Review: The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science. A.W. Montford, 2010, published by Stacey International

For all those who follow major climate change debates, you will know that one of the most heated, yet also one of the most impenetrable set of debates are those surrounding the “hockey stick” graph, originally prsented by Michael Mann et al. in 1998. It featured so prominently in the third IPCC report it caused this author to quip “the whole IPCC report started to look like a locker room, it was so full of hockey sticks” (p.39). “School books told children the Hockey Stick meant that the world has to change” asserts Montford’s book. “Politicians told voters that only they could save people from the threat it demonstrated. Insurers, newspapers and magazines, pamphlets and websites were all in thrall to its message, the Hockey Stick swept all before it” (p.40). This sort of rhetorical flourish goes a long way towards explaining the book’s success!

So what is this graph? In the words of the Guardian newspaper “It is a persuasive image. The “hockey stick” graph shows the average global temperature over the past 1,000 years. For the first 900 years there is little variation, like the shaft of an ice-hockey stick. Then, in the 20th century, comes a sharp rise like the stick’s blade.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/02/hockey-stick-graph-climate-change) Most famously it is this graph (well, sort of – don’t ask) that Al Gore illustrates by getting on a rising platform to show how dramatic the “blade” is in “An Inconvenient Truth” (tragically I can’t seem to find either a YouTube clip or a photo to show this moment – anyone who has one please send it my way).

Michael Mann, creator of the Hockey Stick: Like a climate-science "Rocky", Montford's book suggests two key figures going head to head

It demonstrates the extent that climate change has captured the hearts and minds of the world that there is now a book of the saga, written from the perspective of Steve McIntyre, the retired mining engineer whose analysis and criticism of the graph spawned huge controversy including two senate committees and, after ten years of back-and-forth, was one of the major factors involved in “climategate”. This is a 450 page book fundamentally about statistics and about one graph, and yet, five months after its release it has 48 reviews on amazon.co.uk and another 21 on amazon.com, predictably highly polarised between five-star reviews, typically with a sceptic axe to grind and a smattering of one- or two-star reviews with an overt strong anti-sceptic slant.

Steve McIntyre: The retired mining engineer taking issue with Hockey sticks for more than 10 years

And the book itself? Good, accessible, engaging, a thriller, a page turner. The bias so obvious you get quickly used to it and rolling your eyes when it’s too pronounced and learn to accept that this is a story with heroes and villains. Almost by not claiming to be impartial it seems to dodge the accusation of not being so. It raises many interesting points, not least about the validity of peer review that, rightly or wrongly, is one of the holy grails of the climate consensus. The “climategate” section, the last 50 pages, is an add-on that mostly quotes from lots of the e-mails with a bit of narrative linking them and relatively little reflection, and so is perhaps the most balanced section.

Frustratingly, many of the issues raised are so complex that even though the book explains the statistics the explanations always seem to suspiciously validate McIntyre and damn Mann and his supporters (the “hockey team”), and those of us who are not statistics professors are left having to take the author’s word from it on a variety of issues beyond our understanding. Coming away from it, I find myself wanting to read the other side: when another 450-page book comes out on the same graph, I’ll be first in line.

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