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Frank O'Dwyer's blog

Review of the Hockey Stick Illusion - Part 1

This is a first instalment of my review of The Hockey Stick Illusion by Andrew Montford (aka Bishop Hill).

Although the topic of “Hockey Stick” has never been very interesting to me, I had been meaning to get around to reading this book for some time so that I could see what all the fuss was about. After all if people like Matt Ridley and Judith Curry have given it such glowing reviews there must be something to recommend it. Also, following on from my previous posts about Montford’s mistakes regarding boundary layer clouds in Bony et al 2006, since he also quoted the same mistakes from his book, I was interested to read it and see if there were further errors along the same lines.

For anyone reading (all three of you) who doesn’t already know what the book is about, wiki has a (rather one-sided) overview (note: this link is offered as an overview of the book’s topic, not the ‘controversy’ itself). The book in turn doesn’t really claim to be too much more than a summary of Steve McIntrye’s blog, Climate Audit, which for me is a bad start, as that has never much interested me either. (Perhaps understandably, as it really speaks to just how high and deep McIntyre piles it over the years, that a 400+ page book should be considered a simplification or a summary for the layman. For comparison, the IPCC WG1 summary is done in 18 pages.)

Anyway, so far I have only read Chapter 1, and it would be fair to say I am so far unimpressed and disappointed. Those of a ‘sceptic’ disposition will have to take my word for it that I am doing my best to give it a fair reading, and in its favour I will say that the quality of the writing is good, and the book serves as a useful summary of the ‘sceptic’ side of the ‘controversy’. However aside from outrageous appeals to mind reading, baseless innuendo, and the motivational fallacy, already at least 3 outright errors and/or misrepresentations are apparent. I will write these up here and hopefully post more thoughts from time to time as I read further. However progress is likely to be slow as I have several books on the go—including Harold Ambler’s (excellently titled) Don’t Sell Your Coat, which I will also post a review of in due course.

Onwards to the errors:

Error on the timing of the Medieval Warm Period

On P32 Montford claims, re MBH98:

The Medieval Warm Period had completely vanished. Even the previously acknowledged ‘regional effect’ now left no trace in the record.

Given that the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) happened before the 1400s, and MBH98 covers the time period from the 1400s onwards, this claim from Montford is simply amazing. Yes, the paper doesn’t cover the MWP, because the time periods do not overlap. If you’re going to write a ‘detective story’ about temperature reconstructions, shouldn’t you know this? Wouldn’t it come up during your research? Wouldn’t it be the very first thing that came up during your research? Couldn’t you at least figure it out by looking at the pictures?

Let’s be clear about how incredible an error this is: it is like claiming that a map of France has made England vanish—all the while raising an eyebrow to suggest that you suspect foul play. If he had complained that MBH98 left out the temperature during the Cretaceous, or at the time of the Big Bang, or expressed surprise that Queen Victoria did not have a role in the films of the Marx brothers, it would be no less astonishing.

I was so staggered when I first read this that I was sure I’d read it wrong, and had to read it multiple times to be sure he wasn’t referring to something else. No, he really wrote that. This is such a fundamental mistake on an issue that goes to the central premise of the book, that the conclusion is inescapable: Montford is either exceptionally dishonest and machievellian, or he hasn’t the first clue what he is talking about.

In light of this, when you think of glowing reviews of Montford’s book, such as Matt Ridley’s “…a rattling good detective story and a detailed and brilliant piece of science writing”, or Judith Curry’s “a well documented and well written book on the subject of the ‘hockey [stick] wars.’”, you have to wonder if some of those reviewers have even read the book—or if they have, if they might perhaps benefit from an MRI scan. Because if this is a detective story, it’s more Inspector Clouseau than Hercule Poirot. Just without the humour, or the redeeming feature of catching any villains, even by accident.

As for Curry’s “well-documented” remark….what is this…I don’t even. Please read on.

Misrepresentation that the WMO in 1979 was making unwarranted policy prescriptions

He claims that WMO called for prevention of climate changes rather than adaptation, thus overstepping the bounds between reporting what’s happening, versus policy prescriptions as to what to do about it. This initially struck me as a fair point until I checked and realised he had misrepresented what they said (a recurring pattern in the book so far).

What the WMO statement actually called for was this (my emphasis):

to foresee and to prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity

The part I have emphasised changes the meaning, and it is also the part that Montford left out. So they are not talking about preventing just any man-made changes in climate, but specifically preventing those that might be adverse to the well being of humanity generally. Clearly this is reprehensible!

Obviously it would have been asinine for the WMO to have written instead to foresee and to prevent or adapt to potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity, as Montford suggests he would have preferred. If changes might be adverse to the well-being of humanity, how should we adapt to them? By evolving into a different species, perhaps? Or perhaps we could adapt to them, as a species mind, by learning to live with and suffer less well-being—assuming living was an option.

This is very easy to see if you change the phrase ‘changes in climate’ to pretty much anything else that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity. For example who in their right minds would suggest that we should adapt to, rather than try to foresee and if possible prevent, a potential asteroid impact, nuclear war, or pandemic? We would only attempt to live with such as an absolute last resort, if there were no way to prevent them.

Note, this is a quite separate question to whether any given man-made changes in climate are adverse to the well-being of humanity. But clearly we would want to foresee and prevent any that might be, if we can. Those where the impacts are severe but not threatening to the species generally, or that we could not prevent, yes we might adapt to those, or we might have no other choice. But the WMO clearly wasn’t speaking about those.

Misrepresentation that Lindzen confirmed the authorship of the email to Deming

On p28 Montford refers to an email that Deming says he received from a leading climate science figure, which he claims to have said “we have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period”. Montford also says that Deming himself does not tell us the author of the email, and references Deming’s piece from 2005 where he details this. (Actually he references what seems to be a preprint of the same piece, with a link that is now broken - but the original can be found via the waybackmachine.)

Montford then goes on say that Richard Lindzen confirmed “Internet rumours” that the author of the email to Deming was Overpeck. This initially seemed pretty damning to me, as it made it seem that Lindzen was an independent witness—and after all, if he could corroborate the authorship, that also seemed to corroborate the existence of the email itself and its content.

But then I thought, how did Lindzen know? Was he cc’d on the email? Did he receive a similar email or did someone say the same thing to him? So I checked the Lindzen paper cited by Montford.

Lindzen’s paper does say that the author was Overpeck, however the only reference he gives in support of this is the same one that Montford gives—the same paper which Montford just stated is silent about the email’s authorship. So, far being an independent witness to events, both Lindzen’s and Montford’s claims stand on the same single piece of evidence: Deming’s original piece. And far from “confirming Internet rumours”, Lindzen is simply repeating them.

Not only does this not support Montford’s statement that Lindzen “confirmed” anything, the cite Lindzen gives doesn’t support Lindzen’s own claim either. There is no mention of Overpeck at all in the cite he gives. If such a thing had occurred in an IPCC report, the likes of Montford would insinuate that it was dishonest and hype it as a scandal.

In fact, according to comments at Climate Audit, Deming himself says that he is not 100% sure of the author of the email (which begs the question, if he cannot be sure he knows who sent it, how can we be sure he is remembering its context or contents accurately either). Furthermore, Montford’s claim was contradicted by Steve McIntyre in 2010: “the identity of Deming’s correspondent remains uncertain”. You would not get that impression from the Hockey Stick Illusion. Indeed, why would that be so if, as Montford claimed, Lindzen had really “confirmed’ it? Did McIntyre read the book, and if so did he let Montford know he was mistaken here?

Of course McIntyre insinuates that it was Overpeck, but only by torturing his actual words. He does not actually say so, he says the identity is uncertain and then in the next breath mentions Overpeck. It is apparent from the “Climategate” email he cites that Overpeck mentions only a wish to do away with the myths and misuse of terms such as the MWP—and bear in mind that these are emails that the authors would have presumed to have been private at the time. If these were conspirators, they forgot to mention it to each other in their private correspondence—indeed Overpeck actually denies the “Internet Rumours” in one of the emails. Why would he bother to do so, if the people he was writing to all knew that they were making a “concerted effort to rewrite history”, as Montford suggests?

Last but not least, even if one accepts Deming’s claim as true, that would still be just one climate scientist, and still the motivational fallacy. It tells us nothing as to whether or not the MWP was really global in extent, nor does it mean that anything dishonest was done to “get rid of it”. Conspicuous by its absence is any evidence from Montford that there is any reason at all to suppose that the MWP existed globally at any given time. You would think if he has some, he would present it at this stage in the proceedings, rather than innuendo and sloppily researched smears.

Perhaps things will improve in subsequent chapters.