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The Hockey Stick Illusion

Posted Apr 21 2010 12:00am

Recently a WSJ columnist told this story:

I was chatting with a friend who, over the years, has helped her kids slog through the obligatory science-fair projects.

“The experiments never turned out the way they were supposed to, and so we were always having to fudge the results so that the projects wouldn’t be screwy. I always felt guilty about that dishonesty,” she said, “but now I feel like we were doing real science.”

Yes, science with a human touch. The Hockey Stick Illusion by Andrew Montford (sent to me by the publisher) is a great book because it tells a great story. That story has a hero (Stephen McIntryre) and a villain (Michael Mann) and illustrates a basic truth about the world: A consensus of the “best people” can be wrong. This point was first made, as far as I know, by The Emperor’s New Clothes . It was later made by the Asch experiment (about line-length judgments). It’s not obvious; Elizabeth Kolbert and her editors at The New Yorker, not to mention Bill McKibben, have yet to understand it. (”No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax,” Kolbert recently wrote , with the permission of her editors.)  It’s a sad comment on our education system that I first learned it via self-experimentation. My results showed that an acne medicine that my dermatologist prescribed didn’t work a possibility for which my dermatologist (in consensus with other dermatologists) hadn’t allowed. As truths go, this one is scary: It means you have to think for yourself. But it is also the most liberating truth I know.

The Hockey Stick Illusion tells how McIntyre, skeptical of Mann’s hockey-stick result (a sharp increase in global temperature to unprecedented levels during the 20th century), tried to get the data and computer code that Mann used. Mann put him off. He still hasn’t released the computer code he used. Mann found a hockey stick where none existed because (a) he used principal-components analysis to summarize a lot of temperature series (bad idea), (b) he used that method in an unusual way, making a bad idea worse, and (c) one of his time series had a serious problem. After McIntyre noticed this problem and pointed it out, the story really begins: How did everyone react? Much as a reader of The Emperor’s New Clothes would expect. Nature denied it. The Washington Post denied it. Most climate scientists denied it (and continue to). Montford started writing the book before Climategate, whose overall message was the same that climate scientists have been distorting the truth, that the case for man-made global warming is far weaker than they say, that a consensus of experts can be wrong. As Montford puts it,

None of the corruption and bias and flouting of rules we have seen in this story [and in the Climategate emails] would have been necessary if there is, as we are led to believe, a watertight case that mankind is having a potentially catastrophic effect on the climate.

Climategate and the story within The Hockey Stick Illusion are bad news for some very powerful people, such as Al Gore and those who gave him a Nobel Prize, but are helpful to the rest of us. When Big Shot X says “This is incredibly clear, everyone knows this” . . . maybe they’re wrong.

April 21, 2010

Here’s the last paragraph of a New York Times book review by Janet Maslin :

“The Publisher” [a biography of Henry Luce] has its parched passages, most notably when it ventures into the thickets of Luce’s “big” ideas. It works best when the man is well within sight. But Mr. Brinkley is dauntless in assessing Luce’s most important accomplishments, like his “American Century” essay and other efforts to tell Americans what American life was like. Life magazine had no temerity about devoting a major series in the 1950s to “Man’s New World: How He Lives in It.” Now that Man’s New World is so different from anything Henry Luce could imagine, his life and times are more poignant than they once seemed.

As I read this, I wondered if English was my native language. It was so hard to understand. Then I wondered if New York Times writers are paid by the big word. “Parched”? “Thickets? At least I know what that sentence means. I don’t know what she means by “Mr. Brinkley is dauntless in assessing…” dauntless means fearless. Nor do I understand what “Life magazine had no temerity about” means. Temerity means recklessness or boldness. The logic of the last sentence (”Now that . . . “) with its big word poignant also escapes me.

Perhaps Maslin has found that if she writes like this her editors will edit her less, not being quite sure what those words mean. I attended many talks at UC Berkeley in which the speaker left out crucial information, such as the meaning of the y axis of a graph. And, virtually every time, no one asked about it – not even the four or five professors present. Gradually I realized why: They were insecure.

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