The biggest news of the week on climate, perhaps the year, is the confessional essay by Patrick T. Brown, Ph.D. in The Free Press entitled “I Left Out the Full Truth to Get My Climate Change Paper Published”. It’s a bombshell that is attracting wide media interest because (a) he is a “climate scientist” and (b) he is not a “denier” and (c) the paper in question was in Nature, a proudly peer-reviewed publication and (d) as a real scientist, dedicated to following the scientific method as opposed to reaching predetermined results in support of a narrative, he can no longer remain silent. But he had to leave academia to speak out. It is tempting to call it an enormous scandal. Instead we call it a glorious example of courageous honesty and a chance for a reset by an Establishment that has lost its way.
First, Brown has a PhD in Earth and Climate Sciences from Duke University. He lectures at Johns Hopkins University, in their Energy Policy and Climate Program. And he is “a Co-Director of the Climate and Energy Team at The Breakthrough Institute”. So yes, he’s a climate scientist through and through. If you care, he has an MS from San Jose State in Meteorology & Climate Science, and a BS from UW – Madison in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and has done research at the Carnegie Institution as well as three NASA labs and one NOAA, the latter housed at Princeton. Saying he’s not a climate scientist would be like saying it of Steven Koonin or Will Happer… as people have.
Second, he’s no “denier”. The paper in question, he says, argues that “climate change is an important factor affecting wildfires over many parts of the world”. (As, we might add, Koonin believes humans are having a real and growing impact on climate.) He later adds “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.” The problem is that, Brown also says, climate change “isn’t close to the only factor that deserves our sole focus.”
OK, that part isn’t the problem. Here’s the problem, or a big part of 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.”
Here let us return to a theme of considerable importance to us at CDN, which is that climate alarmism is no more a “hoax” or a “fraud” than, say, climate skepticism. But here’s Brown admitting he fudged his conclusions. Why would he do such a thing? As he explains, with a frankness St. Augustine might envy:
“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.”
It is also significant that Brown is a young man hoping to make a career, not already a mature and proven success like say Koonin or Happer. He doesn’t state his age in his biography, but he got his PhD in 2016 so you can pretty much work it out for yourself. And you don’t have to work this next bit out because again he fesses up totally:
“As to why I followed the formula despite my criticisms, the answer is simple: I wanted the research to be published in the highest profile venue possible.”
Getting published in Nature within seven years is a big deal, the sort of thing that can make or break a career. As he says, “a researcher’s career depends on his or her work being cited widely and perceived as important.”
Of course young researchers study how to get published nearly as much as they do their specialty. And they all know what Brown has now said out loud:
“Here’s how it works. 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 guess what? This type of framing, with the influence of climate change unrealistically considered in isolation, is the norm for high-profile research papers. As he also writes:
“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.”
Which it did.
What then of the powers that be at publications like Nature? Are they not plotting in ways that tend to corrupt younger researchers? As Brown writes:
“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.”
Abundantly clear. As in nice career you have there. Pity if something were to… happen to it. But no. The problem is that the editors are true believers, a clique who have worked hard and successfully to obtain control of the apparatus of scholarly approval precisely so that it will blare out the warnings they believe are all too vital and urgent.
Still, the corruption is real. Especially, as Brown also notes, because:
“as 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 – it has become more difficult than ever to stand out from the crowd. 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 the price is clear to all:
“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. They select what gets published from a large pool of entries, and in doing so, they also shape how research is conducted more broadly. Savvy researchers tailor their studies to maximize the likelihood that their work is accepted. I know this because I am one of them.”
Indeed, part of the impact of this piece is its searing honesty:
“When I began the research for this paper in 2020, I was a new assistant professor needing to maximize my prospects for a successful career. When I had previously attempted to deviate from the formula, my papers were rejected out of hand by the editors of distinguished journals, and I had to settle for less prestigious outlets. To put it another way, I sacrificed contributing the most valuable knowledge for society in order for the research to be compatible with the confirmation bias of the editors and reviewers of the journals I was targeting.”
This matter of reviewers as well as editors brings us to the supposed silver bullet of “peer review”, often cited with a sneer by alarmists about dissenting views that do not make it into “distinguished journals”. Indeed it brings us directly to Nature’s own smug self-description as:
“a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology on the basis of its originality, importance, interdisciplinary interest, timeliness, accessibility, elegance and surprising conclusions.”
Here we might retort “OK, surprise us with a conclusion that the human influence on climate is neither major nor ominous.” Instead we’ll say that of course they choose as reviewers like-minded colleagues who return the favour, and do not check actual data or attempt to replicate it but instead function as gatekeepers of orthodoxy.
Now we get to the pivot of the whole story, the question of integrity. Brown believes in man-made climate change and it worries him. But as noted above, prestigious publication or the lack of it can make or break a career and in his case, paradoxically, getting into this prestigious journal broke his career rather than making it, because he couldn’t face himself in the mirror knowing what had been involved. Instead:
“I left academia over a year ago, partially because I felt 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, I feel much less pressure to mold my research to the preferences of prominent journal editors and the rest of the field.”
What his seven co-authors may now have to say, or whether Nature will retract the paper as they now seem to be threatening, remains to be seen. Its editor has haughtily accused Brown of “poor research practices” that “are not in line with the standards we set for our journal”. Which she pretty much had to unless she’s prepared to come clean, because they did publish it, giving credence to Brown’s accusation that it was precisely in line with the standards they set. But the cat is out of the bag. (And not only because of another story about the retraction of a different paper “that claimed to have found no evidence of a climate crisis”. Aspiring scientists seeking publication take note.)
Robinson Meyer of Heatmap Daily even called Brown up to “interview” him on the matter, mostly to argue with him and accuse him of being “dishonest”, and then printed the interview claiming in his preface that Brown had contradicted himself:
“I left that interview convinced that he did not, in fact, engage in significant research deception. So why did he say that he did? The answer, as best as I can tell, is frankly dumbfounding.”
No it’s not. It’s perfectly straightforward. The journals have been corrupted because they’ve been captured by zealots. This episode even casts a new and sickly light on Nature’s own stated position, under “Research Ethics”, that “Although the pursuit of knowledge is a fundamental public good, considerations of harm can occasionally supersede the goal of seeking or sharing new knowledge, and a decision not to undertake or not to publish a project may be warranted” is a nod to the woke that you’d better not find, say, that COVID vaccines don’t work or the Earth is warming naturally even if it is technically true.
This incident is also a wakeup call to academia more broadly. The people once most associated with vigorous, even fanatical defence of free inquiry, along with journalists, are now openly and increasingly notoriously hostile to it. Will they mend their ways, or will honest research migrate out of universities as honest journalism is increasingly in the “blogosphere”? The Breakthrough Institute is no Heartland Institute in terms of its concerns or approach. But it can evidently be relied on to follow the facts and logic where they lead, not where it wants them to, whether Brown eventually becomes an actual “denier” or not. If others do not reform, well, we will know exactly how corrupted they are, by zealotry at the core and self-interest at the periphery.
True, we have seen earlier scandals with regard to climate science brushed aside or successfully weathered, including Climategate. But even these have left a mark, and as evidence of the problem accumulates, and people start speaking out on it more and more, encouraged by courageous examples like that of Patrick T. Brown, one reaches, what shall we call it, a tipping point. Surely this paper is one.