The Hockey Stick Illusion by A. W. Montford, published by Stacey International, 2010. 482 pp, £10.99
In the August issue of Prospect, Matt Ridley recommended this as one of the “must read” books of the summer. You need not bother—The Hockey Stick Illusion is a McCarthyite book that uses the full range of smear tactics to peddle climate change denial.
There is both clear evidence and general agreement that the earth has warmed up in the last 100 years, probably by about 0.8 degrees. The scientific consensus is that this has been caused by human activity, and that we need to take steps to prevent further warming. This view is not universally shared, even by scientists, and it is therefore important to put recent warming in context. That is why a number of scientists have sought methods to try to see how the earth’s temperature has varied in the time previous to good thermometric records becoming available. They have used a number of methods, including examining tree rings and ice cores.
In 1998 Michael Mann and co-workers published a paper based on tree ring studies, which claimed that the earth’s temperature has not changed much in the period from 1000 to 1900, when the warming started. Because of the shape of the temperature/time graph, Mann’s conclusion was dubbed the (ice) hockey stick. Mann’s graph has been one of a number of pieces of evidence used by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) in its efforts to convince us that global warming is real and is man-made.
Montford’s book aims to convince us that the “hockey stick” evidence is flawed. Furthermore, he seeks to argue that there has been a significant and wide-ranging conspiracy by scientists, international bureaucrats and journalists to keep these flaws secret. His hero is a Canadian engineer called Steve McIntyre. McIntyre is a climate change sceptic and blogger who has sought for years to challenge the science and the statistics behind the hockey stick. Some of McIntyre’s concerns have been published in the scientific literature, and as far as can be told from the book, his challenges have always been by legitimate means. Not so Montford. Montford argues that nearly all of the scientists who have published in support of Mann’s original conclusions are part of a group he calls the “hockey team”. This group of people is apparently dedicated to ensuring that criticisms of the hockey stick are smothered or not taken seriously, especially by those with policy responsibility. The only reason he offers as to why this should be so is a wish by his imagined group to preserve their research funding.
Two things will strike any professional research scientist as serious flaws in Montford’s conspiracy theory. Most importantly, researchers live by proving that their ideas, their data, their experiments, their conclusions, are better than those previously published. Those many scientists who have supported Mann and the hockey stick gain little thereby. By contrast, if they did produce a temperature graph that is different from the hockey stick, but better justified, their reputation would rise. Secondly, Montford never explains why supporting an accepted idea will generate research funding, when the opposite is true. Once a scientific problem is regarded as solved, funding invariably moves elsewhere.
The real wickedness of Montford’s book is his use of innuendo. Consistently and without evidence he queries the actions and motives of those with whom he disagrees. ‘Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the hockey team’ is one leitmotif. If you are, it is clear that you are as bad as Joe McCarthy’s communists, a charlatan with malign motivation. Failure by his opponents to publish results or datasets is for Montford a clear indication of a wish to obfuscate. McIntyre’s failure to publish the results of his own tree-ring research passes without comment.
Recent books by Mooney (The Republican War on Science, Basic Books, 2005) and Oreskes and Conway (Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury 2010) have shown how those with vested interests such as politicians or big business consistently try to suppress or misrepresent conclusions of scientific research that they find inconvenient. Whether global warming is man-made or not is a question that needs informed and honest debate. Montford’s book is not an honest contribution, and I very much regret that Prospect chose to promote it.
Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of physical chemistry, Nottingham Trent University
The author spent his professional life as a chemistry researcher in academia and the oil industry. He has no connection with any of the scientists named in Montford’s book and has received no funding for this review.