An astonishing article by climate scientist, Dr Patrick Brown, gives an extraordinary insight into how researchers might be persuaded to leave out “the full truth” about climate change in order to get their work published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals.
Brown, who is co-director of the climate and energy team at The Breakthrough Institute, Berkeley, published a paper last week in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, on changes in extreme wildfire behavior under the influence of climate change.
As he notes: “Because Nature is one of the world’s most prestigious and visible scientific journals, getting published there is highly competitive, and it can significantly advance a researcher’s career.”
But he reveals that he “left out the full truth to get my climate change paper published” – claiming that his research was published in Nature “because I stuck to a narrative I knew the editors would like”.
“That’s not the way science should work,” he rightly points out.
Brown, who is also a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, says that the press focuses “intently” on climate change being the root cause of wildfires, but he pointed out research that said 80 percent of wildfires are ignited by humans.
However, he says, deviating from the mainstream narrative would likely mean research would not be published – a risk scientists don’t want to take.
“I am very proud of this research overall. But I want to talk about how molding research presentations for high-profile journals can reduce its usefulness & actually mislead the public,” he tweeted.
Brown wrote more about his decision in the Free Press:
The first thing the astute climate researcher knows is that his or her work should support the mainstream narrative—namely, that the effects of climate change are both pervasive and catastrophic and that the primary way to deal with them is not by employing practical adaptation measures like stronger, more resilient infrastructure, better zoning and building codes, more air conditioning—or in the case of wildfires, better forest management or undergrounding power lines—but through policies like the Inflation Reduction Act, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
So in my recent Nature paper, which I authored with seven others, I focused narrowly on the influence of climate change on extreme wildfire behavior. Make no mistake: that influence is very real. But there are also other factors that can be just as or more important, such as poor forest management and the increasing number of people who start wildfires either accidentally or purposely. (A startling fact: over 80 percent of wildfires in the US are ignited by humans.)
And he explained:
In my paper, we didn’t bother to study the influence of these other obviously relevant factors. Did I know that including them would make for a more realistic and useful analysis? I did. But I also knew that it would detract from the clean narrative centered on the negative impact of climate change and thus decrease the odds that the paper would pass muster with Nature’s editors and reviewers.
This is pretty appalling. Surely the whole point of a prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journal is to assess research on its merits? It can only undermine public belief in science if researchers are obliged to adhere to a pre-determined narrative.
Reacting to Brown’s claim, the science writer Matt Ridley wrote: “We have known for years that distinguished scientists who think that global warming is a problem but not a “crisis” get ostracised, cancelled or rejected by peer reviewers.”
Judging by what happened to eminent scientist, Dr. John F. Clauser, joint recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics, whose talk at the UN was cancelled because he disputed there was a ‘crisis’ in regard to climate change, there’s no doubt Ridley has a point/
Critics might argue that Clauser is not a climate scientist – but Patrick Brown is, and he says that he and his peers know that only the scientific papers that “support certain preapproved narratives” tend to get accepted.
“I am a climate scientist. And while climate change is an important factor affecting wildfires over many parts of the world, it isn’t close to the only factor that deserves our sole focus.
“So why does the press focus so intently on climate change as the root cause? Perhaps for the same reasons I just did in an academic paper about wildfires in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious journals: it fits a simple storyline that rewards the person telling it.
“The paper I just published—“Climate warming increases extreme daily wildfire growth risk in California”—focuses exclusively on how climate change has affected extreme wildfire behavior. I knew not to try to quantify key aspects other than climate change in my research because it would dilute the story that prestigious journals like Nature and its rival, Science, want to tell.
“This matters because it is critically important for scientists to be published in high-profile journals; in many ways, they are the gatekeepers for career success in academia. And the editors of these journals have made it abundantly clear, both by what they publish and what they reject, that they want climate papers that support certain preapproved narratives—even when those narratives come at the expense of broader knowledge for society.
“To put it bluntly, climate science has become less about understanding the complexities of the world and more about serving as a kind of Cassandra, urgently warning the public about the dangers of climate change.
However understandable this instinct may be, it distorts a great deal of climate science research, misinforms the public, and most importantly, makes practical solutions more difficult to achieve.”
He’s absolutely right in that regard. How can practical solutions be made possible – or even argued – if it has been decided by the groupthink on climate that they cannot even be considered in the first instance?
Dr Brown says he knew that including factors such as poor forest management or humans starting fires were important considerations in wildfire behavior – and he knew that “considering these factors would make for a more realistic and useful analysis”.
But he realised that including these important factors meant it was likely he wouldn’t get the paper published – so he withheld that discussion and his paper became yet another paper taken as evidence of a climate ’emergency’.
He spelled out the consequences of this groupthink, not just for the credibility of the process but also for the actions that might be taken to assist with climate change.
This leads to a second unspoken rule in writing a successful climate paper. The authors should ignore—or at least downplay—practical actions that can counter the impact of climate change.
If deaths due to extreme heat are decreasing and crop yields are increasing, then it stands to reason that we can overcome some major negative effects of climate change. Shouldn’t we then study how we have been able to achieve success so that we can facilitate more of it? Of course we should.
But studying solutions rather than focusing on problems is simply not going to rouse the public—or the press. Besides, many mainstream climate scientists tend to view the whole prospect of, say, using technology to adapt to climate change as wrongheaded; addressing emissions is the right approach. So the savvy researcher knows to stay away from practical solutions.
That is an absolutely astonishing admission – by a scientist who has just had a research paper published in one the world’s leading scientific journals.
How can we ‘trust the science’ if the science is curtailed and limited by a narrative that refuses any probing or questioning to the point where inconvenient facts must be left out? That’s not how science progresses: its certainly not how it succeeds.
Brown also points to the tendency of researchers to focus on certain metrics, which are often then picked up by the media.
Here’s a third trick: be sure to focus on metrics that will generate the most eye-popping numbers. Our paper, for instance, could have focused on a simple, intuitive metric like the number of additional acres that burned or the increase in intensity of wildfires because of climate change.
Instead, we followed the common practice of looking at the change in risk of an extreme event—in our case, the increased risk of wildfires burning more than 10,000 acres in a single day.
This is a far less intuitive metric that is more difficult to translate into actionable information. So why is this more complicated and less useful kind of metric so common? Because it generally produces larger factors of increase than other calculations.
To wit: you get bigger numbers that justify the importance of your work, its rightful place in Nature or Science, and widespread media coverage.
For its part, Nature has hit back, with Dr Magdalena Skipper, the Editor in Chief of the journal, disputing the accusations.
“The only thing in Patrick Brown’s statements about the editorial processes in scholarly journals that we agree on is that science should not work through the efforts by which he published this article,” she said.
“We have an expectation that researchers use the most appropriate data and methods when assessing these data, and that they include all key facts and results that are relevant to the main conclusions of a paper.
“When researchers do not do so, it goes against the interests of both fellow researchers and the research field as a whole. To deliberately not do so is, at best, highly irresponsible.
“We are now carefully considering the implications of his stated actions; certainly, they reflect poor research practices and are not in line with the standards we set for our journal.”
But Brown disputed the claim that the journal did not have a preferred narrative. “As someone who has been reading the Nature journal family, submitting to it, reviewing for it, and publishing in it, I think that is nonsense,” he said.
He also wrote that that another recent influential Nature paper, “calculated that the two largest climate change impacts on society are deaths related to extreme heat and damage to agriculture. However, that paper does not mention that climate change is not the dominant driver for either one of these impacts: temperature-related deaths have been declining, and agricultural yields have been increasing for decades despite climate change.”
He also claimed that it was now the convention “to report results corresponding to time periods that are not necessarily relevant to society but, again, get you the large numbers that justify the importance of your research”.
“For example, it is standard practice to report societal climate change impacts associated with how much warming has occurred since the industrial revolution but to ignore or “hold constant” societal changes over that time. This makes little sense from a practical standpoint since societal changes have been much larger than climate changes since the 1800s. Similarly, it is conventional to report projections associated with distant future warming scenarios now thought to be implausible while ignoring potential changes in technology and resilience,” the climate scientist wrote.
“All this is not to say that I think my recent Nature paper is useless. On the contrary, I do think it advances our understanding of climate change’s role in day-to-day wildfire behavior. It’s just that the process of customizing the research for a high-profile journal caused it to be less useful than it could have been,” he concluded.
Dr Brown’s actions are like that of a whistleblower, and he is saying that scientists know they will not be published in prestigious journals if they break with the ‘climate emergency’ narrative.
He wasn’t denying climate change, or saying it wasn’t a factor in recent wildfires – but he knew that if he also implicated other factors it was likely he wouldn’t get published.
If what Dr Brown says is true, then that should be giving policymakers pause, because the billions being spent on responding to what is now usually referred to as a “climate emergency” – including the carbon taxes and increased costs borne by the long-suffering taxpayer – is mostly based on a presumption that there is almost complete scientific consensus on this issue.
As Brown has argued, however, we now need to consider whether that consensus is real or contrived.