The Mechanism of Scientific Stupidity

Wouldn't it be great to have every stupid person masquerading as being intelligent to jump up and self-identify as being stupid? I just finished a post on Cipolla's theory of stupidity.

Here I address the presence of stupidity in the upper levels of academia and in scientific research and its publication. As I said there, there are as many stupid people in academics and research as there are in prison. I know many in the sciences (and out) here at Utah Valley University.

In early September, 2023, there was a conference on catastrophic risk. Roger Pielke Jr. sat on one panel discussing climate headlines and climate reality. He said it was agreed that the gap between them was sometimes very large. Some on the panel were angry at the way the media treats science. A speaker for the insurance industry said that they were preparing for a disaster, but so far it is undetectable in the insurance losses. You'd never know that from the media headlines nor the back pages.

Patrick Brown, who just published a climate change paper in Nature, just published an opinion piece startlingly titled, I left Out the Full Truth to Get My Climate Paper Published on The Free Press website. He cites headlines about wildfires this summer:

Here’s the APClimate 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 TimesHow Climate Change Turned Lush Hawaii Into a Tinderbox.

And BloombergMaui Fires Show Climate Change’s Ugly Reach.

His scientific opinion is far different: 

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.

Blockbuster admission. The climate change narrative has become so pervasive that you can't reliable publish without focusing on it, even when your data tells you something else is the cause. He continues:

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. 

The story the journals want to tell. Why would that be a thing? Isn't it the scientists who determine which story they want to tell, or better yet, which story the data tells? Apparently not. It's important to be published in a prestigious journal, and scientists turn sideways to make that happen if the journal editors want that.

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. 

And why do the editors want a specific narrative?

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. 

Boom. Now is the time to refresh yourself on the theory of stupidity.

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.

Brown tells us how it's done:

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. 

See how much self editing (self censoring) the scientist must do? It's massive. He can't tell the truth; only the media narrative can be told, which the scientist knows is a lie.

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.

Brown mentions a third trick, focus on the eye-popping numbers, ones easily repeated by the press who don't understand the science but need a headline. Then fame pours into the scientist and funding follows. I'll remind the reader that the university PR teams are the absolute best at twisting good science into garish headlines and they start a lot of press for new science papers.

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. 

Ah, the future. It's so easy to predict what will happen in the future, except when it gets here.

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. 

So it was always about control and the politics to make it happen. We are definitely in the area of stupidity, I'm afraid. A non-real worldview sustains the climate-change narrative so that people known for making bad choices can have more power. Yikes.

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. 

Brown leaves us with some good advice:

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. 

I wish him luck. It's nice to hear a climate scientist come clean, when we've known or suspected something was very wrong. I hope the press sees his writing and gets off their collective butts and start to read the paper they report on. Maybe we can get the science going again.



Comments are closed