“The Most Influential Tree in the World”

The title comes from Andrew Montford’s new book Hiding the Decline (copy given me by author) about Climategate. From an introductory section:

When the figures were published the extraordinary lack of data underlying the blade of the Yamal hockey stick caused a minor sensation. In fact the high point at the end of the graph was shown to have been based on only four trees, and only one of these had the hockey stick shape. McIntyre dubbed it ‘the most influential tree in the world’.

Most of Hiding the Decline is about the inquiries that followed Climategate. I enjoyed reading about smug powerful people making fools of themselves and the fairy-tale-like consternation created by two unlikely events: 1. A non-scientist (Steve McIntyre) gets involved in the global warming debate. As in a fairy tale, McIntyre is free to speak the truth. In particular, he is free to question. Professional climate scientists cannot speak the truth for fear of career damage. 2. The release of the Climategate emails. As in a fairy tale, a sudden burst of truth about bad behavior previously hidden.

Hiding the Decline is as well-written as a book by a professional writer but this is a book no professional science writer could write due to its investment in an officially-wrong point of view. There are lots of badly-written books from tiny-minority points of view. The appearance of a well-written one, joining Montford’s earlier The Hockey Stick Illusion, is no small deal. How much free speech do we have? It depends on the medium. Maybe the sequence from less to more censored is: 1. Conversation. 2. Email and other private writing. 3. Blog post. 4. Poorly-written book. 5. Article in minor magazine. 6. Well-written book. 7. Article in prestigious magazine. 8. Textbook. From one step to the next (e.g., from conversation to email), views become less diverse. This book is disagreement with the official line high up the tree.

One reason we enjoy certain jokes is that they speak a forbidden truth. When you can’t usually say it, the truth is funny. The forbidden truth aspect of Hiding the Decline is another reason I enjoyed it so much.

Does the story have a happy ending? Montford thinks not:

As we look back over the ten years of this story, the impression we get is of a wave of dishonesty, a public sector that will spin and lie, and mislead and lie, and distort and lie, and lie again. . . . Despite the emails showing, apparently incontrovertibly, that FOI laws were flouted with the full knowledge of senior figures in university, there have been almost no discernible repercussions for anyone involved. . . . The response to [Climategate] was an extraordinary failure of the institutions and of the people who are paid to protect the public interest – a failure of honesty, a failure of diligence, a failure of integrity.

My view is different. The institutions (University of East Anglia, Penn State, and so on) and officials (e.g., Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia) “failed” only in their ostensible purpose.  Their actual purpose centers on protecting the people who created or hired them (see The Dictator’s Handbook). At this they succeeded, but suffered a large loss of credibility. To me, Climategate is the story of how two people — Steve McIntyre and the hacker of the Climategate emails — both with zero official standing, had a huge effect on worldwide public discourse. (A Google search for Climategate returns about 2 million hits.) They exposed dishonesty in powerful and heretofore respected people (science professors) on a matter far more important than expense accounts. They pushed the rest of us a non-trivial distance toward seeing the truth. I didn’t know that was possible, and I’m glad it is.

3 Responses to ““The Most Influential Tree in the World””

  1. dearieme Says:

    “e.g., a vice-president of the University of East Anglia”: if the reference is to Acton, he’s the Vice-Chancellor – which means boss. I suppose the translation into American might be President.

    Seth: Thanks, I fixed it.

  2. Gortlosk67 Says:

    “They pushed the rest of us a non-trivial distance toward seeing the truth.”
    They pushed us toward seeing the exaggeration might be a bit nearer the mark. The truth is much harder to see.

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