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Climate scientist: why I left out the full truth in my research

September 25, 2023 - 3:26pm

Climate scientist Patrick Brown recently published a paper in the prestigious Nature magazine which highlighted the critical role global temperature increases have played in the prevalence and severity of forest fires.

The article won plaudits from all the right circles, but then something surprising happened. Shortly after Nature published Patrick’s paper, he chose to write an explosive article in The Free Press, revealing how he deliberately designed his research to fit a narrative he knew Nature ascribed to — but that he in fact did not. 

Brown joined Freddie Sayers on UnHerd TV talk through his decision:

My paper just narrowly quantifies the influence of temperature change on extreme wildfire growth. And so the headline number that most news organisations went with is this 25% increase in the risk of extreme daily growth of wildfires in California since the industrial revolution. So it’s taking that temperature data and trying to quantify how that influences the risk of more than 10,000 acres of wildfire growth in a single day. 
- Patrick Brown
One of my critiques of the paper is [about whether] that’s a scientifically valid thing to do: to isolate the temperature signal and to quantify what that is. But it’s practically not all that useful, because the fuel loads have completely changed since the industrial revolution in California. So we don’t actually know, practically, what the difference is between now and before, in terms of the risk of extreme wildfire growth.
- Patrick Brown

If it is, as Brown argues, a “scientifically valid thing” to do, why did he feel the need to criticise his study?

In retrospect, it just wasn’t a good use of my time. It was a good use of my time for my career to be doing that. Because it led to being published in a high profile paper, and I designed it to be like that. But it’s not that useful information for society.
- Patrick Brown

The climate scientist explains that the cherry-picking of data isn’t uncommon in the field of climate science. He puts it down to fashion or a moralised groupthink:

It’s just the general kind of zeitgeist of the field. To be a good climate impacts researcher is to highlight negative impacts from climate change. And that’s a good thing to do. And there’s this notion that any type of investigation of resilience or anything that overcomes the impact of climate change, is not so great, because it is going to take away from the motivation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is ostensibly all of our goals.
- Patrick Brown

Brown’s paper is a perfect example of the “good climate science” he describes, with its focus on the impacts of climate change being deliberately outsized. The paper overlooks other mitigating factors, such as fuel loads, which might be more easily and immediately addressed as a means to reduce the devastation caused by wildfires. Instead, the paper, by omission, presents a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as the only solution to wildfires. While Brown acknowledges that the global temperature increase is an important factor in the prevalence and severity of wildfires, he argues it is not the factor that deserves most attention right now: 

I also think that an over-focus on highlighting negative impacts of climate change represents an opportunity cost to focus on more practical solutions on the ground. When it comes to fires, you could do things like prescribed burns and mechanical thinning to reduce fuel loads and reduce fire intensity, infrastructure, dikes, dams, building codes.
- Patrick Brown

Although Brown does not doubt the reality of climate change, he worries that the single-minded approach dominating scientific research is unhelpful in mitigating the immediate challenges climate change presents. A reduction in CO2 emissions is according to journals like Nature the only solution to our problems. Brown accepts this as a long term goal but thinks that rushing to reduce CO2 emissions or rushing to reach Net Zero targets will only negatively impact living standards and will ultimately fail to deliver desired results until the end of the century.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

Lol. This is truly ironic given the discussion in the climate class essay. BTW, I have very mixed feelings about this guy. Thanks for exposing the agenda, but manipulating your own narrative in order to get published is how the system perpetuates itself.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I also have mixed views on this guy (not watched the video yet, though) and on the discussion.
The one non-mixed view that I have drawn is that conclusion bias and question begging is baked into our scientific institutions now. At least on the field of climate. I suspect many others, too.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

At least now he gets to expose the whole thing. If he hadn’t published it this way, he wouldn’t have made Nature and the MSM.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Extraordinary coincidence!

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

But surely this guy is doing us sceptics a huge service? He’s a scientist, conducting presumably a decent standard of scientific research, who believes that human induced climate change is a thing, which of course he’s quite entitled to do.

However, what he’s now saying is that it’s a thing, along with a number of other variables, not the only thing. That’s completely consistent with the IPCC reports, for anyone that bothers to read them, if Steve Koonin is to be believed (which I do).

This guy deserves huge kudos, for demonstrating the inbaked bias, whereby exaggerating any human induced changes to climate (and related events) pays off financially for run of the mill scientists, concerned with making a living. He’s effectively retracting his own research. It’ll be interesting to see how Nature respond (presumably by ignoring his subsequent assertions). Nevertheless, he will no doubt be blacklisted as of now. Many thanks to him!

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

He’s not retracting his own research. He’s simply saying there’s more to it than climate change. His research supports that hypothesis. He simply downplayed that in the cover letter etc
 I agree with everything you say though, but I’m conflicted that he played the game in the first place. Yes he did all of us a great favour by coming forward.

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Ok sorry Jim, I’m guilty on this occasion of just looking at the summary… having watched the video, he’s obviously not retracting it, but putting it in some context.
It might be interesting to re-interview him in a year or two. He’s seems to be someone who has been a zealot, perhaps he’s only part way through breaking through his cognitive dissonance?
Whatever, he’s done us all a great favour coming forward, given who he is.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

Putting it in context is a good description. Maybe he follows the Judith Curry route – full alarmist, but gradually moderating his views over time, while still acknowledging the role of CO2.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“Manipulating your own narrative in order to get published is how the system perpetuates itself”
Not if you use it to show the system is corrupt!

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
9 months ago

What an extraordinary conversation. Thanks to Freddy for doing the interview.
What’s incredible to me is that this supposedly educated man is oblivious to the problem now facing him: given climatologists are distorting science to get published, how does he know his other beliefs about climate are true?
Once he become clear in his mind that this is how the game is played, how did he not develop doubts about the research papers he’d been reading on other climate topics? Why does he speak with such certainty?
For example, he makes a claim early on that “all our instrumentation” shows that temperatures have been increasing since the Victorian era (which is also when they started to record temperatures). But the US CRN is a high quality network of weather stations built in 2005 to resolve arguments over the low quality of data collected in the 20th century. It has shown no warming whatsoever in the USA since it was first opened. That’s nearly 20 years of no warming in America. You can find the graphs online. Given this, how does he justify the statement that “all our instrumentation” shows warming?
Is it really possible that he just doesn’t know about this problem? If so I wonder how many other climatologists don’t know.
His absolutist stance early on is also not really compatible with his later statements about how all science is narrative and there’s no objective truth. When Freddy is asking what he believes, he’s all about consensus, 100% of warming is manmade, natural effects don’t exist etc. But later, we hear that Nature isn’t wrong per se to want only catastrophizing, it’s just one narrative amongst many and everyone should just accept that scientists are all biased and essentially just journalists.

Last edited 9 months ago by Norman Powers
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

You raise some valid concerns for sure. It’s absolutely amazing that no one has heard of the CRN.

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
9 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

As I replied to JV above, perhaps this guy is only halfway through a process, of realising that many things he’d assumed to be unquestioningly true may not be so.
All the better, as these are the kind of people who need to cross the great cognitive/ideological divide, if any kind of sanity is ever going to return to politics and public discourse.

Dominic A
Dominic A
9 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Or is this the truth?
“A small group of conspiracy theorists flip this reality by “cherry picking”, which means using a fraction of the data to prop up claims that are false globally. It’s the sort of technique that would insist that this is a 100% blue cherry tree.-
comment image
https://climatefeedback.org/claimreview/claim-of-no-us-warming-since-2005-is-directly-contradicted-by-the-data-it-is-based-on/

Josh Woods
Josh Woods
9 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

“When Freddy is asking what he(Patrick Brown) believes, he’s all about consensus, 100% of warming is manmade, natural effects don’t exist etc. ”
I’m sure many geologists, volcanologists & historians will disagree with him(not you obviously).
And scientists can indeed be biased, including when it comes to debating theories & methods they champion for. It’s human nature.

Last edited 9 months ago by Josh Woods
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
9 months ago

So, by his own admission, he has published a false and misleading article, and now he wants credit for admitting it. And he wants us to trust him when he tells us how (un)reliable climate research is.

A certain amount of tweaking is hard to avoid, but the minimum requirement for a scientist is to have enough honesty not to publish information that you do not believe in yourself – even if that gets you into Nature. If his data suggest that man-made global warming have increased wildfires in California by ca. 25% he is lying when he now retracts it. If his data might as well mean that fuel loads in the forests have changed, he was lying when he wrote the article. Either way, the fewer people like him who publish scientific papers, the better.

jennifer chan
jennifer chan
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Unfortunately, this is a naive view. He’s merely telling the public how scientific papers work. It’s true, Nature and similar big journals look for “high impact”/”sexy” papers. It’s how the game is played, and every scientist knows it.

Last edited 9 months ago by jennifer chan
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
9 months ago
Reply to  jennifer chan

Not that naive, no. I’ve been there. Sure, you try to spin your results to appear with lots of impact, and you look for a way to get a positive result of some kind out of the experiment, to get a publication. Also, the grant application process trains you to do exactly that. To get a grant and do your work, you need to promise results to be beneficial to the development of small-medium enterprises, world energy independence, greater equality, global health, you name it. Everybody in the business knows that most of this is fake, but since you have to tick the boxes to get a grant, you find a way to tick them, and tell yourself that it is not really lying if it can sort of be said to be true and the recipient knows anyway what the real story is.

The thing is, you need a minimum standard of honesty in your actual results, which has to be that if you cannot defend it you should not write it – and if you step over that line your credibility must be gone forever. That is the only thing that will keep you from in the end faking your results wholesale. Patrick Brown went over that line either when he wrote the paper or now, when he retracts what he wrote. Let him get a job spinning stories on the National Enquirer.

j ch
j ch
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Ah ok then I’m glad of your optimistic view. All I’ve seen is the pressure to publish high profile and quantity over quality makes everyone well practiced at writing a good headline. I can see the parallel with journalism. It’s also easy enough to convince everyone (even yourself) that what you’re publishing is justified, even if it’s all based on fluff.

Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
9 months ago

I doubt Mr. Brown intended to, but his story proves Foucault’s theory that even science is vulnerable to the creation and use of narratives to achieve the ends of the powerful, in this case green new deal advocates. The problem for the anti-woke is that Foucault was right. But Foucault isn’t the problem, it is that the extremes of Right and Left infer from his philosophy that it is ok, no imperative, that they create narratives to move their agenda forward rather than seek some way of finding an elusive, no impossible to find, objective truth. That way to find truth is the marketplace of ideas which activists are always dismissing. In vibrant democracies narratives compete. They are evaluated by fair and open debate and synthesized using reason. In this way we can find rational solutions to intractable problems. This is not a process that is always 100% effective but that isn’t a reason to abandon it. It’s the process that is important not the outcome. Under tyranny one narrative prevails; in a democracy every narrative has to be debated, even the one that says it is ok to make up whatever you want and stifle any dissent anyway you can. We can’t make people be reasonable; we have to convince them. It is a long arduous, frustrating way to govern ourselves but there isn’t a better one out there.

Jason mann
Jason mann
9 months ago

Apocalypse Never by Shellenberger cleared this mess up for me. Nuclear is really the best option we have to free the world from the shackles of true poverty. Regardless, I have no control. Gotta pay my bills regardless of what nonsense is driving the madness.

John Riordan
John Riordan
9 months ago

If he was willing to get a high-profile publication this way, why did he also admit he’d done it?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Get the kudos for the publication, and then the double-kudos of highlighting the faults. Doppel virtue signal ?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

He’s got a lot of ink since the Free Press essay. He didn’t mention it in this conversation, but he’s said that he tried publishing less hysterical papers in the past, but didn’t have much success.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
9 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The interview covers that. He said he’d been developing doubts steadily over time, especially post COVID, but his paper had been in the pipeline since 2019. It takes a long time to get published.

J Bryant
J Bryant
9 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I’m not sure that quite answers the question about his motives for exposing the weaknesses in his own paper, though. He has now alienated many of his colleagues, especially his senior colleagues who will be important for his career development (and tenure if he doesn’t already have it), the folks at Nature (and perhaps other journals), and probably his university administration. I suspect he’ll pay a heavy price.
If he watered down the title and conclusions of his original article, and included a discussion of its limitations, he would have found a publisher at a less prestigious journal and honored his conscience. As it is, he seems to have the worst of all worlds.
There’s a piece of his story missing.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

He’s now a co-director of climate research at the Breakthrough Institute. I suspect he feels insulated from the predictable push back from former colleagues.

J Bryant
J Bryant
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Ah, there’s the backstory. Thank you. I seem to recall Freddie introduced him as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins. I wonder if his move out of mainstream academia was planned before or after his famous article?
I also wonder why Freddie didn’t ask him the obvious question about why he was potentially endangering his academic future?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I don’t think he’s full time at John Hopkins now. He’s still there, but I think he’s maybe an adjunct now. I could be wrong about that. Ya, not asking about the fallout was a miss for sure.

Last edited 9 months ago by Jim Veenbaas
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

So instead of writing whatever they want to hear at Nature, might he be writing whatever they want to hear at the Breakthrough institute??

Really a charming lad.

Last edited 9 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

That’s the danger of doing something like this. It’s not good for credibility. I’m glad he did it, but I have mixed emotions about it.

Gorka Sillero
Gorka Sillero
9 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

you should be asking yourself why Nature pushes alarmist papers as opposed to try mental gymnastics on whatever motivations this guy has. I guess that didn’t even cross your mind because at Nature they are “the good guys”

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
9 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Remorse? or thinking this is the most effective way to expose the system? from the inside?

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
9 months ago

First, he claims he exaggerates, to curry favour with one lot. Then, he attacks himself, to curry favour with the other lot.
Doubly pathetic.
Got a suggestion for this supergrass – next time, just try being balanced and truthful, for heaven’s sake.
This clown should be ignored. Liars rarely change their spots.
How do we know that his attack on himself is any more reliable than his originally-published work?
Why is a self-confessed liar being held up as an exemplar of anything?
Waste of time

Paul T
Paul T
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Attacking a whistleblower; not cool.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
9 months ago

This is much more important than the Grievance Studies Hoax. Boghossian’s, Lindsay’s, and Pluckrose’s efforts merely exposed feminism, postmodernism, and gender, which we already knew was mostly nonsense.
This exposes misleading propaganda in the leading science journal, Nature, propaganda which encourages governments to abandon the material basis of civilisation, fossil fuels.
See https://www.amazon.com/dp/0593420411
Fossil Future, @AlexEpstein

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
9 months ago

Any exposition of science as the popularity test it is, is exactly what is needed. Many thanks.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
9 months ago

Thank you Patrick Brown for eventually telling us the truth. In the interview he states that he thinks global warming is entirely man made. No mention at all about the cycles of climate warming and cooling the earth has gone through over the eons and the inevitable warming and cooling cycles the earth will Experience in the future whether man exists on the planet or not.
Does man have an effect on the Earths climate cycles? No more or less than the plants had before man existed, as they changed Earths atmosphere by expelling oxygen over the eons, and what major volcanic activity had over the eons, or impacts of asteroids had on Earths climate.
Mans impact on Earths climate is being addressed to varying degrees but the Left uses climate as a means to an end. That end is political power at any cost, even to the extent of killing off half the worlds population (Bill Gates).
The problem with Leftists is that you can’t believe them! They decide on a result first and then create a narrative that “supports’ their desired outcome. Facts and the scientific method have nothing to do with a Leftists thought process.
The end justifies the means.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
9 months ago

The paper is available to read online.
More potently so are the peer reviewers’ comments and the author’s rebuttals.
https://www.readcube.com/articles/supplement?doi=10.1038%2Fs41586-023-06444-3&index=1
The most revealing rebuttal :
“We agree that climatic variables other than temperature are important for projecting changes in wildfire risk. In addition to absolute atmospheric humidity, other important variables include changes in precipitation, wind patterns, vegetation, snowpack, ignitions, antecedent fire activity, etc. Not to mention factors like changes in human population distribution, fuel breaks, land use, ignition patterns, firefighting tactics, forest management strategies, and long-term buildup of fuels.
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.
We believe that studying the influence of warming in isolation is valuable because temperature is the variable in the wildfire behavior triangle (Fig 1A) that is by far the most directly related to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and, thus, the most well-constrained in future projections. There is no consensus on even the expected direction of the change of many of the other relevant variables.”
Moral of this sorry tale ? – seek out the source.
I agree with other commentators here, Mr Brown seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it … with jam.

si mclardy
si mclardy
9 months ago

Great interview! This is why I support unherd. Some of the writers have made me second guess my support (like the piece today on nord stream) but Freddie brings the stars back in line. Lol

Robbie K
Robbie K
9 months ago

What a bellend.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Bjorn Lomborg infected this guy somehow.

Robbie K
Robbie K
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

For sure, they have a similar approach.