I have a letter in the current issue of issues in Science and Technology. It is a response to an article by Adam Briggle that calls for what he labels the “responsible rhetoric of research” (RRR) to sit alongside the “standard definition of research misconduct” as falsification, fabrication and plagiarism (FFP). My work is offered up as an example of irresponsible research, even though, in Briggle’s word it appears to be “logically, or empirically, flawless.”
My irresponsibility apparently results from the fact that Briggle’s political opponents might cite my work in support of their views. It is not clear if Briggle is intimating a need for formal sanctioning (a la FFP) or simply rallying social approbation upon me. Either way, it is a chilling message. My full letter appears here and after the break.
In “Fear Mongering and Fact Mongering” (Issues, Fall 2018), Adam Briggle notes that he was a graduate student in one of my classes some 15 years ago. In fact, he was much more than that; he remains one of the most talented thinkers and writers whom I have had the pleasure to teach in my career. So, when he writes, I read with interest.
Briggle argues that we should consider augmenting the standard definition of research misconduct (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism, or FFP) with a new category of misconduct, which he calls the “responsible rhetoric of research” (RRR). To illustrate violations of RRR, he cites two researchers whose work, in his view, illustrates irresponsibility.
The first is Bjorn Lomborg, whose “sins” are well-documented. His book The Skeptical Environmentalist, published in 2003, argued that the state of the environment was better than often portrayed. Like Julian Simon before and Hans Rosling since, Lomborg is part of a longstanding academic and political tradition. Lomborg’s book met with fierce opposition, including demands from other academics and scientists that his publisher drop his book, an investigation by a Danish investigatory body, and demonization by many of his peers, continuing today. Briggle joins with Lomborg’s many critics to express concern about the political implications of his writing, worrying that Lomborg’s views could “cause irrational calm and complacency.”
As his second example of irresponsibility, Briggle targets me. I’ve long argued that the world has seen a dramatic drop in lives lost to disasters, and that as poverty around the world has been reduced, the economic toll of disasters has not increased as fast as increasing global wealth. This is indeed good news. These are hardly controversial views, as they are also conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produces periodic assessments of climate science, impacts, and economics, as well as being indicators of progress under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Briggle notes that my work is, from his position, “logically, or empirically, flawless.” He then offers a cartoonish characterization of my political views: “Pielke is not a climate denier. In fact, he advocates for a carbon tax.” Despite these apparent virtues, Briggle views my writing as presenting a “danger” because political actors who he apparently opposes might “make hay” with “good news facts.”
As with Lomborg, here as well Briggle is late to the party. In 2014, my research related to disasters led a group of climate scientists and journalists to campaign (successfully) to have me removed as a writer for Nate Silver’s website FiveThirtyEight. The following year a member of the US Congress suggested that I might be taking secret money from fossil fuel companies and had me formally investigated by my university. Of course, the investigation cleared me of the baseless smear, but even so, severe damage was done to my career. Nonetheless, I continue to write and publish in the peer-reviewed literature, in popular outlets, and in policy settings.
I welcome Briggle’s disagreement with the substance, focus, or rhetoric of my writing. His sharp mind and incisive writing can help us all to become smarter. However, Briggle’s suggestion to equate judgments of RRR with FFP represents yet another effort from within the academy to silence others whose views are deemed politically unwelcome or unacceptable. At most research institutions, the penalties for researchers who engage in FFP are severe, and often include termination of employment. Of course, Briggle is not alone in sending a powerful and chilling message about which views are deemed acceptable and which are not.
Briggle says these are “vexed matters, and not amenable to easy answers.” To the contrary, the answer here is simple.
Let me simply point to an article by Lomborg’s editor, Chris Harrison of Cambridge University Press, published in 2004 in Environmental Science & Policy. In it, Harrison cites an editorial in the March 8, 2002, issue of Science by its editor, Donald Kennedy, on responsible behavior when it comes to publishing views that some may object to: “I have been asked, Why are you going forward with a paper attached to so much controversy? Well, that’s what we do; our mission is to put interesting, potentially important science into public view after ensuring its quality as best as we possibly can. After that, efforts at repetition and reinterpretation can take place out in the open. That’s where it belongs, not in an alternative universe in which anonymity prevails, rumor leaks out, and facts stay inside. It goes without saying that we cannot publish papers with a guarantee that every result is right. We’re not that smart. That is why we are prepared for occasional disappointment when our internal judgments and our processes of external review turn out to be wrong, and a provocative result is not fully confirmed. What we ARE very sure of is that publication is the right option, even—and perhaps especially—when there is some controversy.”
University of Colorado
US Representative A. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Adam Briggles’ Deep Thoughts on RRR when she said, “There’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”