This book is a rolicking good read. It tells the story of a handful of scholarly climate science papers, the group of people who produced those papers, and another group of people who've utterly discredited them.
In the process we learn that some of the world's most famous science journals don't enforce their own policies. We learn that the scientific method appears to be an old-fashioned, entirely passé concept to a younger academic generation that nevertheless demands the prestige and respect accorded to genuine scientists. We learn that the scientific establishment has failed repeatedly to demonstrate moral leadership in the face of improper behaviour.
Along the way, we also learn some disturbing things about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2001, those in charge chose to make the hockey stick graph a central icon of the IPCC's latest report even though the graph's findings completely overturned established scientific thought (including the view expressed by the previous IPCC report published six years earlier).
The hockey stick paper's lead author wasn't a scholar with decades of experience whose methods had been thoroughly reviewed, discussed, and generally confirmed by the scientific community. Rather, Michael E. Mann was young. He received his PhD in 1998 - the same year the first hockey stick paper was published.
Well before the scientific community had had an opportunity to digest that paper (which implied that the Earth's surface temperature was rising dramatically), Mann was appointed lead author for an IPCC chapter that subsequently cited 10 papers he'd personally authored or co-authored in order to make its case. As Montford writes:
"...we can only stand back in admiration that someone who had published his PhD a matter of a year or so earlier could be invited to head the team writing one of the most critical chapters in one of the most important scientific reports written for decades - in that position he had a clear conflict of interest in assessing the published literature - he was going to be considering his own work."
So unconcerned was the IPCC regarding Mann's lack of experience, so enamored was it of his hockey stick graph, that when the IPCC's chairman released the results of the 2001 climate bible to the world's media, an enlarged version of the graph was displayed behind him.
And that is only the beginning of the story. This book describes how, when the next version of the IPCC report was being written, a senior bureaucrat threatened to revoke the reviewer status of Steve McIntyre - one of the hockey stick's critics and a Canadian hero.
The text of the chapter McIntyre was spending his own, unpaid time reviewing for the IPCC referred to two unpublished papers. In itself, this should ring alarm bells. Since neither paper had yet been shared with the larger scientific community, it was surely premature to consider them solid pieces of evidence.
McIntyre asked to see the datasets on which the unpublished papers relied, but the lead authors in both cases refused to make the information available. Rather than backing him up, an IPCC official accused McIntyre of behaving improperly - and threatened to ban him as an IPCC reviewer if he didn't cease his data pursuit.
In a sane world there is no way the IPCC would rely on yet-unpublished scientific papers in a report that influences trillion-dollar decisions. In a sane world, the fact that the authors had declined to share their data should have automatically disqualified their papers from IPCC consideration.
But as this excellent book reveals, this isn't a sane world. It's climate science.