305

Centre of the storm

Colby Cosh profiles the gentle Canadian who has changed the climate science world


 

The private emails and logs leaked last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia can’t tell us whether industrial activity is really heating the earth’s atmosphere and endangering civilization. But they have settled the identity of the Great Satan of climate science. Torontonian Stephen McIntyre, a gentle, persistent amateur who had no credentials in applied science before stepping into the global warming debate in 2003, is mentioned more than 100 times.

In the emails, leading climate researchers dismiss him as a capitalist hireling or a hapless “bozo,” and argue about the relative merits of ignoring him versus counterattacking him, even as others acknowledge that his criticisms have merit and imitate his use of the Web as a venue for hyper-detailed scientific discussion. At one point in 2005, CRU director Phil Jones, now under suspension, ponders the possibility that McIntyre might use U.K. freedom-of-information laws to obtain raw weather-station data compiled by the CRU. He grumbles: “I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.” The overall impression is that of 100 elephants stampeding in confusion and panic around a mouse.

The political stakes are now so high when it comes to the “Climategate” scandal, and motives are being questioned so loudly on both sides, that few are noticing the remarkable story at the heart of it all: a 62-year-old mining executive and squash enthusiast has, for better or worse, found his way into the centre of a major scientific melée—almost by accident—and been able to make legitimate contributions.

McIntyre first became notorious in 2003 for his statistical critique, co-authored with economist Ross McKitrick, of the “hockey stick graph” that showed global temperatures rocketing upward in the 20th century. The hockey stick, featured in the 2001 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had a profound influence on policy worldwide, and played a starring role in presentations like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The McIntyre-McKitrick critique called attention to uncertainties in its temperature reconstructions dating back before 1600, to certain problems with dendrochronology (the use of tree rings to estimate past temperatures), and to issues with the statistical calculations underlying the hockey stick. Some climatologists insist that the graph tells the same story when you correct for all this, but much of the critique is now accepted, and the hockey stick, whose weaknesses are better understood, has itself become a somewhat inconvenient distraction for climatologists and environmentalists.

Meanwhile, McIntyre, working alone, has gone on to score further critical points. In 2007, he caught a mistake in the reporting of U.S. surface temperatures by NASA’s Goddard Institute that was quickly acknowledged, with thanks, and corrected. (NASA’s gracious manner contrasts sharply with the attitudes displayed behind the scenes at the CRU.)

The truth is that McIntyre, 62, little resembles the caricature of a wild-eyed climate-change “denier.” He is scrupulous about focusing his criticism on statistical procedures and disclosure practices. He is polite to, and about, climate scientists. He refuses to make grand categorical statements of the “Global warming is just commie horse puckey” type, preferring to remain agnostic, and he discourages such talk on his website, Climate Audit.

When reached for an interview, he interrupts briefly to turn down a request to appear on BBC television about the exploding “Climategate” scandal. “Anything I say now would just be piling on,” he remarks, noting that he has no interest in helping the media stage a drama of personalities. Given the opportunity of a lifetime to gloat over those who referred to him as a “moron” and “Mr. I’m Not Entirely There In The Head,” he demurs.

Close observers of the climate wars recognize that the small group of scientists who first advanced the case for urgent concern over global warming were ill-prepared for the appearance of a critic like McIntyre. Spanish paleoclimatologist Eduardo Zorita of Germany’s GKSS Research Centre, who has clashed at times with both McIntyre and the climate-research elite, says that “in the realm of science, it doesn’t really matter by whom and why a study is criticized. It only counts whether or not the criticism is reasonably well-founded, is logical, and relevant for the final results.”

McIntyre’s machine-gun “auditing” of scientific results from outside the traditional structure of peer review creates practical problems for researchers, Zorita admits, but in the aftermath of the CRU email leak “we now know that a team of gatekeepers have tried to scupper studies that contradict their own previous publications.” McIntyre “has brought up interesting points from time to time,” but his most important contribution may be to the culture of climate science.

“Years ago, very few people, me included, thought to make data available to other researchers for confirmation or refutation. Such inquiries were very rare in climate research.” Now, Zorita says, reviewers are more aggressive about asking for raw data and confirming that statistical calculations can be replicated.

Until 2003, nothing in McIntyre’s life suggested that he would assume a central role in one of history’s great scientific debates—yet that life, in retrospect, seems to have been equipping him for the role. The son of a surgeon, McIntyre had an impressive record of performance in math competitions as a young student attending the University of Toronto Schools. He is still proud of having once beaten older classmate Michael Spence—“he was a bit of a hero of mine”—who would eventually snag the Nobel memorial prize in economics (2001). McIntyre went on to obtain a math degree at the University of Toronto, where his social circle overlapped with that of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Graduating in 1969, he moved on to the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

In short, climatology’s ultimate outsider had the upbringing of a privileged Canadian insider. By 1971, he had been offered the proverbial keys to the kingdom—a graduate scholarship to work on mathematical economics at MIT, where Paul Samuelson, a giant of 20th-century economics, was the presiding intellect. But McIntyre’s path took an unexpected turn when his parents went through what he calls “an ugly divorce.” “I was the oldest of six kids,” he says. “The youngest was just five years old. This was back when divorce was still all but unknown.” Feeling that he was needed at home, he turned MIT down and decided to seek a career in business.

McIntyre went to work for Noranda when the mining giant was in its heyday, and went on to perform in a hodgepodge of jobs for smaller resource exploration companies: property buyer, accounting overseer, director, executive. He occasionally left the private sector to serve as a government policy analyst; in the mid-’70s, for instance, he took leave from Noranda to work for ex-classmate Edmund Clark at the federal Anti-Inflation Board. McIntyre’s association with “Red Ed” (now the CEO of the Toronto-Dominion Bank) will surprise those who assume that a climate skeptic must be a rabid Republican, but as he puts it, “I live in downtown Toronto, and I have the politics of downtown Toronto.”

The world of mining is one in which everyone is constantly aware of how engineering results can be tampered with or misrepresented to rip off investors. And in 2003, when McIntyre first saw the hockey stick graph, it reminded him uncomfortably of some stock promoter’s over-optimistic revenue projection. McIntyre asked lead “hockey stick” author Michael Mann for the underlying data and was startled when Mann had trouble remembering where he had posted the files to the Internet. “That was when the penny dropped for me,” McIntyre says. “I had the sense that Mann was pulling together the data for the first time—that nobody had ever bothered to inquire independently into the hockey stick before.”

To McIntyre, a scientist’s data and code stand in the same relationship to a finished paper that drilling cores do to a mining company press release. “If you’re offering securities to the public,” McIntyre observed in a May 2008 talk at Ohio State University, “there are complicated and expensive processes of due diligence, involving audits of financial statements, independent engineering reports, opinions from securities lawyers and so on. There are laws requiring the disclosure of adverse results.” Peer review in scientific journals is good, he suggested, but it is limited and vulnerable to compromise. “There is far more independent due diligence on the smallest prospectus offering securities to the public than on a Nature article that might end up having a tremendous impact on policy.”

His surprise and indignation seem sincere. In the CRU emails Mann speculates wildly about how McIntyre is “funded,” but his work has required little more than free time, effort, knowledge of statistics and linear algebra, and some software. Indeed, McIntyre says his climate-research activities—which quickly snowballed from an idle interest into a virtual second career—cost him the chance to ride a boom period in mining. “A lot of my friends made out very well,” he says, “but I just didn’t have any chips on the table. The opportunity cost to me has been horrendous.”

Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound as though McIntyre has many regrets. He grows positively garrulous when he talks of how his efforts let him reconnect with his youthful interest in hard-core math. He is not the sort of person whose inquisitiveness stops at the doorstep, either. In October 2007 he led an excursion into the mountains near Colorado Springs, where he was able to find many of the bristlecone pines whose rings were core-sampled in the 1980s by key paleoclimate researcher Donald Graybill. McIntyre and a few friends even took their own core samples, undermining critics who argue that dendrochronology is an esoteric, equipment-intensive activity whose results are hard to reproduce or double-check.

McIntyre does admit, however, that the expedition presented unexpected difficulties. “We had a borrowed four-wheeler, which wasn’t really the right kind of vehicle for those roads: quads or a Jeep would have been better,” he adds. “We ended up doing a bit of damage, so that cost me a couple thousand dollars.” If it wasn’t already obvious, McIntyre is the sort of fellow who will go to an awful lot of trouble to make a point.


 

Comments are closed.