Climate scientist Patrick Brown said he redacted information critical of climate change from a recent article in order to appease editors and publish his findings.
Brown, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and doctor of earth and climate sciences, cited several outlets suggesting last month’s fire in Maui, Hawaii was a result of climate change, including the Associated Press, PBS, New York Times, and Bloomberg.
“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,” he wrote, adding “prestigious journalists” frame their stories to fit a “simple story line” to “reward” themselves.
The climate scientist cited his recent publication in Nature saying he knew “not to try to quantify” aspects of wildfires outside of climate change because it would “dilute” the story the outlet and rival publication Science “want to tell.”
Scientist @patricktbrown31 says prestigious science journals want climate change papers that support certain preapproved narratives—even when those narratives come at the expense of broader knowledge for society. https://t.co/njExbi0i7a
— The Free Press (@TheFP) September 5, 2023
“It is critically important for scientists to be published in high-profile journals,” wrote Brown, asserting “high-profile journals” were gatekeepers for success in academia and editors of high-profile journals have “made it abundantly clear, both by what they publish and what they reject,” that they want publications to support pre-approved narratives — “even when those narratives come at the expense of broader knowledge for society.”
Brown said climate science has become more about “urgently warning the public” rather than understanding the “complexities of the world.”
“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 said.
The climate scientist stressed the importance of a researcher’s career depending on their work being cited and widely perceived as important, which Brown says triggers “self-reinforcing feedback loops of name recognition, funding, quality, applications from aspiring PhD students and postdocs [and] accolades.”
“In theory, scientific research should prize curiosity, dispassionate objectivity, and a commitment to uncovering the truth,” Brown said. “Surely those are the qualities that editors of scientific journals should value.”
In reality, though, 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.
The climate scientist said the aforementioned practice was something he was guilty of employing. He noted his recent publication in Nature, which focused “narrowly” on the influence of climate change on extreme wildfire behavior.
“Make no mistake: that influence is very real,” he conceded. “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.”
Brown said his research team “didn’t bother” to study other relevant factors because he knew they would “detract from the clean narrative centered on the negative impact of climate change” and therefore decrease the odds of the paper being published by Nature or other high-profile journals.
“This type of framing, with the influence of climate change unrealistically considered in isolation, is the norm for high-profile research papers,” he continued. “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,” he said.
Brown noted a second “rule” of writing a successful climate paper in which authors should “ignore—or at least downplay—practical actions that can counter the impact of climate change.”
“Studying solutions rather than focusing on problems is simply not going to rouse the public—or the press,” the climate scientist said, adding that authors are also incentivized to focus on metrics that will generate “eye-popping” numbers: “This is a far less intuitive metric that is more difficult to translate into actionable information.”
“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 revealed he left academia over a year ago because he felt pressure placed on academic scientists caused distortion in their research. The climate scientist added he felt less pressured to “mold” his findings to the preference of prominent journal editors since becoming a member of private nonprofit research center, The Breakthrough Institute.
“But climate scientists shouldn’t have to exile themselves from academia to publish the most useful versions of their research,” he concluded. “We need a culture change across academia and elite media that allows for a much broader conversation on societal resilience to climate.”
“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.”