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Andrew Montford: The Hockey Stick Graph Remains An Illusion

Two weeks ago, Bob Ward, the communications director of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, wrote on this website what I will politely refer to as a “hit piece” about me and my book,The Hockey Stick Illusion. The book tells the story of the famous hockey stick graph, which was used as a sales tool to promote the idea of catastrophic manmade global warming, and the extraordinary steps that scientists were willing to take to protect it from criticism.

Promoters of the green cause now seem to feel a pressing need to discredit me or the book, ahead of the publication of a report I am writing for the Global Warming Policy Foundation on the ‘climategate’ emails affair. Those who would rather I hadn’t written The Hockey Stick Illusion have tried for months to pretend it didn’t exist. But then, as positive reviews started to appear, in the Spectator and Sunday Telegraph, and a senior climatologist named Judith Curry challenged her scientific peersto debate the questions raised by the book, this approach was no longer tenable. One abortive attempt was made to challenge the facts in the book but subsequent critiques have been either fallacious or ad hominem.

Ward’s article is, however, worse. He fails to make clear that the scientific papers he discusses are rather peripheral to the hockey stick story. He makes three main arguments, each one of which is in essence a straw man. In one case he claims that I present the non-publication of a paper by a scientist called Shaopeng Huang as evidence that journals were bullied by climate scientists. In fact the discussion of journal bullying appears some 400 pages after the discussion of the paper in question. I make no link between the two sections and I neither assert nor imply nor believe that the journal in question was bullied. I don’t intend to bore you with all the details; those who are interested can read about it here.

In the light of all this, I’m astonished that the Guardian want to stick with Ward’s article. I had a long chat to James Randerson, the editor responsible. James’s response was that Ward was “entitled to his interpretation” of what was in my book. It is apparently “complicated”. With that sort of approach to factual accuracy you can say almost anything you like about anyone.

I still can’t quite understand what possessed Randerson and the Guardian to publish what was patently a hit piece. Does the Guardian really want to look like a private press for the Grantham Research Institute? You might just as well be replaced with an RSS feed. The Guardian’s only claim to be of more use than Bloglines or Netvibes is that it imposes some kind of quality control. Where was that two weeks ago?

And then there’s Ward. Remarkably, his article appears to have been written in his official capacity as the PR man for the Grantham Research Institute. He is also a board member of the Science Media Centre. And here he is spending his time trying to undermine the reputations of people he disagrees with. Is that what our universities do now? Whatever happened to learning things and discovering the truth? However much money Grantham gave the LSE, I hope it’s enough to cover the cost of a new reputation.

In many ways the decision by my critics to use such tactics against me is good news, because those outsiders who want to know the truth about this most important and most revealing story can now see that the facts as presented in the book are pretty much correct. If the facts were wrong, we would certainly have heard about it by now.

The truth doesn’t need a sales tool like the hockey stick graph and it doesn’t need ad hominems and fallacies. Neither does it need a communications director to spin it out of trouble. Perhaps now, nearly nine months after it was published, we might see people, from both sides of the debate, answer Judith Curry’s call to debate what the story of this most remarkable scientific paper tells us about the state of climatology and the state of science in general.

The Guardian, 10 September 2010