Patrick Brown

I designed my research to sound catastrophic

September 25, 2023
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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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