Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

More Hockey Statisticks

I wrote last week about my surprising response to two books about the public conflicts over palaeoclimatology. Whereas I expected to find myself sympathising with the respected scientist Michael Mann, I found both authors equally repellant — both are smug and self-absorbed, both write crudely — and had most sympathy with Steven McIntyre, the former mining engineer who stars in Andrew Montford’s book. Fundamentally, I found that Mann’s own account made him seem like just the sort of arrogant senior scientist I have occasionally had to deal with as a statistician, one who is outraged that anyone outside his close circle would want to challenge his methodology.

A pair of long comments on the post underlined my impression of the cultish behaviour of people who have gotten enmeshed in the struggle over climate change, on both sides. The commenter writes:

I would suggest that McIntyre’s work went out of its way to try to cast doubt on Mann’s research, and in that process created as many errors of its own. Montford’s book takes that dubious effort and magnifies it for the purposes of attacking climate change science in general by vilifying a single piece of research by a single researcher.

I have to say, Montford’s effort has been highly effective. In one lecture I saw, given by Dr Richard Alley, he recounted being in Washington speaking to a science committee where one high level member stated, “Well, we know all this climate change stuff is based on a fraudulent Hockey Stick graph.”

I’m sure [Andrew] Montford appreciates your piece here perpetuating that position.

I don’t know exactly what Montford’s “effort” is. Certainly, in his book he has little to say about the rest of climate science, but what he does have to say can hardly give any impression other than that the “hockey stick” is a small part of palaeoclimatology, and that palaeoclimatology is a small part of climate research. He never accuses Mann or anyone else of fraud in his book, although he is unyielding and close to hysterical in imputing incompetence to Mann and some of his closest collaborators.

As for McIntyre’s work going “out of its way to try to cast doubt”, this hardly seems different to me than the usual way scientists are motivated. It’s no different than the comments about “getting rid of the Mediaeval Warm Period”, that Montford is obsessed with, as evidence of scientific corruption. I was never bothered by that comment, or any of the comments that came out of the disgraceful email hack of the Climatic Research Unit, because I understand that scientists rarely launch an investigation without any preconceptions. It’s perfectly plausible — even likely — that climate researchers would have had a strong gut feeling that this warm period was much less substantial than it had seemed, but were casting about for a way to prove the point. The trick here is to have a rigorous methodology that won’t bend to your preconceptions. The same way, McIntyre had a gut feeling that the climate was much more variable in the past than the mainstream researchers wanted to believe, and he set about proving his point by trying to find the flaws in their methodology.

The fact that later studies ended up confirming the broad outlines of Mann’s picture, and disproving McIntyre’s intuition does not make his critique any the less serious or important. And it doesn’t make Mann’s efforts to portray all of his opponents as villains any less unsavoury. And his efforts to present scientific defensiveness as high principle do a disservice to science in general, and to climate science more specifically.

The commenter describes Mann’s self-righteous refusal to provide essential materials for McIntyre’s attempts to re-evaluate his work as a natural response to ” the levels to which “skeptics” are willing to go. It may seem absurd, but I think that is only because the levels they go to are so outrageous.” Except that it looks to me as though Mann’s stonewalling came first. Maybe that’s wrong, but again, if so, he doesn’t seem to think anyone has a right to expect evidence of the fact.

Mann comes across in his own book as a manipulator who would like to tar all of his opponents with the outrageous actions that some have committed. He accuses McIntyre of “intimidation” without considering it necessary to provide any shred of evidence. The portion of their correspondence quoted by Montford obviously doesn’t show anything beyond occasional exasperation at Mann’s stonewalling. Obviously there could be more to it, but Mann seems so persuaded of his own saintliness that his bare assertion of his own pure motives — and of the correctness of his methodology — ought to persuade every reader. And so convinced of the objectivity of his friends and colleagues that merely quoting their statements in his defence should suffice.

Science is science, but many climate scientists have (quite rightly) decided that the implications of what they have learned demand political action. They can’t then express horror when others blend their scientific inquiry with a political agenda.

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