29 October 2009

Will William Connolley do the Right Thing?

In an earlier post I had speculated -- naively and prematurely -- that one small point of dispute between Steve McIntyre and Michael Mann in the wars over the Hockey Stick might be resolved empirically to the satisfaction of all. After all, if I, a mere political scientist can understand the debate and also (and more importantly) see that others far more qualified than I understand the debate and that they have decided to resolve it in favor on McIntyre, then I thought that -- aha -- here we have an issue that can be unambiguously resolved.

As Lee Corso might say, no so fast my friend. William Connolley, formerly of the British Antarctic Survey and the Real Climate blog, steps in and uses my assertion of a resolution as an opportunity to smear me (blogging on climate is a contact sport, fair enough), but more importantly to pledge allegiance to Michael Mann. What is clear from the subsequent discussion spanning several blogs, however, is that Connolley doesn't understand the substantive debate at all, but he does know where his tribal allegiances lie. This is unfortunate because it reinforces the perception that the "Hockey Team" (as they apparently self-named themselves) will never concede a point, never admit to fallibility, and never break ranks. I have been wondering if Connolley will "do the right thing" which in this case would be to familiarize himself with the facts of the matter and render an independent judgment on McIntyre's claims. Connolley shows some signs of moving in his thinking. How far will he go? Where it ends up is the uncomfortable position of admitting that on this issue, McIntyre is right and Mann is wrong. He's even been given a gracious face-saving way out by Jean S, a Finnish statistician who concurs with McIntyre.

McIntyre helpfully explains the issue for Connolley in a new post.

Why does this small dispute matter? Lets be clear, it is not about the overall validity of various hockey stick reconstructions (which involve many, many other issues in dispute, which is why resolving them one-by-one is important). The issue matters because it speaks to trust and credibility, which are two important factors that non-experts use to evaluate the claims of experts. If members of the Hockey Team cannot or will not admit error when such an error is demonstrably shown to be the case (in a manner that even political scientists can understand), for better or worse, for many observers it will say a lot about their credibility on other matters. An important part of science is being about to admit when mistakes were made, to correct them, and move on to further work with an improved understanding. It is not about fighting for one's allies position regardless of what the facts say, there is another word for that -- politics.

Will William Connolley do the right thing? I expect so.