From Climate Scepticism
BY JOHN RIDGWAY
A climate scientist describes how the consensus game works
It is a long-established principle of scientific enquiry that if you want to understand the structure of something, then just give it a bang and see how it rattles. It is a technique that crops up in a number of different guises from seismography and spectrography to magnetic resonance imaging; just excite something and stand back and enjoy the physics. But the same technique doesn’t have to be restricted to physical enquiry. Rattle any cage and the noises given off will tell you an awful lot about what you are dealing with. Take, for example, the recent cage-rattling of climate scientist Patrick T. Brown, formerly of John Hopkins University. Everything was just calypso and candy until he came along and caused a breach of the peace by suggesting in an article in The Free Press that journals such as Nature and Science were biased towards articles that are focussed upon a particular narrative. The accusations he was making suggested a problem with the structure, but it was actually the howling response that betrayed the structure of the problem.
The essence of Brown’s allegation is actually quite simple: Climate scientists are self-censoring particular details of their research because they anticipate that otherwise they may find difficulty in getting their studies published in the prestigious journals. In his particular case, Brown had deliberately omitted the key fact that 80% of wildfires were started by humans; an omission that facilitates the preferred narrative that wildfires are yet another indication that climate change risk is not just a concern for the future, but also one which is having a serious impact today. In his own words:
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.
Readers of Cliscep will recognise this as a key concern of the sceptic. A great deal of trust is placed in scientific consensus, to the extent that its very existence substitutes for evidence. However, the way that communities work, scientific or otherwise, means that consensus can be a poor proxy for wisdom. In practice, scientists do not blindly follow where the evidence takes them. They undertake their journey of discovery within the constraints that society creates for them, whether that takes the form of peer pressure, financial inducement and support or outright censorship. And in many instances, the scientists are enthusiastic game players, since they will often sense the social value and importance of some narratives in preference to others. But the resulting focus can often be to the detriment of a fuller understanding. This particularly matters when deciding upon the best way of tackling a problem. For example, as Brown points out, a preoccupation with the climate change narrative and the push to reduce CO2 output in order to reduce fire risk may cause people to overlook the fact that the recent trend in wildfires could be entirely reversed by re-introducing sound forest management and addressing the social problems behind an epidemic of arsonists.
In any other field, Brown’s observations would be met with mild bemusement. There would be an admission that science operates within constraints, but there may be a counter-argument offered to the effect that any suggestion this leads to a damaging distortion is to exaggerate the extent of the problem. The editor of the journal concerned would probably respond with something along the lines of, ‘We are disappointed that we may be giving certain scientists the impression that we gatekeep narratives, and we are only too happy to reassure such individuals that all avenues of relevant study shall be considered for publication without prejudice. Indeed, promoting a broader knowledge for society lies at the very heart of our ethos’.
Whether true or not, the very tone of the response would reflect how relaxed the scientific community was in seeing their very human and unremarkable frailty highlighted. But no, this is not any other field, this is climate science we are dealing with here. And so this is what was actually said by Dr Magdalena Skipper, editor of Nature:
The only thing in Patrick Brown’s statements about the editorial processes in scholarly journals that we agree on is that science should not work through the efforts by which he published this [study]. We are now carefully considering the implications of his stated actions; certainly, they reflect poor research practices and are not in line with the standards we set for our journal.
Skipper added that Nature has an ‘expectation’ that researchers use the most appropriate data, methods and results:
When researchers do not do so, it goes against the interests of both fellow researchers and the research field as a whole. To deliberately not do so is, at best, highly irresponsible. Researchers have a responsibility for their research which they must take seriously.
Or to put it succinctly, she has come out all guns blazing with an accusation of scientific malpractice and a not-so-veiled threat that Nature will not be accepting any further work with Brown’s name on it. It is a gross over-reaction that speaks volumes. A rattled cage wouldn’t be making so much noise if its structure had the required integrity.
To start with, Brown had only talked about self-censoring regarding the scope of work. That is every scientist’s prerogative. Nowhere did he claim not to have used the most appropriate data, methods and results – that’s Skipper’s deliberate misrepresentation of the issues. He didn’t do anything that invalidated his results, as far as they went.
Secondly, she talks of work that did not meet the standards ‘we set for our journal’. This is very odd, because the study concerned had already been happily accepted by the journal despite the fact that the authors politely declined a peer reviewer’s suggestion that they widen its scope. It seems this insistence on maintaining the original scope was acceptable, and only became ‘poor research practice’ and ‘highly irresponsible’ after Brown had said his piece to the press. The implication is that his declared motives for wishing to restrict the scope were indicative of ‘poor research practice’. This is nonsense.
Thirdly, Skipper seems to have completely overlooked the fact that Brown spoke of not trying to ‘quantify key aspects other than climate change’. This is actually a key strategy that every climate scientist religiously abides by. If it is ‘poor research practice’ and ‘highly irresponsible’, then the whole climate science community is guilty as charged. To understand why this is the case, one has to reflect upon the nature of causal analysis and the policy position that climate scientists have taken. The matter is discussed in a paper partly co-written by Judea Pearl, the father of modern-day causal inference, and Friederike Otto, the public face of modern-day extreme weather attribution studies. In that paper a contrast is made between the probability of necessity (PN) and the probability of sufficiency (PS). PN is equated to the concept of culpability (the higher the PN, the higher the supposed levels of guilt). PN also happens to be the facet of causality that extreme weather event attributions are designed to calculate. Such studies are therefore focussed upon the extent to which blame can be attributed to AGW. What they can’t address is how such levels of culpability compare to other factors that lie outside the scope of the climate models. Consequently, even when such factors are mentioned, you rarely see them quantified and encapsulated in a full causal statement covering both PN and PS. This is precisely what Brown has accused the climate science community of doing. And, as it happens, that is precisely what that community sets out to do. The only issue seems to be the extent to which this is achieved through principled self-censorship rather than through a self-censorship that is running scared of editorial favouritism. There may be a bit of both, but in Brown’s experience, there is plenty of the latter:
When I had previously attempted to deviate from the formula I outlined here, my papers were promptly rejected out of hand by the editors of high-profile journals without even going to peer review.
Every time Otto publishes an attribution study that talks of the impossibility of something happening without climate change, she is referring only to a probability of necessity and in so doing chooses a deliberately narrow scope that fails to cover the probabilities of sufficiency and fails to ‘quantify key aspects other than climate change’. But is Skipper stepping forward to accuse her of ‘poor research practice’ or being ‘highly irresponsible’? Is Otto’s research failing to meet the standards of Skipper’s journal? Of course not. So what is the difference between Otto and Brown? As far as I can see, the difference is simply that Otto is keeping her mouth shut, because she knows that if she were ever to make this common practice of self-censorship public (and particularly if she were to point out its ramifications, as did Brown) then the self-protective mechanisms of the culture that such disclosures threaten would kick into place and suddenly the once golden girl of extreme weather attribution would become a pariah and a disgrace to science. Professor Otto may be many things, but foolhardy she is not.
Finally, it should not have escaped Skipper’s attention that Brown did not restrict his concerns to matters of editorial bias in journals. If anything, it is the bias shown by the media in reporting upon climate change that causes the most damage. In fact, his article leads with:
If you’ve been reading any news about wildfires this summer—from Canada to Europe to Maui—you will surely get the impression that they are mostly the result of climate change.
He goes on to provide examples of such reporting before adding:
I am a climate scientist. And 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. So why does the press focus so intently on climate change as the root cause? Perhaps for the same reasons I just did in an academic paper about wildfires in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious journals: it fits a simple storyline that rewards the person telling it.
So Brown is making an important point about narrative and the need to keep it simple and focused. Again, this is a point that has been made on this blog, both here and here. It is very telling that a climate scientist cannot make the same point without generating so much noise and heat.
I am not quite sure what motivated Brown to say what he did. From where I am stood, it just looks like an act of breathtaking honesty and common sense. He said what needed to be said, but he must surely have known that his profession would immediately throw him under the bus and seek to reverse all previous plaudits bestowed upon him. As a consequence, he used to be a much-respected member of the scientific community, but now he’s just a guy they used to know. It’s the same old cultural kickback; if someone criticises the culture, the culture protects itself by vilifying the critic. It’s a defamation that is only to be expected from a system that protects itself through social sanction. You can’t accuse such a system of censorial behaviour without expecting it to be censorious in return. Society, (and the scientific community that acts on its behalf) seems to have settled upon an orthodoxy that drives and frames our courses of enquiry. It also demands a simple narrative both within the scientific journals and, more importantly, in the publications charged with reporting to the public.
I will be following this news item in the coming weeks since I fear cancellation may be around the corner. Dr Ken Rice of ATTP fame has already declared his position:
Given that there can be preferred narratives within scientific communities, it is always good for there to be people who are regarded as credible and who push back against them. Even if you don’t agree with them, they can still present views that are worth thinking about. In my view, Patrick used to be one of those people.
It can be of little comfort to Patrick T. Brown that Dr Ken Rice’s views of him carry next to no weight.
If you have not already done so, you are advised to read Professor Brown’s article in full. I could have written several posts on the many important issues it raises.