The "hockey stick" temperature graph is a mainstay of global warming science. A new book tells of one man's efforts to dismantle it—and deserves to win prizesby Matt Ridley / March 10, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Messy, truncated data? Trees on the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada: one of several pieces of evidence for rising temperatures that have been called into question
Andrew Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion is one of the best science books in years. It exposes in delicious detail, datum by datum, how a great scientific mistake of immense political weight was perpetrated, defended and camouflaged by a scientific establishment that should now be red with shame. It is a book about principal components, data mining and confidence intervals—subjects that have never before been made thrilling. It is the biography of a graph.
I can remember when I first paid attention to the “hockey stick” graph at a conference in Cambridge. The temperature line trundled along with little change for centuries, then shot through the roof in the 20th century, like the blade of an ice-hockey stick. I had become somewhat of a sceptic about the science of climate change, but here was emphatic proof that the world was much warmer today; and warming much faster than at any time in a thousand years. I resolved to shed my doubts. I assumed that since it had been published in Nature—the Canterbury Cathedral of scientific literature—it was true.
I was not the only one who was impressed. The graph appeared six times in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s third report in 2001. It was on display as a backdrop at the press conference to launch that report. James Lovelock pinned it to his wall. Al Gore used it in his film (though describing it as something else and with the Y axis upside down). Its author shot to scientific stardom. “It is hard to overestimate how influential this study has been,” said the BBC. The hockey stick is to global warming what St Paul was to Christianity.
Of course, there is other evidence for global warming, but none of it proves that the recent warming is unprecedented. Indeed, quite the reverse: surface temperatures, sea levels, tree lines, glacier retreats, summer sea ice extent in the Arctic, early spring flowers, bird migration, droughts, floods, storms—they all show change that is no different in speed or magnitude from other periods, like 1910-1940, at least as far as can be measured. There may be something unprecedented going on in temperature, but the only piece of empirical evidence that actually says so—yes, the only one—is the hockey stick.