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Book Review - The Hockey Stick Illusion - A.W. Montford

The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science by A.W. Montford

Stacey International, 2010, ISBN 978-1-906768-35-5, £10.99, 482pp.

 

Review by Alastair McIntosh for the Scottish Review of Books, 14 August 2010

 

This 700-word review is also available on the Scottish Review of Books website at this link along with a crop of near-identical responses suggesting that I had not read Andrew Montford's book.  Readers of this might also be interested in my review of "Chill" by climate change contrarian Peter Taylor which, as of summer 2010, is the subject of a public debate between me and Taylor on the website of ECOS - the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists.

 

Also on this page are:

a) Response to the backlash provoked by this review on Montford's blog and in Wikipedia's discussion

b) Responses from Monbiot, Ward and Abbess to the "Bishop Hill" bloggers

c) A partial list of web references used in writing this review (may be useful to others researching this issue)

 

The Review

 

The “hockey stick” is a graph showing the Earth’s temperature relatively constant for the past thousand years but then, like a hockey stick’s blade, rising sharply from about 1900 when human-induced greenhouse gas emissions seriously kicked in.

 

But according to A.W. Montford’s “definitive exposé”, it’s just not true.

 

The captain of Montford’s “Hockey Team” is the renowned American climatologist, Michael Mann, and at least forty-two named co-conspirators from amongst acclaimed scientists.

 

Their motivation? To keep the hockey-stick’s handle long and flat. Why? Because “the flatter the representation [before the upward swing] … the scarier were the conclusions” (p. 27).

 

To generate the scare, and with it, win grant-grubbing political prestige, required massaging out the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) – an epoch that lasted 300 years until 1250, when Vikings swashbuckled Greenland and wine from home-grown grapes swilled the manor halls of England.

 

Had the MWP been left in, claims Montford, the temperature curve for the past millennium would look more U-shaped. This would have diminished the case for human-induced global warming, obviating the urgency to discomfort ourselves by cutting CO2 emissions.

 

Montford claims that the MWP was airbrushed out by cherry-picking and statistically steamrollering tree-ring data – one of the proxies used to reconstruct past planetary temperatures. Leaked East Anglia emails clinch the case. Bottom line: the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate has “proven itself to be corrupt, biased and beset by conflicts of interest…. There is no conceivable way that politicians can justify this failing to their electorates. They have no choice but to start again” (pp. 390-1).

 

But who is Montford, and what his sources?

 

Andrew Montford, a chartered accountant with a BSc in chemistry from St Andrews University, is better known as the pseudonymous blogger, Bishop Hill - self-described as “the dissentient afflicted with the malady of thought.”

 

His book’s opening paragraph tells how he learned the intricacies of climate science by reading Climate Audit – the blog of Canadian mining consultant, Steve McIntyre. He relates: “While some of the statistics was (sic) over my head … I wondered if my newly-found understanding of the debate would enable me to take on … a public duty to make the story more widely known” (p. 13).

 

After posting a summary to Bishop Hill  “my sleepy and relatively obscure website [turned] into a hive of activity, with thirty thousand hits being received over the following three days … saying nice things about what I had written [and] even an attempt to use my article as a source document for Wikipedia” (pp. 13-14).

 

But McIntyre’s attack on Mann is strongly contested. A study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution concluded that McIntyre had overplayed his hand. A German appraisal picked up “a glitch” but “found this glitch to be of very minor significance.” An investigation by the US National Academy of Sciences, according to a report in Nature, “essentially upholds Mann’s findings.” And a review this year by Mann’s own university exonerated him, not necessarily of all error (which is inevitable in fast-evolving scientific fields), but of “any wrongdoing”.

 

Even if Mann were guilty as charged by the climate change contrarians the hockey stick has been replicated by at least a dozen other studies. Above all, the MWP is probably a red herring. Its warming effect was probably more regional than global. A parallel would be our past winter which was exceptionally cold regionally in Europe, but globally the hottest that NASA has ever recorded.

 

Montford’s analysis might cut the mustard with tabloid intellectuals but not with most scientists. Credibility counts. Mann has published over a hundred relevant contributions to scholarly journals compared, seemingly, with McIntyre, three, and Montford, nil. Meanwhile, Mann and his colleagues get on with refining their methods and datasets, publishing in such world-renowned journals such as Nature and Science.

 

The Hockey Stick Illusion might serve a psychological need in those who can’t face their own complicity in climate change, but at the end of the day it’s exactly what it says on the box: a write-up of somebody else’s blog.

 

At best it will help to keep already-overstretched scientists “on their toes”. At worst, it’s a yapping terrier worrying the bull; a spinning ball that cripples action, potentially costing lives and livelihoods.

 

 

Alastair McIntosh of the Centre for Human Ecology is a visiting professor at Strathclyde University and author of Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition.

 

 

 

Response to the backlash to this review

 

I was invited to write this review by the Scottish Review of Books as a Scottish writer with a published record on climate change issues. Following its appearance there has been a huge backlash on Andrew Montford's blog, where he represents himself as "Bishop Hill", signs himself off with a Gothic cross, and is referred to by readers by such titles as "Yer Grace". All good fun, I agree, but serious science? See here (for responses to Montford's alert about the review) and here (for  followers responding to Montford's pondering as to how he might respond to my review).

 

The review has also set off debate amongst the editors of "The Hockey Stick Illusion" entry on Wikipedia, which can be read in the "Discussion" to that entry. I have input to this one because, within a day of the review being published on 14 Aug 2010, there had been several pages of debate about its suitability for use in Wikipedia. Some editors considered it an important review - apparently it is the first critical one - and wanted to use it as a basis for re-writing the entry. Others, and Mark Nutley in particular, persisted in insisting that the review failed to meet Wikipedia criteria because, he tried to make out, a) the Scottish Review of Books is a one-man self-published show (as distinct from being the leading Scottish literary review paper that it is), and b) there was, he maintained, no evidence that I was the Alastair McIntosh I appeared to be. On this basis Nutley attempted to have all reference to my criticism of Andrew Montford removed from Wikipedia. I put the record straight in the hope of averting not the usual identity theft, but identity denial. Meanwhile, what had blown up into an editorial dispute was referred to the Wikipedia arbitration process and the entry for "The Hockey Stick Illusion" was frozen from having changes made until the matter is resolved.

 

The main thrust of my critics on the Montford / Bishop Hill blog site, in the responses that some of them (I suspect, mostly the same people) have made on the SRB's comments section (at the foot of their book reviews page), and in the Wikipedia discussion, is a presumption that I have not read the book, but have pre-judged it and made an ad hominen (against the person rather than against the argument) attack on Montford. There anger is, to paraphrase one respondent, is that I have attempted to knock their knight off his steed rather than addressing the issues that he has raised. These issues, they consider, are substantial because they discredit not only the IPCC climate scientist Michael Mann, but also his "Hockey Team" of 42 other climate change scientists that Montford connects together in a web diagram (p. 254), and it all ties in with the supposed University of East Anglia leaked-emails debate around the "hockey stick". My personal ethos is to try and go "gentle on the people; heavy on the issues," but sometimes it is the people who are the issue, as I have suggested in my response to the Wikipedia discussion, as follows:

Response by review author, Alastair McIntosh

Hello ... this is Alastair McIntosh speaking - the one who wrote the review in Scottish Review of Books. It is not fitting for me to comment on most of this debate. Suffice to say that I am delighted to see the rigour with which it is being conducted. It is, however, fitting for me to say that I am indeed the Alastair McIntosh that your links have identified. Also, that the Scottish Review of Books is Scotland's leading such journal and is not a self-published work or a blog. It is distributed in the Herald newspaper, one of Scotland's two newspapers of record, and this particular edition is also being distributed in some sort of link with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Alan Taylor may be the overall editor, but he is not the staff member who commissioned the review from me.

May I comment on the proposals to use what I have said towards a summary of what Mr Montford's book is about? I think it would be fair to draw on my material as a partial source, but my review, for which I only had 700 words, does not attempt to be a comprehensive summary of his arguments. Instead, I used most of my space to demonstrate that Mr Montford is a non-starter as far as I am concerned because he, and for the mostpart, the people whose blogs he is using as his source material, are not peer reviewed in this area of science. My review is therefore more about what constitutes science than it is about what Montford actually says. It's bottom line is that while the book might represent Mr Montford's opinion, it does not represent science, and therefore I'm not interested in engaging very deeply with his arguments even if I were suitably qualified so to do, which, as a human ecologist, I am not.

I was alerted to this discussion happening by Mark Nutley's comment on Montford's blog, "Bishop Hill", where he wrote on 15th Aug: "Martin A, i hate to have to tell you this but they are delighted at this review over at wiki. One user has stated he will use it to rewrite the synopsis and also use it to call Andrew a conspiracy theorist, this sadly is honey for the worker bee`s over at wiki :( ". It was either on that blog or in the SRB's comments section that I noted somebody questioning whether I would have been paid for writing this review. For the sake of transparency, let me answer "yes." I get paid the standard book review fee that, as I understand it, the SRB as a literary journal offers to all its reviewers.

Most of the bloggers attacking the review (over 50 on the Bishop Hill site so far) are making the assumption that I did not read the book. On the contrary, it took me a week's work to read it, check out Montford's arguments without attempting to judge them beyond what the peer reviewed science supports, and write the piece. This need to write with extreme caution is why, I think, you have been finding that most serious climate change researchers just ignore the contrarians - to engage with them is costly in time, unproductive of results, and potentially risky on the legal front if they happen to say something in error. I have engaged with both Montford and Peter Taylor (author of Chill) because I have been concerned at how parts of the media have amplified their arguments, but it is not a form of engagement that I intend to make my hobby, and forgive me if I do not engage with the ongoing discussion on this fascinating page. Best wishes,Alastair McIntosh (talk) 21:48, 16 August 2010 (UTC)

The problem that is perceived in my position, and which can make it feel very disempowering to those may not have a scientific education and proven themselves credible in a given field, is that science is not democratic. Its logic requires a person to make up their own mind within parameters that demand epistemological humility - that is to say, humility as to what you think you know, and don't know, and how you judge the difference. Such humility even requires an unfashionable respect for the "authority" (i.e. the authorship, and authenticity) of those who have previously proven their competence - thus the importance of peer review, of professional accreditation, and degrees of learning.

 

Let me illustrate this with a hypothetical example. Imagine that you require brain surgery. Andrew Montford might come to you saying, as he has said in his book about climate change, that he has read a blog about brain surgery and together with other material that he has self-studied, this qualifies him to rival the brain surgery skills offered by those "elitist" fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons. People who are frightened, desperate or merely gullible, might be taken in by this. The annals of "quack" medicine are full of such examples. But are we seriously obliged to take such a claim seriously? Should such a voice be given commensurate space "for balance" in public discourse? And if we happen to be a qualified brain surgeon, should we devote our time debating with such quacks? Or should we tell them: "You may have a valid point, or you may be just a self-inflated poseur who punches above their weight. But the matter is easily resolved. Either pass your bullets on to somebody who is more credible than you are to have them taken seriously. There are many bright young PhDs looking to make their name by overturning the status quo. Or, go out and get yourself credibly qualified in brain surgery and then publish your ideas in a peer-reviewed journal where it can be fully subjected to research scrutiny. Then we might take you seriously. As for your criticism that there's no point in so doing because, you claim, we've got the whole show fraudulently stitched up ... well, at the end of the day we conduct our affairs under political scrutiny via parliamentary committees, the National Health Service, public research councils, etc., so if you think that we are corrupt, write to your Member of Parliament; and if you think your MP is also part of the conspiracy, it's a free country, so stand for election yourself ... and then you might achieve a public mandate to set up your own commission of enquiry. Otherwise, please leave us to get on with our work of trying to save lives."

 

In short, then, I acknowledge the frustration of those who may not be qualified to take on the weight of peer reviewed consensus science, but I am not sympathetic towards that frustration. We all have to learn to live within our limitations, and we can all work to overcome those. It is crucial that the general public engage with, and set the acceptable frameworks for, the values through which science is expressed. But part of that expression requires the holding in place of accountable structures, such as peer review, by which the facts and hypotheses of science can be expertly weighed and not simply put on vox pop trial by blog. I think that a lot of the problem that led to "Climategate" is the tension between work that is continually in progress, especially in a competitive bidding funding environment, and transparency, especially in contexts of highly charged political debate such as reached its climax with climate change when world leaders met in Copenhagen in 2009. These tensions between expert science and public policy go far beyond climate science and will rightly be the subject of much policy and academic debate in years to come.

 

Note that a detailed scientific rebuttal of Montford's book, now with nearly 600 responses from the scientific community attached to it, is on the website of RealClimate - see The Montford Delusion.

 

Finally... the responses on Montford's Bishop Hill blog (as per the links above) make for quite a study of the psychology of climate change contrarianism. To summarise, using actual quotes except where interpolated in square brackets:

 

I had a hard time understanding the review as it is not written in any language I know... Anybody who uses the word epistomology [sic] is immediately suspect....Some of the Warmists at Wiki are trying to replace the current entry on HSI with a "synopsis" drawn from the McIntosh review - essentially casting Your Grace as a conspiracy-theory nutter...  Hate to sound like DeepClimate, but I think it would be more interesting to figure out where Alistair got that review ... [But] know who you are dealing with. Professor Alastair McIntosh, Centre for Human Ecology is very much part of Big Environment (he and his eco-chums are in it for the money)... The guy seems to be a bit of an Uber tree hugger ... reminiscent of the proto-green Blood and Soil movement in Germany...  Another one of these weird Highlanders who seem to dominate Scotland ... but don't expect any sense from inclusive, sustainable green Scotland.... been out on the moors too long ... there is more to life than living in a highland croft with only sheep for friends... Alastair, just keep tossing off your caber... His beliefs are threatened by the cogent facts in your book and he doesn't want anyone to read it... a person incapable of any real inquiry ... If he's prepared to publish a review of a book he hasn't read, then he deserves a kicking ... he is an imbecile of the highest order.... He is an enemy of the people and the state and is declared anathema....  Adopt a lordly disdain and ignore him... You could always return the favour by reviewing his book [on Amazon] ... you get the picture... Or better, deploy heavy ad hominem artillery to characterize the estimable Alistaire McIntosh, b'gosh, as a "coprophagic proctocranial." What ho, when they lifted the lid!... Rightness is irrelevant. Just keep humour and lightness of touch.

 

George Monbiot's response to the above was "Welcome to my world! Good work - someone had to do it." Bob Ward of the LSE's climate change unit put an email out on the Crisis Forum list to say it had prompted him to write this for the Guardian on Montford having been asked to review Climategate for Lord (Nigel) Lawson's organisation - "Andrew Montford who is conducting an investigation into the UEA inquiry has a history of omitting evidence to suit his arguments." And the fittingly named campaigner, Jo Abbess, has issued a challenge to "Bishop Hill" to come and debate his views round the campfire with the Climate Camp protestors currently in Edinburgh.

 

 

Some web references, accessed July 2010 in writing this review

 

A.W. Montford's Bishop Hill website: http://bishophill.squarespace.com/

 

Steve McIntyre's Climate Audit site (McIntyre is Montford's primary source): http://climateaudit.org/

 

Steve McIntyre profile on SourceWatch: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Steve_McIntyre

 

Ross McKitrick's home page (McKitrick is McIntyre's co-author as cited by Montford): http://www.uoguelph.ca/~rmckitri/ross.html

 

Ross McKitrick on SourceWatch: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Ross_McKitrick

 

Mann’s home page with publications list (Mann is : http://www.meteo.psu.edu/~mann/Mann/index.html

 

Mann’s 2009 Science paper on the Medieval Warming Period: http://www.meteo.psu.edu/~mann/Mann/articles/articles.html

 

RealClimate on “The Montford Delusion” (appeared just after I submitted my piece): http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/07/the-montford-delusion/

 

New Scientist – Hockey Stick not proved wrong: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11646-climate-myths-the-hockey-stick-graph-has-been-proven-wrong.html

 

Nature on “Academy affirms hockey-stick graph” (this is pay-to-view): http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v441/n7097/full/4411032a.html

 

Wall Street Journal – heat on Mann’s critics and 2 studies of Mann: http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB113027943843479277-5reMaU4_37mSf3Us8BhDeHITDyA_20061026.html?mod=blogs,

 

Medieval warming was regional: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11644-climate-myths-it-was-warmer-during-the-medieval-period-with-vineyards-in-england.html

 

American Chemical Society’s Environmental News – on McIntyre’s rise to fame (pp. 5-6) - http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/es053378b

 

Fred Pearce in Guardian on Hockey Stick/Mann: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/02/hockey-stick-graph-climate-change

 

Guardian on Mann cleared of science fraud: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/02/michael-mann-cleared

 

Penn State Uni announcement on Mann being cleared: http://www.research.psu.edu/news/2010/michael-mann-decision

 

Penn State Uni full report into Mann: http://live.psu.edu/fullimg/userpics/10026/Final_Investigation_Report.pdf

 

Virginia Attorney pursues Mann: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/virginiapolitics/2010/07/the_university_of_virginia_hol.html

 

Union of Concerned Scientists etc. challenges Attorney’s attack on Mann: http://hamptonroads.com/2010/05/academics-fight-cuccinellis-call-climatechange-records

 

Uni of Virginia defends Attorney’s attack on Mann – academic freedom - http://www2.dailyprogress.com/cdp/news/local/education/article/uva_fights_inquiry_by_cuccinelli/56663/

 

Various other useful links, not all consulted:

http://www.skepticalscience.com/broken-hockey-stick.htm 

http://climateprogress.org/2010/07/07/muir-russell-emails-climategate-vindicates-climate-science-cru/ 

http://climateprogress.org/2010/07/01/michael-mann-hockey-stick-exonerated-penn-state/ 

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/09/progress-in-millennial-reconstructions/ 

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/06/national-academies-synthesis-report/ 

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/05/what-we-can-learn-from-studying-the-last-millennium-or-so/

 

Also, see Wikipedia – not the main entries which can be of questionable provenance, but the “Discussion” or “Talk” sections to these entries, where editors debate what is acceptable in terms of Wikipedia’s criteria of probity – see under Mann, McIntyre, Montford, Hockey Stick Controversy and, especially, The Hockey Stick Illusion. This was the only context that I found on the web where both sides of this debate really thrashed it out with each other with the proviso that they are, of course, debating as Wikipedia gatekeepers, and not as experts in climate change.

 

 

 

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14 August 2010

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