Out of Control Policy Blog

Breaking the 'Hockey Stick'

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece yesterday (on the front page, no less) on the 'hockey stick' controversy in climate science (see here and here for background) :

    "From the outset, the [hockey-stick] graph was a target of numerous lobbyists and skeptics. When Mr. McIntyre became interested in it, he quickly teamed up with Ross McKitrick, an economist at Canada's University of Guelph who'd written a book questioning global warming. (The two met on an Internet chat group for climate skeptics.) In October 2003, Energy & Environment, a British social-science journal known for contrarian views, published an initial critique by the pair.

    . . . .

    Dr. Mann and scientists close to him viewed this as a political attack, not science. Dr. Mann offered a strong rebuttal of the Canadians' 2003 journal article, explaining that it didn't correctly apply his techniques. In doing so, however, he revealed details of his data and mathematical methods that hadn't appeared in his original paper.

    When Messrs. McIntyre and McKitrick pointed this out to Nature, the journal that first published the hockey-stick graph, Dr. Mann and his two co-authors had to publish a partial correction. In it, they acknowledged one wrong date and the use of some tree-ring data that hadn't been cited in the original paper, and they offered some new details of the statistical methods. The correction, however, stated that "none of these errors affect our previously published results."

    Mr. McIntyre thinks there are more errors but says his audit is limited because he still doesn't know the exact computer code Dr. Mann used to generate the graph. Dr. Mann refuses to release it. "Giving them the algorithm would be giving in to the intimidation tactics that these people are engaged in," he says.

So what most scientists would consider a basic part of peer-review and good science -- releasing all of the details of their methods for others to replicate -- Mann would consider to be caving into mean climate skeptic bullies. I find it sad that protecting his scientific and political turf appears to be more important to Mann than the pursuit of science. If Mann is confident in his methods, then he should release them to the scientific community and let the chips fall where they may.

Here's another bit:

    "Mainstream scientists have also been scrutinizing the hockey stick. One, Hans von Storch of Germany's GKSS center, has presented theoretical findings arguing that Dr. Mann's technique could sharply underestimate past temperature swings. Indeed, new research from Stockholm University on historical temperatures suggests past fluctuations were nearly twice as great as the hockey stick shows. That could mean the 20th-century jump isn't quite so anomalous.

    Dr. von Storch says he faced pressure from colleagues who feared that skeptics could misuse his results. He complains of a tendency in climate science to 'use filters and make only comments that are politically correct.'"

Filters and political correctness are anathema to sound science and the public policy that flows from it. If this were some arcane topic that had little practical impact in the world, then this debate would be easy to ignore. But the stakes with Kyoto are so high -- on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars annually and impacting the lives of millions of people -- that the global populace is entitled to one whopper of a debate on the science behind it. For a prominent scientist to stonewall legitimate inquiry into his work is like a boxer hiding in his corner of the ring and complaining to the ref that his opponent is actually trying to hit him. That's just the nature of the game. Good science should resemble the intellectual equivalent of a street fight; mano-a-mano until the last man is left standing. We don't need a return to the medieval days when science was subservient to social, political or religious agendas.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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