Newspapers are using climate researcher’s false claims about journal bias to mislead readers
Following a claim by a climate researcher that he was forced to focus on the role of climate change in wildfires to get published in a top journal, some media sources are suggesting it proves that science is exaggerating the impacts of rising greenhouse gas levels. Bob Ward explains why this is not true.
A recent article in the journal Nature has led to false allegations that researchers are exaggerating the impacts of climate change.
The paper entitled ‘Climate warming increases extreme daily wildfire growth risk in California’ was published on 30 August, and concluded that “anthropogenic warming has enhanced the aggregate expected frequency of extreme daily wildfire growth by 25%.”
The paper received media coverage around the world. However, the lead author on the paper, Dr Patrick Brown, caused controversy by writing another article in which he appeared to admit that he had been forced to alter his research to publish it in the top scientific journal.
Dr Brown, Co-Director of the Climate and Energy Team at the Breakthrough Institute, made his claim in an online column for The Free Press on 5 September under the headline ‘I Left Out the Full Truth to Get My Climate Change Paper Published’, with the standfirst: “I just got published in Nature because I stuck to a narrative I knew the editors would like. That’s not the way science should work.”
Dr Brown wrote: “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 is an incendiary claim. It is also untrue. The journal published alongside the article by Dr Brown and his co-authors a summary of comments by the referees who reviewed it before publication.
These comments showed that one of the referees recommended that the paper needed significant revision, and challenged Dr Brown and his co-authors about the focus on temperature as a driver of wildfires, while excluding other factors such as humidity. Their response was as follows:
“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.”
They continued their justification of their methodology, stating:
“We believe that studying the influence of warming in isolation is valuable because temperature is the variable in the wildfire behavior triangle 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.”
Hence it is clear that the authors themselves argued against expanding their analysis to factors other than temperature. They were not pressured by the journal to do so, and they persuaded the editor to publish the paper without making the recommended revision to expand the scope of the analysis.
Dr Brown’s allegations are further undermined by the fact that Nature has published articles that consider other factors that drive wildfires. On 28 August, two days before the release of the paper by Dr Brown and co-authors, the journal published an article by Professor Hussam Mahmoud Colorado State University on ‘The causes of wildfires are clear. How they burn through communities is not’. It stated:
“Most wildfires are started by human activities, such as discarding cigarettes, or by power-line failures. The latter might have caused the initial spark in the 2023 Maui fire, and did in the [2018 Californian] Camp Fire. The likelihood of a serious fire developing depends on how dry the soil is, whether there are lots of plant roots in the area and the flammability of surrounding vegetation or debris.”
Dr Brown’s comments were strongly rejected by the Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Professor Magdalena Skipper. She told the online news outlet E&E News: “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 article. 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.”
Dr Brown’s claims are therefore demonstrably false. Unfortunately, his bogus narrative has predictably been seized upon by the opponents of action to tackle climate change. For instance, The Daily Telegraph covered Dr Brown’s comments on page 2 of its print edition on 7 September under the inaccurate headline ‘Climate change findings inflated ‘so paper would be published’. Its sub-heading stated: “Scientist admits overhyping global warming to fit with mainstream narrative preferred by journal”.
A day later, the newspaper published a characteristically error-strewn article by Viscount Matt Ridley, a member of the so-called ‘Academic Advisory Council’ of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. He wrote: “Editors at journals such as Nature seem to prefer publishing simplistic, negative news and speculation about climate change.”
He also wrote: “One of the biggest measurable impacts of increased carbon dioxide is global greening – the recent increase in green vegetation on the planet, equivalent to twice the area of the United States and counting”. Viscount Ridley has a track record of making Panglossian pronouncements about the supposed benefits of climate change, based on misinformation.
Similarly, the Daily Mail covered Dr Brown’s comments in its print edition on 8 September under the inaccurate headline ‘Scientist: I blamed US wildfires solely on global warming just to get published’. Its first sentence stated: “A climate scientist has admitted exaggerating the impact of global warming on Californian wildfires to get his research published”.
In fact the Daily Mail was so delighted with the story that it published two further online articles about Dr Brown’s comments under the headlines ‘Top scientist Patrick Brown says he deliberately OMITTED key fact in climate change piece he’s just had published in prestigious journal to ensure woke editors ran it – that 80% of wildfires are started by humans’ and ‘Editor of Nature journal slams climate scientist Patrick Brown’s ‘highly irresponsible’ research after he said publications reject studies that don’t ‘support certain narratives’’.
It is not clear what Dr Brown’s motives are for making such false allegations, but his claims are now fuelling media-led propaganda to mislead the public about the risks of climate change.