Patrick Brown, a PhD climate scientist and co-director of the Climate and Energy Team at The Breakthrough Institute, recently had a paper accepted by the prestigious journal, Nature. However, in a lengthy X thread, Brown tells of sordid tale of omission, exaggeration and a narrative-backing bias in order to appease the journal’s editors.
Climate change isn’t the only factor affecting wildfires, begins Brown. So why does the press focus so intently on it? Perhaps for the same reasons I just did in an academic paper in Nature: it fits a simple storyline that rewards the person telling it.
The paper Brown just got published, “Climate warming increases extreme daily wildfire growth risk in California”, focuses exclusively on how climate change has affected extreme wildfire behavior. Brown says he knew not to try to quantify key aspects other than climate change because it would dilute the story that prestigious journals like Nature and its rival, Science, want to tell.
This matters, continues Brown, 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.
Brown goes on to spell it out, 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, which he says distorts a great deal of climate science research and misinforms the public.
A researcher’s career very much depends on his or her work being cited widely which gives the perception of importance. This triggers the self-reinforcing feedback loops of name recognition, funding, quality applications from aspiring PhD students and postdocs, and of course, accolades — something Dr. Judith Curry speaks of here.
Dr. Brown has a theory.
The number of researchers has skyrocketed in recent years–there are close to six times more PhDs earned in the U.S. each year than there were in the early 1960s–and so it has become increasingly difficult to stand out. So while there has always been a tremendous premium placed on publishing in journals like Nature and Science, it’s also become extraordinarily more competitive.
And while you hope that the editors of leading scientific journals value a commitment to uncovering the truth above all else, Brown says the biases of the editors (and the reviewers they call upon to evaluate submissions) exert a major influence on the collective output of entire fields to the point where they skew reality. Said editors effectively play God, selecting what gets accepted and what gets rejected from an enormous pool of entries, and in doing so they also shape how research is conducted more broadly.
Dr. Brown says that savvy researchers tailor their studies to maximize the likelihood that their work is accepted.
Here’s how it works, according to Brown (in his own words):
“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.)
“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 type of framing, with the influence of climate change unrealistically considered in isolation, is the norm for high-profile research papers. For example, in another recent influential Nature paper, scientists calculated that the two largest climate change impacts on society are deaths related to extreme heat and damage to agriculture. However, the authors never mention that climate change is not the dominant driver for either one of these impacts: heat-related deaths have been declining, and crop yields have been increasing for decades despite climate change. To acknowledge this would imply that the world has succeeded in some areas despite climate change–which, the thinking goes, would undermine the motivation for emissions reductions.
“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.
“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.”
Brown’s exposé is jaw-dropping.
Though long known, to hear such a qualified uncovering of a narrative-constructing/protecting selection process–that prioritizes fears of catastrophism at the expense of reality, and sees scientific journals succumb to the confirmation biases of their editors and reviewers–is truly astonishing.
Dr. Patrick Brown has now left academia, partially because “the pressures put on academic scientists caused too much of the research to be distorted.” Now, as a member of a private nonprofit research center, The Breakthrough Institute, he speaks of feeling “much less pressure to mold his research to the preferences of prominent journal editors and the rest of the field.”
But this isn’t how it should be, “climate scientists shouldn’t have to exile themselves from academia to publish the most useful versions of their research … The media, for instance, should stop accepting these papers at face value and do some digging on what’s been left out. The editors of the prominent journals need to expand beyond a narrow focus that pushes the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And the researchers themselves need to start standing up to editors, or find other places to publish.”
Dr. Brown’s X thread is linked here. While a more conclusive article penned by Brown himself for The Free Press, entitled, ‘I Left Out the Full Truth to Get My Climate Change Paper Published‘–which I have abridged above–can be found here.
“What really should matter isn’t citations for the journals, clicks for the media, or career status for the academics–but research that actually helps society,” Brown concludes.