Good teachers try to instill in schoolchildren a healthy dose of respect for the profound beauty of the scientific method and the imperative for transparency in empirical research. These are the pillars of knowledge in the modern world, and scientific progress depends on a faithful adherence to these processes.
Gone are the days when a Galileo is imprisoned and threatened with torture for daring to advance controversial scientific theories. In the modern era, scientists publish the results of their research and then open the floor to others to come in and replicate their methods and compare outcomes. This typifies the slow but steady march of human progress.
So it is indeed profoundly distressing when this process breaks down -- when politics, religion, or other considerations trump good science and inhibit the advance of knowledge, particularly on matters of great import. And it is equally inspiring when good science succeeds despite overwhelming odds against it.
And so we come to today, a day that we can both lament a travesty in science and celebrate a triumph of scientific integrity over bad science.
The prestigious journal Geophysical Research Letters will publish a groundbreaking article by Canadian researchers Ross McKitrick and Stephen McIntyre that calls into question the credibility of UVA scientist Michael Mann's "hockey stick," a graph of Northern Hemisphere temperatures over the last 1,000 years showing a relatively flat line up to the 20th century which then trends sharply upward (hence the 'hockey stick'). Of course, the implication is that human activity and capitalism has set us on a course for global disaster.
To say that this graph has been influential would be a tremendous understatement; it is THE central pillar of the anti-global warming movement and a primary justification for the Kyoto Protocol. It is the proverbial face that launched a thousand ships.
But ladies and gentlemen, today is the day that we can begin to mourn (or celebrate, depending on your persuasion) the death of the venerable "hockey stick." From the Financial Post:
- "The hockey-stick image has appeared in countless documents and hundreds of speeches. The opening graphic in the recently-published Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report reproduces the Mann chart as the main springboard to hundreds of pages on climate risks in the Arctic. It is also the core justification for the Kyoto Protocol, which comes into effect on Feb. 16.
Until now, criticisms of the hockey stick have been dismissed as fringe reports from marginal global warming skeptics. Today, however, the critical work of two Canadian researchers, Ross McKitrick, an economics professor at Guelph University, and Toronto consultant Stephen McIntyre, will be published by Geophysical Research Letters, the prestigious journal that published one of the early versions of Michael Mann's 1,000-year tracking of Northern Hemisphere temperatures,
Publication in Geophysical Research sets McIntyre and McKitrick's analysis and conclusions in direct opposition to the Mann research. Their criticism can no longer be dismissed as if it were untested research posted on obscure Web sites by crank outsiders. Their work is now a full challenge to the dominant theme of the entire climate and global warming movement."
From another Financial Post article:
- "Climate skeptics are most prolific on the Internet, a platform for novices, the scatterbrained and the experienced alike. Not surprisingly, the climate researchers whom we consulted (predominantly Dutch) presumed the work of the two Canadians to be unconvincing. We at Natuurwetenschap & Techniek were initially skeptical about these skeptics as well. However, McIntyre and McKitrick have recently had an article accepted by Geophysical Research Letters -- the same journal that published Mann's 1999 article. This, together with the positive responses of the referees to that article, quickly brought us around.
Even Geophysical Research Letters, an eminent scientific journal, now acknowledges a serious problem with the prevailing climate reconstruction by Mann and his colleagues. This undercuts both Mann's supposed proof that human activity has been responsible for the warming of the earth's atmosphere in the 20th century and the ability to place confidence in the findings and recommendations of the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The political implication is a serious undermining of the Kyoto Protocol with its worldwide agreements on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
. . . .
McIntyre and McKitrick merely attempted to replicate this oft-quoted study. In doing so, they identified mistake after mistake. They also discovered that this fundamental reconstruction had never actually been replicated by the IPCC or any other scientist. In their replication, basically derived from the same data, temperatures in the 15th century were just as high as they are today -- an outcome that takes the edge off the alarmist scenario of anthropogenic global warming."
At this point, it is essential to read the entire Post article. Assuming that the article describes the situation accurately, two things become clear. First, McIntyre and McKitrick undertook research that should have been done a long time ago, before the "hockey stick" became elevated to dogma status. They approached the process with the skepticism that any serious scientist would have, but not to the degree that they let this bias their results. They set out with the goal of replicating the Mann research to see if indeed they could achieve consistent results. And they corresponded with the Mann researchers to get original data sets, to discuss methods, and to generally ensure that their new research was consistent with the original.
But when their findings diverged, they discovered inconsistencies in the original Mann research, both in terms of data and methods. And, in violation of the unwritten gentleman's code of science, Mann chose to stonewall them and their attempts for constructive dialogue. Rather than engage them, Mann opted to protect his scientific turf, as if his unverified research had somehow become bulletproof. Whether it was due to hubris or simply protecting the hockey stick's well-established territory on a major global policy issue, Mann apparently chose to place other considerations ahead of what should have been the eternal aim of sound science, regardless of where the chips may fall.
Writing for Tech Central Station, Dr. Roy Spencer considers the McIntyre and McKitrick article and hits the nail on the head:
- "The new article, like so much published science, simply points out errors in previously published science, which is the way science should work. So why should there be so much fuss this time? Because the original Mann et al. article has had huge repercussions. The hockey stick, along with the "warmest in 1,000 years" argument, has become a central theme of debates over the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, in governments around the world. The question begging to be answered is: Why did the IPCC so quickly and uncritically accept the Mann et al hockey stick analysis when it first appeared? I cannot help but conclude that it's because they wanted to believe it.
The IPCC leadership can always fall back on the claim that they were only using published research, which is true. The criterion for scientific results to be included in governmental reports has usually been publication in the scientific literature, or in some cases the work only needs to be accepted for publication. But it now appears this is not sufficient. Unusual claims in science should be met with unusual skepticism, and this did not happen with the Mann et al. study. An increasing number of researchers have anecdotal evidence that the science tabloids, Nature and Science, select reviewers of some manuscripts based upon whether they want those papers to be accepted or rejected. In other words, it seems like the conclusions of a paper are sometimes more important that the scientific basis for those conclusions. Since those periodicals have profit and popularity motives that normal scientific journals do not, maybe the time has come to downgrade the scientific weight of publications in those journals, at least for some purposes."
So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the premier international body investigating climate change and exalted body of experts on the subject, took the Mann research and ran with it uncritically. To be fair, it is not their mandate to conduct research or to verify the research of others. This is the job of the scientific community-at-large, and, until McIntyre and McKitrick, they had largely failed.
But it's not too late for the IPCC to inject some serious debate into their work and prove to the world that they value sound science over cherrypicking research to reach a preordained conclusion. This issue is too important; the implications of policy decisions based on IPCC's work will affect the lives and livelihoods of billions of people worldwide.
So we get to the real question...what is the IPCC going to do now?