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I Left Out the Full Truth to Get My Climate Change Paper Published Patrick T Brown

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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. 

Here’s the AP: Climate change keeps making wildfires and smoke worse. Scientists call it the “new abnormal.

And PBS NewsHour: Wildfires driven by climate change are on the rise—Spain must do more to prepare, experts say.

And The New York Times: How Climate Change Turned Lush Hawaii Into a Tinderbox.

And Bloomberg: Maui Fires Show Climate Change’s Ugly Reach.

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. 

The paper I just published—“Climate warming increases extreme daily wildfire growth risk in California”—focuses exclusively on how climate change has affected extreme wildfire behavior. 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. 

The aftermath of the wildfire in western Maui, Hawaii, on August 14, 2023. (Yuki Iwamura via Getty Images)

Why is this happening?

It starts with the fact that a researcher’s career depends on his or her work being cited widely and perceived as important. This triggers the self-reinforcing feedback loops of name recognition, funding, quality applications from aspiring PhD students and postdocs, and of course, accolades. 

But as the number of researchers has skyrocketed in recent years—there are close to six times more PhDs earned in the U.S. each year than there were in the early 1960s—it has become more difficult than ever to stand out from the crowd. So while there has always been a tremendous premium placed on publishing in journals like Nature and Science, it’s also become extraordinarily more competitive.

In theory, scientific research should prize curiosity, dispassionate objectivity, and a commitment to uncovering the truth. Surely those are the qualities that editors of scientific journals should value. 

In reality, though, the biases of the editors (and the reviewers they call upon to evaluate submissions) exert a major influence on the collective output of entire fields. They select what gets published from a large pool of entries, and in doing so, they also shape how research is conducted more broadly. Savvy researchers tailor their studies to maximize the likelihood that their work is accepted. I know this because I am one of them.

Here’s how it works.

The first thing the astute climate researcher knows is that his or her work should support the mainstream narrative—namely, that the effects of climate change are both pervasive and catastrophic and that the primary way to deal with them is not by employing practical adaptation measures like stronger, more resilient infrastructure, better zoning and building codes, more air conditioning—or in the case of wildfires, better forest management or undergrounding power lines—but through policies like the Inflation Reduction Act, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

So in my recent Nature paper, which I authored with seven others, I focused narrowly on the influence of climate change on extreme wildfire behavior. Make no mistake: that influence is very real. But there are also other factors that can be just as or more important, such as poor forest management and the increasing number of people who start wildfires either accidentally or purposely. (A startling fact: over 80 percent of wildfires in the US are ignited by humans.)

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.

This type of framing, with the influence of climate change unrealistically considered in isolation, is the norm for high-profile research papers. For example, in another recent influential Nature paper, scientists calculated that the two largest climate change impacts on society are deaths related to extreme heat and damage to agriculture. However, the authors never mention that climate change is not the dominant driver for either one of these impacts: heat-related deaths have been declining, and crop yields have been increasing for decades despite climate change. To acknowledge this would imply that the world has succeeded in some areas despite climate change—which, the thinking goes, would undermine the motivation for emissions reductions. 

This leads to a second unspoken rule in writing a successful climate paper. The authors should ignore—or at least downplay—practical actions that can counter the impact of climate change. If deaths due to extreme heat are decreasing and crop yields are increasing, then it stands to reason that we can overcome some major negative effects of climate change. Shouldn’t we then study how we have been able to achieve success so that we can facilitate more of it? Of course we should. But studying solutions rather than focusing on problems is simply not going to rouse the public—or the press. Besides, many mainstream climate scientists tend to view the whole prospect of, say, using technology to adapt to climate change as wrongheaded; addressing emissions is the right approach. So the savvy researcher knows to stay away from practical solutions.

Here’s a third trick: be sure to focus on metrics that will generate the most eye-popping numbers. Our paper, for instance, could have focused on a simple, intuitive metric like the number of additional acres that burned or the increase in intensity of wildfires because of climate change. Instead, we followed the common practice of looking at the change in risk of an extreme event—in our case, the increased risk of wildfires burning more than 10,000 acres in a single day.

This is a far less intuitive metric that is more difficult to translate into actionable information. So why is this more complicated and less useful kind of metric so common? Because it generally produces larger factors of increase than other calculations. To wit: you get bigger numbers that justify the importance of your work, its rightful place in Nature or Science, and widespread media coverage. 

Another way to get the kind of big numbers that will justify the importance of your research—and impress editors, reviewers, and the media—is to always assess the magnitude of climate change over centuries, even if that timescale is irrelevant to the impact you are studying. 

For example, it is standard practice to assess impacts on society using the amount of climate change since the industrial revolution, but to ignore technological and societal changes over that time. This makes little sense from a practical standpoint since societal changes in population distribution, infrastructure, behavior, disaster preparedness, etc., have had far more influence on our sensitivity to weather extremes than climate change has since the 1800s. This can be seen, for example, in the precipitous decline in deaths from weather and climate disasters over the last century. Similarly, it is standard practice to calculate impacts for scary hypothetical future warming scenarios that strain credibility while ignoring potential changes in technology and resilience that would lessen the impact. Those scenarios always make for good headlines.

A much more useful analysis would focus on changes in climate from the recent past that living people have actually experienced and then forecasting the foreseeable future—the next several decades—while accounting for changes in technology and resilience. 

In the case of my recent Nature paper, this would mean considering the impact of climate change in conjunction with anticipated reforms to forest management practices over the next several decades. In fact, our current research indicates that these changes in forest management practices could completely negate the detrimental impacts of climate change on wildfires. 

This more practical kind of analysis is discouraged, however, because looking at changes in impacts over shorter time periods and including other relevant factors reduces the calculated magnitude of the impact of climate change, and thus it weakens the case for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. 

Science journals—once considered the gold standard for truth—have succumbed to the confirmation biases of their editors and reviewers. (Astrid Riecken via Getty Images)

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. It’s just that the process of customizing the research for an eminent journal caused it to be less useful than it could have been. 

As to why I followed the formula despite my criticisms, the answer is simple: 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. When I had previously attempted to deviate from the formula, my papers were rejected out of hand by the editors of distinguished journals, and I had to settle for less prestigious outlets. To put it another way, I sacrificed contributing the most valuable knowledge for society in order for the research to be compatible with the confirmation bias of the editors and reviewers of the journals I was targeting. 

I left academia over a year ago, partially because I felt the pressures put on academic scientists caused too much of the research to be distorted. Now, as a member of a private nonprofit research center, The Breakthrough Institute, I feel much less pressure to mold my research to the preferences of prominent journal editors and the rest of the field. 

This means conducting the version of the research on wildfires that I believe adds much more practical value for real-world decisions: studying the impacts of climate change over relevant time frames and in the context of other important changes, like the number of fires started by people and the effects of forest management. The research may not generate the same clean story and desired headlines, but it will be more useful in devising climate change strategies.

But climate scientists shouldn’t have to exile themselves from academia to publish the most useful versions of their research. We need a culture change across academia and elite media that allows for a much broader conversation on societal resilience to climate. 

The media, for instance, should stop accepting these papers at face value and do some digging on what’s been left out. The editors of the prominent journals need to expand beyond a narrow focus that pushes the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And the researchers themselves need to start standing up to editors, or find other places to publish. 

What really should matter isn’t citations for the journals, clicks for the media, or career status for the academics—but research that actually helps society.

Patrick Brown is a PhD climate scientist and co-director of the Climate and Energy Team at The Breakthrough Institute. Follow him on Twitter (now X) @PatrickTBrown31. And read Jamie Blackett’s Free Press piece to find out how European farmers are fighting climate change through innovation.

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April 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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I will not spend the rest of 2024 focusing on Trump and the chaos in the Republican Party, but today it has been impossible to look away.

In Trump’s election interference trial in Manhattan, Judge Juan Merchan this morning dismissed one of the selected jurors after she expressed concern for her anonymity and thus for her safety. All of the reporters in the courtroom have shared so much information about the jurors that they seemed at risk of being identified, but Fox News Channel host Jesse Watters not only ran a video segment about a juror, he suggested she was “concerning.” Trump shared the video on social media.

The juror told the judge that so much information about her had become public that her friends and family had begun to ask her if she was one of the jurors. Legal analyst Joyce White Vance noted jurors’ fear for their safety was a concern normally seen only “in a case involving violent organized crime.”

Nonetheless, by the end of the day, twelve people had been chosen to serve as jurors. Tomorrow the process will continue in order to find six alternate jurors. 

It is a courtesy for the two sides at a trial to share with each other the names of their next witnesses so the other team can prepare for them. Today the prosecution declined to provide the names of their first three witnesses to the defense lawyers out of concern that Trump would broadcast them on social media. “Mr. Trump has been tweeting about the witnesses. We’re not telling them who the witnesses are,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said. 

Merchan said he “can’t blame them.” Trump’s defense attorney Todd Blanche offered to “commit to the court and the [prosecution] that President Trump will not [post] about any witness” on social media. “I don’t think you can make that representation,” Merchan said, in a recognition that Trump cannot be trusted, even by his own lawyers.

An article in the New York Times today confirmed that the trial will give Trump plenty of publicity, but not the kind that he prefers. Lawyer Norman L. Eisen walked through questions about what a prison sentence for Trump could look like.

Trump’s popular image is taking a hit in other ways, as well. Zac Anderson and Erin Mansfield of USA Today reported that Trump is funneling money from his campaign fundraising directly into his businesses. According to a new report filed with the Federal Election Commission, in February and March the campaign wrote checks totaling $411,287 to Mar-a-Lago and in March a check for $62,337 to Trump National Doral Miami.

Experts say it is legal for candidates to pay their own businesses for services used by the campaign so long as they pay fair market value. At the same time, they note that since Trump appears to be desperate for money, “it looks bad.”

Astonishingly, Trump’s trial was not the biggest domestic story today. Republicans in Congress were in chaos as members of the extremist Freedom Caucus worked to derail the national security supplemental bills that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has introduced in place of the Senate bill, although they track that bill closely. 

The House Rules Committee spent the day debating the foreign aid package, which appropriates aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately. The Israel bill also contains $9.1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and other countries. A fourth bill focuses on forcing the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell the company, as well as on imposing sanctions on Russia and Iran. 

At stake in the House Rules Committee was Johnson’s plan to allow the House to debate and vote on each measure separately, and then recombine them all into a single measure if they all pass. This would allow extremist Republicans to vote against aid to Ukraine, while still tying the pieces all together to send to the Senate. As Robert Jimison outlined in the New York Times, this complicated plan meant that the Rules Committee vote to allow such a maneuver was crucial to the bill’s passage.

The extremist House Republicans were adamantly opposed to the plan because of their staunch opposition to aid for Ukraine. They wrote in a memo on Wednesday: “This tactic allows Johnson to pass priorities favored by President Biden, the swamp and the Ukraine war machine with a supermajority of House members, leaving conservatives out to dry.”

Extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) vowed to throw House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) out of the speakership, but Democrats Tom Suozzi of New York and Jared Moskowitz of Florida have said they would vote to keep him in his seat, thereby defanging the attack on his leadership.

So the extremists instead tried to load the measures up with amendments prohibiting funds from being used for abortion, removing humanitarian aid for Gaza, opposing a two-state solution to the Hamas-Israel war, calling for a wall at the southern border of the U.S., defunding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and so on.

Greene was especially active in opposition to aid to Ukraine. She tried to amend the bill to direct the president to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and demanded that any members of Congress voting for aid to Ukraine be conscripted into the Ukraine army as well as have their salaries taken to offset funding. She wanted to stop funding until Ukraine “turns over all information related to Hunter Biden and Burisma,” and to require Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to resign. More curiously, she suggested amending the Ukraine bill so that funding would require “restrictions on ethnic minorities’, including Hungarians in Transcarpathia, right to use their native languages in schools are lifted.” This language echoes a very specific piece of Russian propaganda.

Finally, Moskowitz proposed “that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene…should be appointed as Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy to the United States Congress.” 

Many congress members have left Washington, D.C., since Friday was to be the first day of a planned recess. This meant the partisan majority on the floor fluctuated. Olivia Beavers of Politico reported that that instability made Freedom Caucus members nervous enough to put together a Floor Action Response Team (FART—I am not making this up) to make sure other Republicans didn’t limit the power of the extremists when they were off the floor.

The name of their response team seems likely to be their way to signal their disrespect for the entire Congress. Their fellow Republicans are returning the heat. Today Mike Turner (R-OH) referred to the extremists as the Bully Caucus on MSNBC and said, “We need to get back to professionalism, we need to get back to governing, we need to get back to legislating.” Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) told Juliegrace Brufke of Axios:  “The vast majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives…are sick and tired of having people who…constantly blackmail the speaker of the House.”

Another Republican representative, Jake LaTurner of Kansas, announced today he will not run for reelection. He joins more than 20 other Republican representatives heading for the exits.

After all the drama, the House Rules Committee voted 6–3 tonight to advance the foreign aid package to the House floor. Three Republicans voted nay. While it is customary for the opposition party to vote against advancing bills out of the committee, the Democrats broke with tradition and voted in favor.

Notes:

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/opinion/donald-trump-trial-prison.html

https://www.politico.com/live-updates/2024/04/18/congress/hfc-on-alert-00153097

https://www.jns.org/house-rules-committee-debates-israel-aid-package-as-house-speaker-confronts-right-flank/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-new-york-court-criminal-trial/

https://www.thedailybeast.com/jesse-watters-goes-juror-by-juror-to-sow-doubt-in-trump-hush-money-case

https://www.salon.com/2024/04/18/juror-quits-over-fear-of-being-outed-after-fox-news-host-singled-her-out/

https://www.rawstory.com/jake-laturner/#cxrecs_s

https://www.cnn.com/2024/04/18/politics/mike-johnson-speakership-rules

https://www.rawstory.com/freedom-caucus-2667810851/

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8034

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8035

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2024/04/18/trump-campaign-funnels-money-to-his-businesses/73344744007/

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/mike-johnson-gaetz-motion-to-vacate-ukraine

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/jake-laturner-retire-house-gop-kansas

https://www.axios.com/2024/03/27/house-members-retiring-quitting-productivity

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/us/politics/house-israel-ukraine-aid-package-explainer.html

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April 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Senate nominee bankrolled by far-right activist trashing MLK and the Civil Rights Act Judd Legum

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Founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, Charlie Kirk, speaks on July 15, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last month, Bernie Moreno won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Ohio. Moreno benefited from an early endorsement from Turning Point Action, the far-right activist group founded by Charlie Kirk. On May 10, 2023, Kirk posted on X that he was “proud to support Bernie,” and Moreno had Turning Point Action’s “full endorsement.” 

In response, Moreno wrote that he was “honored to be endorsed by Charlie Kirk and Turning Point Action.” Moreno said that “[f]ew have done more to fight back against the radical left than they have,” and he looks “forward to working with them to defend for our America First conservative values in the US Senate.” 

In 2023, Kirk repeatedly featured Moreno as a guest on his popular podcast and consistently promoted Moreno’s candidacy to his 2.9 million followers on X. At the end of 2023, Kirk donated the maximum legal amount of $5,000 to Moreno’s campaign through the Turning Point PAC. 

At the same time, Kirk, known for his embrace of fringe views and conspiracy theories, launched a sustained attack on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. At a December 2023 convention hosted by Turning Point USA, Kirk said that King “was awful” and “not a good person.” Kirk’s critique extended not just to King himself but to the civil rights movement itself. “We made a huge mistake when we passed the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s,” Kirk declared, trashing the legislation that outlawed segregation in public places and many businesses. 

In his convention speech, Kirk blasted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an effort to “re-found the county” and “get rid of the First Amendment.” He criticized courts for enforcing the law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. “Federal courts just yield to the Civil Rights Act as if it’s the actual American Constitution,” Kirk complained. 

A spokesperson for Turning Point USA, Andrew Kolvet, defended Kirk’s attacks, saying respect for King’s legacy was based on “fake history.” 

Kirk announced he was “gonna tell the truth about MLK Jr” on MLK Day in January 2024. According to Kirk, a podcast episode attacking King and the civil rights movement was being put together by his producer, Blake Neff. In 2020, Neff was forced to resign from Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News after it was revealed Neff was posting racist comments online under a pseudonym.

The episode, titled “The Myth of MLK,” kicks off with Vince Everett Ellison – a right-wing activist who claims that voting for a Democrat will send you to Hell. Ellison describes King as “despicable,” “immoral,” and “perverted.” Kirk repeatedly suggests that King’s legacy has harmed “Black America.” He asks Ellison if the lives of Black Americans have improved “the more that we have worshipped MLK.” Kirk also invites Ellison to talk about how “MLK’s narrative and political activism led to the modern welfare state.” Ellison responds by accusing the civil rights community of keeping Black people poor, adding that the devil “rest[s] his head at the DNC” and that the DNC “use[d] MLK and all of those perverts with him.”

“I could say declaratively this guy is not worthy of a national holiday. He is not worthy of god-like status. In fact, I think it’s really harmful,” Kirk says after the conversation with Ellison ends. Then Kirk, alongside Neff, spends roughly 30 minutes attempting to demonize the Civil Rights Act. According to Neff, the Civil Rights Act is “directly against this colorblind world that conservatives think MLK brought.” Kirk tells listeners that “in reality the language and the application of the Civil Rights Act…is a color preference act, not a color blindness.” Kirk adds that the Civil Rights Act “is making it harder for us to pursue Excellence as a society” because, as Neff puts it, “you have to discriminate against men, against white people.”

On X, Kirk wrote that the “deification of MLK and his proto-DEI ideology marks the exact moment that the progress of black America goes sideways.” Kirk suggested that MLK was responsible for the “disintegration” of “their cities,” the “collapse” of “their families.” Because of MLK, Kirk claims, “they” are “enormously dependent on government support.” 

Kirk’s crusade against King and the civil rights movement did not appear to impact his relationship with Moreno. On March 14, 2024, Turning Point Action donated $100,000 to the Buckeye Values PAC, Moreno’s Super PAC. 

Buckeye Values PAC is tightly aligned with Moreno’s campaign and was responsible for organizing and financing a key rally featuring Trump and Moreno on March 18, the day before the Ohio primary. 

The day after his primary victory, on March 20, Moreno appeared again on Kirk’s podcast. At the beginning of the interview, Moreno expressed his gratitude for Kirk’s support. “Thank you, Charlie,” Moreno said. “And thank you for your early endorsement. You were with me from the very beginning.”

The Moreno campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Moreno suggested white people should get reparations

Moreno himself has also had controversies involving racial issues. When he launched his campaign for Senate, Moreno floated the idea of reparations for white descendants of Union soldiers that were killed during the Civil War. “They talk about reparations. Where are the reparations for the people, for the North, who died to save the lives of Black people?” Moreno said. “I know it’s not politically correct to say that, but you know what, we’ve got to stop being politically correct.” 

“We stand on shoulders of people like John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington… That same group of people later, white people, died to free Black people,” Moreno said. A campaign spokesperson for Moreno told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “Bernie was right when he said political correctness is killing our country, and the crocodile tears from the left expose the Democrat hypocrisy he was referring to in the clip.”

Moreno’s companies have “faced multiple lawsuits alleging discrimination against employees in the run-up to the sale of his high-end Cleveland car dealership,” the AP reported. One 2017 lawsuit involved “a Black former service manager” at a dealership owned by Moreno, who “alleged that he was targeted for discipline and then demoted after taking concerns to human resources about white peers and a subordinate being paid the same or more than him.” He “claimed racial discrimination led to his demotion and eventual wrongful termination.” The lawsuit was “settled out of court,” and the terms of the settlement “were kept private.”

A campaign spokesperson said that “Moreno is ‘a proud minority businessman’ who based his company ‘on the colorblind principles of merit and hard work.’” The statement said that “Bernie has always been committed to giving opportunities to all of his workers, regardless of race, color, gender or creed.”

 

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