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Not so jolly hockey stick


Bob Ward thinks a recent Geoscientist review gave a controversial climate-sceptic book too easy a ride.

Geoscientist 20.10 October 2010

It was somewhat startling to see in August’s Geoscientist a glowing review of The Hockey Stick Illusion – Global warming and the Corruption of Science. Joe Brannan (an oil industry geologist) heaped praise on author Andrew Montford for producing “an impressive case that the consensus view on recent climate history started as poor science and was corrupted when climate scientists became embroiled in IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] politics”. But while he clearly relished Montford’s portrayal of the palaeoclimatology community as “amateurish, secretive, evasive and belligerent”, Brannan failed to point out that this incredible yarn is based on a misleading and one-sided version of events, littered with inaccuracies. See for instance this review.

Playing the role of villains in Montford’s account are Michael Mann and his co-authors, who published palaeoclimate reconstructions in 1998 and 1999 for the northern hemisphere over the last millennium, concluding that: “the 1990s were the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, at moderately high levels of confidence”. The results of these studies were shown in a graph, nicknamed ‘The Hockey Stick’, with a long handle of gently declining temperatures for most of the millennium, and a blade of steep warming in the 20th Century.

The hero of Montford’s story is Steve McIntyre, a Canadian mining consultant, who has fiercely attacked the methods of Michael Mann and colleagues. McIntyre’s criticisms were at least partially responsible for prompting the United States National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review Mann’s work. The investigation concluded that while McIntyre had made some valid observations about the limitations of the statistical techniques used to construct the Hockey Stick, Mann and co-workers’ overall conclusions were plausible - though subject to greater uncertainty than had been originally acknowledged. McIntyre dismissed the NAS report as “schizophrenic” because it did not accept the bulk of his complaints.

Montford’s book presents McIntyre’s case, complete with speculations about his opponents’ motives, and gives little space to the detailed rebuttals provided by Mann and his co-authors. Indeed Montford admits in his Preface that the book grew out of a summary of postings on McIntyre’s blog ‘Climate Audit’. This explains the bias in his story.

So why didn’t Joe Brannan point out any of this in his Geoscientist review? The answer can perhaps be found on McIntyre’s blog, where one Joe Brannan posted the following comment in March 2010:

“Steve, I am a climate sceptic sympathizer who admires your tenacity in unearthing inconsistencies in the AGW [anthropogenic global warming] argument…To me it seems that no matter how good your blog is, you will not win the argument without mainstream journalist support. The question then becomes how you can persuade one or two scientifically literate writers to critically look at some of the evidence”.

It looks like Joe Brannan may have taken matters into his own hands through his book review for this magazine.

Bob Ward FGS is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Read Joe Brannan's reply to Bob Ward