Mesmerizing Insight into the Infamous Hockey Stick Scandal

Published June 13, 2011

Review of The Hockey Stick Illusion, by A.W. Montford (Stacey Intl., 2010), 482 pages, ISBN-13: 978:1906768355

Cutting-edge science, mystery, and whodunit intrigue rarely merge in a single book. Rarer still do they merge in nonfiction. In A. W. Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion, readers get an intriguing, highly informative dose of all three.

While walking readers through a tale of real-life mystery, complete with unexpected heroes and villains, The Hockey Stick Illusion presents superb chronological detail, explicit explanations of statistics, and a clear discussion of the science at the heart of one of science’s most troubling scandals.

Code-Breaking Thriller
As Montford explains, the Hockey Stick refers to an attempt by global warming alarmists to mislead people into believing the Medieval Warm Period of the 13th century, when coastal Greenland was actually green, trees in California grew above today’s tree line, and wine grapes grew in places too cold to grow them today, never occurred.

As Nigel Calder, author of The Chilling Stars, explains in the foreword to The Hockey Stick Illusion, this is a thriller about code-breaking—not Hitler’s codes or al Qaeda’s codes, but computer codes programmed in a manner to produce a false claim about the temperature record.

The Hockey Stick made its grand entrance in the scientific debate in a paper published in April 1998 in the journal Nature. The senior author was a then relatively obscure scientist named Michael Mann, who had just received his Ph.D. and was serving as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Massachusetts. The paper is commonly referred to as MBH98 for the three authors, including Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes.

Data Kept Secret
The MBH98 paper describes, but does not include, the 112 sets of data the authors claimed to have studied in forming a temperature analysis of the previous millennium. The authors referred to the data as “indicators”—commonly described as “proxies”—in which tree rings and other items are asserted to convey temperatures long before humans set up a global network of mercury thermometers. 

Statistical experts Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick suspected something was funny about the unprecedented claims made in the MBH98 paper and the authors’ failure to disclose the raw data upon which they made their claims. The Hockey Stick Illusion details how McIntyre and McKitrick spent years navigating endless roadblocks and obstacle courses to obtain the raw data and unravel the statistical gymnastics performed by the MBH98 authors to make their maverick claim current-day temperatures are higher than those of the Medieval Warm Period.

Reading Montford’s book, it is impossible to miss the parallels between McIntyre and McKitrick unraveling the MBH hockey stick scheme and federal law enforcement officials exposing the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. One must hope fervently that Mann’s deception will get equally extensive exposure.

Mann and his coauthors used a variety of tricks to make their analysis of their unpublished data appear plausible to those not expert in statistical analysis. Montford offers clear tutorials on every one of Mann’s statistical tricks, which could make this book an excellent selection for outside reading in a college statistics course. You do not need to understand statistics to enjoy this book, but if you do, you will especially enjoy Montford’s tutorials on such things as centring, regression analysis, and principal components.

After years of investigation and analysis, McIntyre and McKitrick showed a graph of the earth’s temperature during the past thousand years does not resemble a hockey stick with its long handle gently sloping down and its short blade rising sharply at a 45-degree angle at the very end (representing abnormally high 20th century temperatures).

McIntyre and McKitrick were spurned by mainstream science journals in the thrall of alarmists and radical environmental activist groups. To the rescue came Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, editor of the peer-reviewed science journal Energy and Environment, who published their work in October 2003.

Limits of Peer Review
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the section on the limits of peer review in scientific journals. A peer review normally involves simply reading a scientific manuscript and providing instructive comments and feedback. It does not involve obtaining the data, reviewing the code, or performing the calculations again. Yet the proponents of global warming alarmism attempt to mislead the public into believing peer-review is a necessary prerequisite for scientific credibility and a gold stamp of approval on the authors’ conclusions.

Because the editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals are just as dominated by liberal establishment thought as are the editorial boards of the mainstream news media, these myths about peer review serve global warming alarmists well. Centuries of scientific endeavor, however, show truth emerges only from repeated experimentation and falsification of theories, a process that only begins after publication and can continue for months, years, decades, or centuries thereafter.

Scientific facts are not governed by a show of hands, especially when the jury is just as biased as, say, the editorial board of the New York Times.

It was clear long before publication of MBH98 that the Medieval Warm Period was a major problem for those who argued human activities were having what would be an ultimately catastrophic effect on the climate. MBH98 temporarily solved that problem for the alarmists, but The Hockey Stick Illusion expertly explains how and why MBH98 has been relegated to the dustbin of scientific history.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.