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Patrick Brown's recycled hallucination of climate science

Posted on 15 September 2023 by Doug Bostrom

Creating external costs

Coming off very much as a disgruntled ex-academic, the Breakthrough Institute's Patrick Brown recently blew his top over what some might interpret as frustration about failure to place enough articles on their own merit into "prestige" journals. Brown decided to deal with that by tactical expediency, leaving him feeling squeamish and seeking to explain and justify himself— by smearing his former colleagues in research. Brown vents his pent-up feelings in an op-ed which has poured like sweet music into the desperately thirsty and pathetically grateful ears of climate science deniers spanning the globe.

We'll be hearing echoes of Brown's impulsively emotional blurt for a very long time given that workable material for climate contrarians to repeat is scanty— meaning Brown has caused durable material harm to climate progress. It's to no good end. There's no silver lining here, no net gain, no legitimate cause being promoted; Brown's opinions are easily shown as factually incorrect.

Brown's screed hinges on a set of bold claims in connection with a paper recently published in Nature for which he was lead author. The underpinnings of Brown's assertions are that he's juiced his work into rare success by employing deceptive practices. He frames his argument as a mea culpa, belated regret over choices he freely made and apparently would now like to excuse by scapegoating bystanders— another risky choice. From his anecdotal self-imposed experience through creating an outlier report, Brown concludes that he "knows" things:

"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."

"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."

"The first thing the astute climate researcher knows is that his or her work should support the mainstream narrative..."

"...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."

Brown is long on accusations but comes up short on evidence, in common with previous variations on a broad theme we've often heard: "climate science and academic peer review are suborned by a cabal of [globalists] [communists] [progressives] [other conspiratorial hobbyhorse]." And scientists, of course. We've already read these scripts and "scientists are corrupt" is boringly familiar— and wrong. 

Osteoporotic rhetorical skeleton

What's Brown offering in his personal interpretation of "they're all in it for..." beyond decorated splutter? Less than nothing.

It's possible to cherrypick for rhetorical purposes, of course. Brown offers a hopeful smoking gun by trashing another paper in Nature.

"... 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."

Of course they don't. These things are not the topic of the paper, which is explicitly intended to be a distillation of damages specifically attributable to CO2. Ask yourself: would a paper quantifying impacts of failing to use seatbelts swerve into a discussion of people falling from ladders and how fall arrestors might help with that, because both situations involve sudden stops on hard surfaces? No. Tangential irrelevancies are simply a distraction; there's no need to invent a nefarious purpose explaining "we're sticking with our advertised topic."

Continuing in a polemical vein, Brown incompetently lodges an accusation by implication:

"...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.)"

"Startling?" Forest management practics as well as human ignition sources are frequently acknowledged and discussed in a list (see below) of published academic articles we very easily produced, each often in plain sight without even passing through abstracts. What's truly startling is how Brown is telling us nothing anybody faintly acquainted with this topic doesn't already know, information easily found in all the appropriate places needed for a full picture of wildfire and climate change. Leaving aside academic literature, it's mundanely routine for readers of newspapers to read of human factors other than climate change involved in wildfire. In sum, what looks like attempted cognitive shortcircuit by gaslighting.

Solipsistic tautology fails to describe climate science

Brown's "I know" is pure speculation, a set of unfalsifiable claims marching in company with an army of other silly conspiracy theories about climate science and climate scientists. Meanwhile, if we remember that we're in a world of facts as opposed to overheated imagination, there's plenty of actual history we can use to evaluate Brown's indictment. Even assuming we're hearing a forthright description of his Nature paper's circumstances, we can see that Brown's work is a distinct outlier compared to most of what appears in an overall bibliography of typical related reports.

Below is a partial (life is short) inventory of papers published over the past three years which deal with wildfire and climate and that happened to be included in our weekly New Research listing. The listing was derived from a dump of our database of articles including "fire" in the title, narrowing results on general relevance to the topic at hand, namely wildfire and climate change. Brief scrutiny reveals that they consistently fail to fit Brown's disturbing narrative and worldview. Despite his urgency to project his own perspective (and self-admitted apparent misbehavior) onto the habits of the scientific community at large, none of these papers reflect what he purports to be standard operating procedure.

In this sample of reports we can see a common thread: climate change is a factor in wildfire among many others, is a growing component as we'd expect, and it's normal and ubiquitous that researchers acknowledge complications of wildfire factor attribution and weighting. 

As with the example above where Brown wishes researchers would diverge from their topic and dive into happy-talk about good things that might happen, we don't see these articles serving the role of incoherent melanges of fresh research results and wishful thinking. If they did, they'd be rejected for the obvious reasons that time and space don't need to be wasted in that way, and that popular literature is the better avenue for such mixtures.

Climate research barycenter misidentified

Brown seems particularly fixated on "prestige" journals, an impoverished and myopic perspective personal to himself and unreflective of the center of gravity of academic research on climate, which as with our solar system doesn't lie in the most massive shiny object in plain view. Our quick list includes articles from Nature's own journal family collection and an example from AAAS Science, but the vast majority of climate-related research is published in other journals such as Geophysical Research Letters and JGR Atmospheres. These journals don't operate in hermetic isolation from one another; reviewers and editors alike are found wearing many hats in many places. It's not remotely likely that a particular bent of bias could be maintained in some journals while others are chosen to be unaffected. As with so many other conspiracy ideations, Brown's includes too many moving parts to be plausible.

Leaving aside comically implausible logistical mechanics of Brown's claims of systemic bias, it's trivially easy to find deflating examples from his favorite scapegoat Nature, leaving his imaginary scenario hanging without support. Readers may take a look for themselves, but meanwhile our quick survey of Nature articles over the past five years includes many blatantly obvious disproofs, such as Marine heatwaves are not a dominant driver of change in demersal fishes and Forced changes in the Pacific Walker circulation over the past millennium, both published only last month and of course easily visible to anybody not trapped in a bubble of motivated reasoning.  

So, we can see that Brown's perceptions and choices of strategies and tactics as key means of achieving publication success are belied in black and white. His hypothesis of a tacit conspiracy to distort scientific reports on climate change is factually incorrect and dipping far into deeply absurd.

With 37 recent contradictory examples so readily available (including some glossy journals of the type in which he ironically yearns to appear) it seems that Brown's unoriginal personal take on climate science conspiracy is full of holes, one way or another. A better and more productive course for Brown might be to submit articles reporting research on topics of genuine interest to him in publications with a natural fit, even though doing so might mean they're published in more usefully appropriate journals such as Nature Climate Change rather than the generalist Nature, where findings from a plethora of fields jostle for limited attention.

Missing the forest for the trees 

Is there anything substantive in Brown's plaint? He asks "So why does the press focus so intently on climate change as the root cause?" That's easy to answer, but it has nothing to do with the formal editorial or review processes of journals. Brown doesn't seem to understand but it's important for the rest of us to remember: large publishers maintain vigorous and competent press offices; what we see emerging into popular view in mass media is indeed certainly selected and styled as catnip. Battery chemistry and human health sciences are also reliable fodder for flaks. But journal press offices don't accept, review and publish research investigation reports. Assuming we're not looking at a persuasive economy of truth, Brown's expressed ignorance of the media food chain leads him into sloppy slander.

Recent routinely circumspect research reports on climate change in connnection with wildfire:

Abrupt, climate-induced increase in wildfires in British Columbia since the mid-2000s, Parisien et al., Communications Earth & Environment Open Access pdf 10.1038/s43247-023-00977-1

Anthropogenic climate change impacts exacerbate summer forest fires in California, Turco et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Open Access 10.1073/pnas.2213815120

Assessing the role of compound drought and heatwave events on unprecedented 2020 wildfires in the Pantanal, Libonati et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/ac462e

Atmospheric variability contributes to increasing wildfire weather but not as much as global warming, Diffenbaugh et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Open Access 10.1073/pnas.2117876118

Bottom-up drivers of future fire regimes in western boreal North America, Foster et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access pdf 10.1088/1748-9326/ac4c1e

Causes and consequences of eastern Australia's 2019-20 season of mega-fires, Nolan et al., Global Change Biology Open Access pdf 10.1111/gcb.14987

Causes of the Widespread 2019–2020 Australian Bushfire Season, Deb et al., Earth's Future 10.1029/2020ef001671

Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California, Goss et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/ab83a7

Climate regime shift and forest loss amplify fire in Amazonian forest, Xu et al., Global Change Biology Open Access pdf 10.1111/gcb.15279

Climate, fuel, and land use shaped the spatial pattern of wildfire in California's Sierra Nevada, Chen et al., Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences 10.1029/2020jg005786

Climate-driven Mediterranean fire hazard assessments for 2020–2100 on the light of past millennial variability, Lestienne et al., Climatic Change 10.1007/s10584-021-03258-y

Climatology and trend analysis (1987 – 2016) of fire weather in the Euro-Mediterranean, Giannaros et al., International Journal of Climatology 10.1002/joc.6701

Contrasting the role of human- and lightning-caused wildfires on future fire regimes on a Central Oregon landscape, Barros et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/ac03da

Fires prime terrestrial organic carbon for riverine export to the global oceans, Jones et al., Nature Communications Open Access pdf 10.1038/s41467-020-16576-z

How climate change and fire exclusion drive wildfire regimes at actionable scales, Hanan et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/abd78e

Human-caused fires release more carbon than lightning-caused fires in the conterminous United States, Liu & Yang, Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/abcbbc

Impacts of California’s climate-relevant land use policy scenarios on terrestrial carbon emissions (CO 2 and CH 4 ) and wildfire risk, Simmonds et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/abcc8d

Increased extreme fire weather occurrence in southeast Australia and related atmospheric drivers, Richardson et al., Weather and Climate Extremes Open Access 10.1016/j.wace.2021.100397

Increasing large wildfires over the western United States linked to diminishing sea ice in the Arctic, Zou et al., Nature Communications Open Access pdf 10.1038/s41467-021-26232-9

Increasing synchronous fire danger in forests of the western United States, Abatzoglou et al., Geophysical Research Letters Open Access pdf 10.1029/2020gl091377

Large wildfire driven increases in nighttime fire activity observed across CONUS from 2003–2020, Freeborn et al., Remote Sensing of Environment Open Access 10.1016/j.rse.2021.112777

Letter to the editor on “Nonlinear dynamics of fires in Africa over recent decades controlled by precipitation”, Zubkova & Giglio, Global Change Biology Open Access pdf 10.1111/gcb.16021

Meteorological environments associated with California wildfires and their potential roles in wildfire changes during 1984-2017, Dong et al., Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 10.1029/2020jd033180

Nonlinear dynamics of fires in Africa over recent decades controlled by precipitation, Wei et al., Global Change Biology Open Access 10.1111/gcb.15190

On the prevalence of forest fires in Spain, Boccard, Natural Hazards Open Access pdf 10.1007/s11069-022-05384-x

Projected increases in western US forest fire despite growing fuel constraints, Abatzoglou et al., Communications Earth & Environment Open Access pdf 10.1038/s43247-021-00299-0

Quantifying contributions of natural variability and anthropogenic forcings on increased fire weather risk over the western United States, Zhuang et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Open Access 10.1073/pnas.2111875118

Record-setting climate enabled the extraordinary 2020 fire season in the western United States, Higuera & Abatzoglou, Global Change Biology Open Access pdf 10.1111/gcb.15388

Relationships of climate, human activity, and fire history to spatiotemporal variation in annual fire probability across California, Park et al., PLOS ONE Open Access pdf 10.1371/journal.pone.0254723

Response to concerns about the African fire trends controlled by precipitation over recent decades, Wei et al., Global Change Biology Open Access pdf 10.1111/gcb.16020

The Australian wildfires from a systems dependency perspective, Handmer et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/abc0bc

The effect of climate change on indicators of fire danger in the UK, Arnell et al., Environmental Research Letters Open Access 10.1088/1748-9326/abd9f2

Towards a comprehensive look at global drivers of novel extreme wildfire events, Duane et al., Climatic Change 10.1007/s10584-021-03066-4

Tree planting: A double-edged sword to fight climate change in an era of megafires, Hermoso et al., Global Change Biology Open Access pdf 10.1111/gcb.15625

Trends and patterns in annually burned forest areas and fire weather across the European boreal zone in the 20th and early 21st centuries, Drobyshev et al., Agricultural and Forest Meteorology Open Access 10.1016/j.agrformet.2021.108467

Wildfire combustion and carbon stocks in the southern Canadian boreal forest: Implications for a warming world, Dieleman et al., Global Change Biology Open Access pdf 10.1111/gcb.15158

Wildfire response to changing daily temperature extremes in California’s Sierra Nevada, Gutierrez et al., Science Advances Open Access pdf 10.1126/sciadv.abe6417

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. Was this a deliberate hoax by Brown or him just being petulant?

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  2. All hands on board! Each point of view should be heard. Teaming up will be the only answer. 

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  3. shoyemore... The whole thing, to me, sounds like a conclusion grasping for a rationalization where there was none. 

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  4. CORK

    "All hands on board! Each point of view should be heard. Teaming up will be the only answer."

    Not clear what you mean by this, but if you mean warmists should team up with denialists I think you are completely wrong. Any teaming up must be with people who accept the complete basics of climate science and the need for a robust mitigation response, or there is no point. Some things in life can legitamately involve compromise, but not scientitic truths, or the need for a strong mitigation response.


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  5. Good. You are hitting back hard against the denialists and cranks (metaphorically speaking). Best article this website has done in ages.

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  6. shoyemore

    "Was this a deliberate hoax by Brown or him just being petulant?"

    Browns main evidence free allegation appears to be journals like Nature only publish work that fits some warmist narrative. Brown is probably suffereing from petulance due to an over active imagination and paranoia that they are conspiring against sceptics.

    We are perhaps all susceptible to this pretulance and paranoia to some extent. For example if one of my comments posted on websites doesn't get published, I get suspicious of their motives. But when I reflect on the issue there is a good technical reason why the comment didn't get published. Brown "spat the dummy" in a big way and very publicly (NZ vernacular for petulance).

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  7. Nigelj

    I do not know Mr Brown at all therefore I won't comment on his papers, opinions etc...

    Nevertheless, I opened the link to the Breakthrough Institute and all I found were articles promoting the reduction of greenhouses gasses emissions by expanding the use of Throrium/Uranium in pre-existing nuclear plants and other plants to be built in the emergent countries where no other option may be available.

    The articles mentionned at lenght the urgent climate issue and the absolute need to reduce to zero the emissions of GHG. 

    Are there 2 different Breakthrough Institute? Maybe I can't read english?

    Anyhow when I wrote "All hands on board! Each point of view should be heard. Teaming up will be the only answer." I meant that thorium/uranium are tools in the box and it may not be possible to do without them. 

    Now honest, I did not appreciate to be jumped at aggressively and I hope it is the last time. 

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  8. Cork@7.

    "Nevertheless, I opened the link to the Breakthrough Institute and all I found were articles promoting the reduction of greenhouses gasses emissions by expanding the use of Throrium/Uranium in pre-existing nuclear plants and other plants to be built in the emergent countries where no other option may be available."

    When I opened the link I found articles on multiple different power sources, food and agriculture, and more issues. Listed right on the opening pages and menu bar.

    The articles promoted nuclear power and mostly cricised wind and solar power judging by the titles. The articles leaned strongly towards free market solutions rather than governmnet lead solutions so there is a clear ideological leaning.

    Out of curiosity I googled The Breakthrough Institute:

    "Tucked away in the heart of liberal Berkeley is one of the most controversial organizations in the environmental movement: the Breakthrough Institute, known for advocating for nuclear energy and a pugilistic approach to disagreement."

    "The think tank’s critics, who include prominent advocates and researchers, decry the group as advancing right-wing ideas and say its policy proposals would delay action on climate change. But if the Breakthrough Institute’s leaders are to be believed, they are reformers with a 21st century strategy for solving the planet’s problems......"

    SF Chronical article

    "While sometimes functioning as shadow universities, think tanks have been exposed as quasi lobbying organizations, with little funding transparency. Recent research has also pointed out that think tanks suffer from a lack of intellectual rigor. A case in point is the Breakthrough Institute run by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, which describes itself as a "progressive think tank."

    "The Breakthrough Institute has a clear history as a contrarian outlet for information on climate change and regularly criticizes environmental groups. One writer describes them as a “program for hippie-punching your way to fame and fortune.” So it was not shocking to see their column last Wednesday in the New York Times criticizing a new documentary on climate change that was put together by award-winning journalists. In their article, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger state that the documentary will raise public skepticism about climate change because it uses scare tactics......"

    "Anyhow when I wrote "All hands on board! Each point of view should be heard. Teaming up will be the only answer." I meant that thorium/uranium are tools in the box and it may not be possible to do without them."

    Possibly. I have no objection to the use of nuclear power in principle. I'm somewhat energy agnostic as long as its clean, zero carbon energy (or close to it). Nuclear power is essentially clean zero carbon energy.

    That said, nuclear power is not looking like a big part of the climate solution.  Its too slow to build, its very expensive to build, its more expensive generation than wind and solar power (refer to an energy analysis like Lazard), and there are problems with waste disposal.

    Uranium is a finite resource and one of the less common minerals in the earths crust, and it cant be recycled like materials used in wind power turbines. Nuclear power is not liked by the general public in western countries due to the perceived danger (this may be overblown but perceptions are perceptions.)

    Its therefore unlikely generating companies or governmnets in western democracies would choose nuclear power right now. And its totally understandable. Its up to the nuclear industry to solve these problems. Nobody else can solve them.

    Personally I think we should push ahead with things like wind and solar power and perhaps nuclear power might eventually become part of the mix. Many countries have traditionally had a mixture of electricity generation. I suspect looking for the one perfect generating source is a delusion.

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Shortened link

  9. Converting Uranium only plants to thorium /uranium plants would reduce many of the issues. Thorium is widespread in vast volumes all over the planet and it cannot be used to make nuclear weapons.

    Anyhow, thanks for your comprehensive answer.  

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  10. Cork:

    It is impossible to convert existing uranium plants to thorium.  Thorium plants have to be specifically designed to be breeder plants.  No comercial plants are breeder plants. Breeder plants are much more expensive and difficult to design and run than once through plants.  A thorium supporter here at SkS referred me to a design that used 5000 Kg of bomb grade uranium to start up.  What could possibly go wrong with that???

    There is not as much economically recoverable thorium in the Earth as you think.

    Nuclear supporters with fantasies of replacing uranium straight up with throium are completely uninformed about how nuclear plants work.  Why do you believe the propaganda you hear from individuals who are completely uninformed?

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  11. International Atomic Energy Agency › newscenter › news › thoriums-lon...

    Maybe not today, maybe tomorrow. 

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Added link for readers' benefit (you can actually do this yourself, CORK)

  12. I come fron a country that has relied heavily on nuclear for 60 years, initially chosen to reduce dependence on foreign fossil fuels. Undeniable success has been reached in that pursuit and it has now the consequence of maintaining a lower per capita carbon footprint that many other industrialized nations. However, it was not without costs and difficulties.

    More recently, the building of nuclear plants has shown to inevitably happen over multiple times the time initially planned, and for a multiple of the cost (see Olkiluoto, adn Flamanville). That is a real problem.

    In the US, the other problem is the commercial structure of energy production. Nobody has the enormous amount of money to build these plants, certainly not without public based participation or guarantees. What I see amounts to private actors asking for public money to build rather pharaonic facilities, that they later expect to operate as if they were private properties. Not OK.

    There are other problems with nuclear relying on fission. Material availability and the very large delays to come online are 2 major ones. We'll see what happens to the plant being built by Gates in Wyoming.

    I believe that an all-out effort toward fusion is a much better way to look at the longer term future. In the meantime, all low hanging fruits should be picked, and I'm not sure nuclear costs, engineering challenges and delays place it in that category. Existing plants certainly should be exploited for everything they can give. 

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  13. Heh. Is a variation of "Godwin's Law" that all discussions about climate mitigation converge on nuclear power?

    I like Philippe's circumspect synopsis. Maybe that's because my own perspective is shaped by being a Washington, USA resident. Washington's experience is a case study of the factors Philippe mentions, which I think hinge on our enduring optimism as a species. The more challenging a problem, the more our instinct to optimism is called into play.

    Here in Washington, long ago, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPS) pursued an ambitious multi-plant nuclear generator construction program. It failed spectacularly, for all the reason Phillippe mentions. It came to be known as "WHOOPS," a mocking reference to the agency in charge. 

    Now, decades later, WPPS is renamed Energy Northwest and is once again pursuing nuclear power, full of optimism. Once again, our rose-tinted vision is being blasted by the harsh glare of implementation problems. See this item for "history doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes:" Small reactors at Hanford: Déjà vu all over again.

    For my part I feel as though fission power is uniquely unforgiving of human nature, starting with "here's the construction budget," continuing through "we grow bored and lazy with routine operation, and we're not good with long term institutional memory" while passing by greed and conflicted objectives in connection with "I want more for myself." Add to that a tendency to political instability at various levels over the span of time needing continuous perfection for safely handling nuclear generation assets. The results of ineluctable human nature in the case of this technology are in turn also uniquely unforgiving; we're not permitted or able to forget or ignore or ameliorate our mistakes in the same way as with our other artifacts.

    France's experience is the very best we can do, the result of a very particular relationship between the generation system and its harboring state, and rare stability. Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi and Zaporizhzhia have to be included in the spectrum of known outcomes and undeniable facts on the ground, as well as Washington's first failure and what appears to be evolving into its second.

    We consistently confuse good luck with skill. If we're OK in consensus with certain statistical rates of fiscal or physical or political disasters— good luck exhausted— then by all means let's use nuclear fission for power generation. But let's stop lying to ourselves about its characteristics when collided with human nature.  

    "This time will be different!" No. Our renewable energy of optimism fails to encompass that our species and our behaviors are constants even as we fiddle with the edges of nuclear physics to make it more friendly to our defects. The main engineering problem lies between our ears, and it's not likely we'll reach a state of perfection inside that confused space. 

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  14. Nuclear is off topic here.  I have responded on topic here.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Thank you Michael. Was getting ready to intervene. Any discussions on nuclear energy belong on the thread that Michael has directed you to. That thread was created specifically to keep the nuclear "Godwin's law" out of other threads.

  15. Moderator. I couldn't remember the name of the thread on nuclear power, and I can't find it being mentioned in the list of climate myths or elswehere on the home page. It might be worth considering having a short list of selected climate  artilces below the list of climate myths, obviously including the nuclear page.

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