Friday, September 15, 2023

The new Climategate that wasn't


Climate-change denialists got all excited last week by an alleged revelation that the top science journals are bullying climate scientists into presenting the most alarmist versions of their research, and suppressing anything that doesn’t fit with a “climate catastrophe” narrative. The problem (this story went) has been exposed by a whistleblower named Patrick Brown, formerly an academic scientist who now works for a privately funded environmental research centre.


Sounds bad? Is this another Climategate? But it takes very little digging at all before a very different, and extremely strange, story emerges.


Let’s start this tale with Matt Ridley. In his column in The Telegraph, he tells us this:

Patrick Brown, the co-director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in California, has blown the whistle on an open secret about climate science: it’s biased in favour of alarmism. He published a paper in Nature magazine on the effect of climate change on wildfires. In it he told the truth: there was an effect. But not the whole truth: other factors play a big role in fires too. On Maui, the failure of the electric utility to manage vegetation along power lines was a probable cause of the devastating recent fires, but climate change proved a convenient excuse.


OK, wait – what? So Brown knowingly suppressed facts relevant to the conclusion his paper reported? Was this some kind of “gotcha” stunt to show that you can get any old nonsense through peer review, even at a major journal? Oh no, not at all. In his blog about the issue, Brown tells us this:

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. 

Oh, people really don’t know any longer about the myth of Cassandra, do they? Cassandra’s prophecies were true, but she was fated not to be believed. Anyway, Brown goes on to say:


I wanted the research to be published in the highest profile venue possible. 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.


So he is telling us that he wanted to get a paper in Nature to advance his career and he figured that telling this partial, distorted story was the best way to achieve this aim.


Kinda weird, right? And not exactly the exposé story Matt Ridley implied. Rather, Brown seems to be admitting to having committed the unethical practice of keeping certain facts hidden, or simply unexamined, in order to get on in the academic world.


Well OK – but can you blame him if that’s the only way to succeed? I mean, it is still weird for him to come out and admit it, but you can understand the motive, at least – right?


Except… is he correct about this? His charge – “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” – is pretty damned serious: the editors of Nature and other top journals are curating the scientific message they put out. You’d imagine Brown would back up that accusation with some solid evidence. But no, it is all assertion. It seems it’s “obvious” that Nature editors and those of other distinguished journals are biased because Brown’s own papers have been previously rejected by said journals. What other reason could there have been for that, people, than editorial bias?


Still, Brown does cite one bit of evidence in his favour: he says that some scientists err on the side of using worst-case climate scenarios. “It is standard practice to calculate impacts for scary hypothetical future warming scenarios that strain credibility,” he says. And here he points to an article that (rightly) decries this tendency and calls for more realistic baselines. Yet that article was published in – good lord, who’d have thought it? – Nature, the journal that allegedly always wants you to believe the worst. I’m not sure this is really helping his case.


Brown apparently knows for sure that his paper would have been rejected by Nature if he’d included all the complexities, such as considering the other, non-climate-related factors that could have influenced changes in the frequency of forest fires. For example, if the number of fires has increased, perhaps that might be partly due to changes in patterns of vegetation, or of human activities (like more fires getting ignited by humans either deliberately or by accident)?


How does he know that the Nature editors would have responded negatively to the inclusion of these caveats, though? The scientific way would, of course, have been to conduct the experiment: to send the fuller paper, including all those nuances, and see what happened. But Brown did not need to do that, it seems; he just knew. We should trust him.


Even Ted Nordhaus, director of the Breakthrough Institute in California where Brown now works, has admitted that this counterfactual does not exist. So Brown’s claims are mere hearsay. (Why has Nordhaus weighed in at all, given that he was not involved in the research? I’ll come back to that.) 


On his blog Brown says that he omitted those caveats from the study because they would just get in the way of a punchy conclusion that, in his view, would maximize the chances of getting published in Nature:

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.

The trouble is, these days Nature provides the referees’ reports and authors’ responses to published papers online. And these contradict this narrative. It turns out the one referee highlighted precisely some of the issues that Brown and colleagues omitted. He said:

The second aspect that is a concern is the use of wildfire growth as the key variable. As the authors acknowledge there are numerous factors that play a confounding role in wildfire growth that are not directly accounted for in this study (L37-51). Vegetation type (fuel), ignitions (lightning and people), fire management activities ( direct and indirect suppression, prescribed fire, policies such as fire bans and forest closures) and fire load.


And Brown responded that his methods of analysis couldn’t handle these other factors:

Accounting for changes in all of these variables and their potential interactions simultaneously is very difficult. This is precisely why we chose to use a methodology that addresses the much cleaner but more narrow question of what the influence of warming alone is on the risk of extreme daily wildfire growth.


In a very revealing interview with Brown for the website HeatMap, Robinson Meyer pushed further on this issue. If Brown agreed that these were important considerations, and the referees asked about them, said Meyer, why didn’t he look into them further? Brown says:

I think that, that’s very good that the reviewers brought that up. But like I said before, doing that is, then, it’s not a Nature paper. It’s too diluted in my opinion to be a Nature paper.

This is what I’m trying to highlight, I guess, from the inside as a researcher doing this type of research. Reviewers absolutely will ask for good sensitivity tests, and bringing in caveats, and all that stuff, but it is absolutely your goal as the researcher to navigate the reviews as best you can. The file even gets automatically labeled Rebuttal when you respond to the reviewers. It’s your goal to essentially get the paper over the finish line.

And you don’t just acquiesce to reviewers, because you’d never get anything published. You don’t just say, Oh you’re right, okay, we will go back and do that work for five years and submit elsewhere. The reality of the situation is you have to go forward with your publication and get it published.

On the one hand, this is all honest enough: peer review is something of a game, where referees tend to want to see everything addressed and authors take the view that they’d never be ready to publish if they had to do that, so they generally aim to get away with doing the minimum needed to push things past the reviewers. That’s fair enough.


But it is totally at odds with the story Brown is now trying to tell. On these accounts, Brown did not in fact omit the confounding factors because he thought they would complicate the kind of message Nature and its referees would demand. He omitted them because they were too difficult to include in the study. And far from being pleased by an incomplete study that supported the narrative Brown had decided the editors and reviewers would look for, the reviewers – one of them, at least – called for a more complete analysis. It seems then that the reviewer would have been more pleased with the more complete study. Brown is admitting that it was he who tried to push the paper past the finish line in the face of these concerns. 


Some climate sceptics have still tried to make this sound like a shortcoming of the journal and the reviewers: ah look, they didn’t push very hard for that extra stuff, did they? But this won’t wash at all. First, the authors were commendably upfront about the limitations of the study – the paper itself says

Our findings, however, must be interpreted narrowly as idealized calculations because temperature is only one of the dozens of important variables that influences wildfire behaviour.

For the referees to pass the paper once it included this word of caution is entirely reasonable. After all, Brown stands by it even now:

You might be wondering at this point if I’m disowning my own paper. I’m not. On the contrary, I think it advances our understanding of climate change’s role in day-to-day wildfire behavior.


In short, there is not a problem here, beyond what Brown seems now keen to manufacture. If, as he says, the paper is “less useful than it could have been”, it is clear who is responsible for that.


Note by the way that, in response to a Nature news editor (independent from the manuscript handling team) who raised this issue, Nordhaus (again) said “The reviewer did not raise an issue about "vegetation and human ignition pattern changes". The reviewer raised an issue about holding absolute humidity constant.” As you can see above, this is clearly untrue. Nordhaus is simply referring to a different reviewer – despite surely having all of the reviewers’ reports available to him. I’m going to be charitable and assume he didn’t read them properly. But you will have to forgive me if I suspect an agenda behind Nordhaus’s involvement in the whole affair.


Talking of agendas: back to Matt Ridley, who has mentioned none of this in his column. He claims that the episode proves that “Editors at journals such as Nature seem to prefer publishing simplistic, negative news and speculation about climate change.” 


Matt’s story suggests that the publication of Brown’s paper has exposed the fact that climate scientists are hiding facts from us that are inconvenient to their narrative about catastrophic climate change.


Well, Brown’s paper is hiding from us facts that suggests the problem he looked at might not be as bad as it looks. But is this because he is a climate scientist with the agenda of doing so? No, it is because he knowingly withheld those facts - seemingly, did not even bother to investigate them, although to be fair that might be because he was unable to. But does the publication of his paper suggest that other scientists were prepared to turn a blind eye to that? No, because one of the reviewers raised the omission as a problem. Does the publication of the paper show that indeed there is a bias in the literature whereby papers that present an unmitigatedly bleak picture of extreme climate change get accepted but those that are more nuanced get rejected? Evidently it shows nothing of the sort. The only “evidence” for that is that Brown says so. Matt has not challenged that assertion, or asked for evidence, but recycles it as fact.

Matt then echoes Brown’s line that “the problem is all solutions [to climate change] are taboo [in the scientific literature].” He says:

If I waved a magic wand and gave the world unlimited clean and cheap energy tomorrow, I expect many climate scientists would be horrified: they would be out of a job. 

It is hard to know what to say about this, other than that it is one of the most absurd things Matt has ever written (yes!). Climate scientists are in fact horrified by what is happening to the climate. So am I. Like them, I would be beside myself with joy if Matt were able to do this. (This is one of the reasons why I value work being done on nuclear fusion, which could ultimately provide a significant, clean source of power, albeit not soon enough to rescue us from the current climate crisis.)

Frankly, for Matt to say this of climate scientists is not just absurd but deeply offensive.

This idea that climate scientists have to play up global warming to protect their jobs is on the one hand risible and on the other hand a standard trope of conspiracy theorists: climate scientists have their self-interest at heart. It is really very peculiar that Matt and others seem to believe that if climate change ended, there would be no more climate. For that, folks, is in fact what climate scientists study. There are so many things left for them to study, so much we don’t know about climate. I imagine some climate scientists dearly wish they could study things other than global warming (and of course lots of them do).

What is ironic to the point of hilarity about the episode is this: Ridley and others are claiming that this is a story about how climate science insists of a simplistic narrative that ignores all nuance, but in order to do that they must create a simplistic story devoid of all nuance. The fact is that the story is deeply, deeply odd. For Brown’s version amounts to something like this:

Climate science is biased and broken and ignores complexities that don’t fit its narrative, creating a misleading picture. Meanwhile, I have published a paper that ignores complexities that don’t fit that conventional narrative and is therefore misleading. But the paper is in fact good and I’m not at all ashamed of it, and its conclusions still apply. But also it is also a deliberate partial falsification. I was forced to do this for career advancement, but only because I’d decided that was the case – I didn’t bother to submit the paper I should have written to see if my preconceptions were correct, and in fact I didn’t even try to do the work that would have required. The fact that Nature published the paper just shows that they only look for the simplistic narrative, even though their peer review process asked me to go into the complexities but I told them that was not possible and they and the referees accepted my explanation on good faith. So shame on Nature for publishing this poor work which is in fact also perfectly respectable and useful work, because I did it, but not as useful as it could have been if I’d done the other things that needed doing but which I didn’t do because I chose not to or couldn’t. And it’s all a scandal!

Sorry, it really doesn’t make any sense, does it? But there you have it.

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