The Times view on scientific journals and editorial bias: Climate Change

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By Paul Homewood

It’s good to see that The Times has covered this story:

The physicist Alan Sokal pulled off one of the most damning scholarly hoaxes of recent decades when, in 1996, he persuaded a literary journal to accept a wilfully nonsensical paper. The Sokal Affair, as it became known, was designed to expose the lax standards in the less rigorous publications, where research passed muster so long as it “flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.

It might be hoped that climate science is immune to such groupthink. But in our weekend essay, Patrick Brown, a former academic, argues persuasively that it isn’t. His research into Californian wildfires was published last week in Nature, one of the most renowned scientific journals. To ensure it was accepted, however, required “customising the research” so as to render it “compatible with the confirmation bias of the editors”.

Influential journals, Dr Brown alleges, are unwilling to consider research which downplays the scale of climate change or which emphasises the viability of adaptive measures as an alternative to emissions reductions. In the competitive world of academia, where landing papers in leading publications determines one’s career prospects, the perception of bias on the part of editors can fundamentally warp the direction of research.

There is no suggestion that Dr Brown’s paper contained outright falsehood. The bias is subtler than that. Instead, he isolated climate change as the sole variable in explaining the risk of Californian wildfires, a misleading focus given that 80 per cent of wildfires in America are started by humans. According to Brown, other strategies are often used to inflate the scale of climate change, yielding eye-popping statistics.

These tactics lead to work that is deceptive and neglects promising lines of inquiry for fear of challenging consensus. Such incuriosity is the hallmark of bad science and timid politics.

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