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"Hockey Stick" refutation withdrawn -- sort of
May 18, 2011 - 7:00pm

It used to be that one of the best known images in the climate change discussion was the "hockey stick" graph -- a long-term chart of atmospheric temperature variation that showed a pattern of stability for centuries, and then an accelerating secular trend upwards in recent times. But then a Congressional report was issued, some statisticians called the science unreliable, and a large portion of the American public got the idea that -- somehow -- a simple and intuitively obvious chart of empirical observations didn't signify.

That was five years ago. And now it comes out that the report in question -- prepared at the request of Texas Rep. Joe Barton -- wasn't worth the paper the Government Printing Office invested in it. Indeed, a 2008 article in the journal Computational Statistics and Data Analysis, which both quoted from and expanded on a portion of the Congressional Report, has been editorially withdrawn.

It would be pleasing if the reason for the withdrawal were the article's questionable (to be generous) research design, or the fact that -- even given that it was designed in such a manner as to make its main conclusion foregone -- the conclusion is seriously at odds with the data presented.

But no, the reason for the withdrawal is unavoidable evidence of plagiarism. Evidence at the level of text flat-out copied from Wikipedia -- the kind of thing you'd flunk a first-year student for pulling. And paraphrasing -- sometimes so incompetent that the meaning of the text being paraphrased was altered.

Of course, the authors have a lawyer, and the lawyer says that his clients never plagiarized. What the lawyer says occurred is that a grad student -- not listed as an author of the paper, and so not credited -- did some copying, pasting and paraphrasing. The uncredited grad student did the plagiarizing.

But wait a minute -- if the grad student wrote portions of the article and was never credited, isn't that just another form of plagiarism? Or at least academic fraud? And -- given the fact that the supposed point of the paper is to poke holes in the scholarly practices of climate scientists, isn't proof of malfeasance somewhat more than just ironic?

The sad part, to my mind, is that the damage is already done. Like the more recent "Climategate" smear where research was mischaracterized and the word "trick" (meaning clever technique) was paraded in public as ostensible proof of intent to deceive, the public's mind is already made up. The story's cold. The facts are too late to get any major coverage in the mainstream media, and they probably wouldn't make much difference even if they did. The damage has been done, and the editorial withdrawal can't change that.

It's sad. And it's getting sadder.


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