evidence and proof of extraordinary, fantastical, or controversial claims. Science deniers reject compelling evidence, inventing controversy where there is none.

Skepticism vs Denial

Science has a problem. And that problem is science deniers.

One of the looming, dark spots in the sciences was recently brought to light by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), an organization that was founded in 1976 by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov (among others). The goals of this organization are quite simple. The CSI asserts, “The mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” In essence, they aim to promote healthy skepticism.

The problem? Too many people aren’t skeptical; they are biased and wrong, and they claim that they are “just being skeptical.” Even worse, a number of news sites and science organizations (for one reason or another) refers to science deniers as “skeptics.”

Skepticism is essentially a quest for evidence and proof. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “skeptic” comes from the Latin “scepticus,” which meant “inquiring” and “reflective.” Its original application, by the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, basically encouraged individuals to question their own assumptions because (obviously) our perspectives and assumptions are often biased and one-sided. It’s not that we can’t ever be certain about anything; it’s that this certainty needs to be based on research and evidence; it needs to have its foundation in a conversation that extends beyond our own inner thoughts.

In short, our perceptions are biased and skewed—they are subjective. So is our interpretation of data. Consequently, we shouldn’t reject or accept anything out of hand. Rather, we should ask for evidence in all things. We should be inquisitive; we should be reflective; we should be skeptical.

This is not what most people are when they talk about many scientific issues, such as the vaccine/autism link, climate change, and GMOs. Of course, not everyone who questions climate science or the effects of GMOs are deniers. But unfortunately, this is where many deniers seem to setup camp.

Inventing Controversy

Skeptics want evidence; they seek it; they find it; then they accept it. Deniers do not want real evidence and they won’t accept any if it is brought before them. A person who rejects an idea that is backed by scientific evidence is a denier, and they are anti-science.

And science denial is particularly relevant when it comes to climate change. As the CSI notes in their release:

Public discussion of scientific topics such as global warming is confused by misuse of the term “skeptic.” The Nov 10, 2014, New York Times article “Republicans Vow to Fight EPA and Approve Keystone Pipeline” referred to Sen. James Inhofe as “a prominent skeptic of climate change.” Two days later Scott Horsley of NPR’s Morning Edition called him “one of the leading climate change deniers in Congress.” These are not equivalent statements.

As Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, we are concerned that the words “skeptic” and “denier” have been conflated by the popular media. Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.

This release was signed by some very prominent scientists: Mark Boslough, Physicist; David Morrison, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, at the SETI Institute; Bill Nye, CEO the Planetary Society; Ann Druyan, Writer/producer; CEO, Cosmos Studios; Eugenie C. Scott, Chair, Advisory Council, National Center for Science Education; Edzard Ernst, Professor of Medicine, Emeritus, University of Exeter, UK; Indre Viskontas, Cognitive Neuroscientist, Host Inquiring Minds Podcast; David J. Helfand, Professor of Astronomy, Columbia University…..

And that’s just the beginning of the list. Read the full release here to see the whole list. It bears repeating that climate change (and anthropocentric global warming) is accepted by every major scientific society of every nation in the world. Keep this in mind when you are discussing “controversial” issues in the sciences, because you are going to need to provide a lot of evidence in order to prove that the issue really is controversial (and even more to prove that the science is wrong).

“Real skepticism is summed up by a quote popularized by Carl Sagan, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ Inhofe’s belief that global warming is ‘the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people’ is an extraordinary claim indeed.” So to prove the conspiracy, in order to not be labeled a denier when you make such claims, you are going to need a lot of evidence.