The website of the Daily Mail, one of the UK's most popular daily newspapers, has proved once again that some parts of the Press are apparently oblivious to the scrutiny they are receiving from the Leveson Inquiry into their culture and practices following the phone hacking scandal.
Three months ago, I wrote about a researcher, Dr Zunli Lu, whose new journal paper was misrepresented in an article published by the Mail Online, after it was transmitted through the echo chamber of climate change denial. Dr Lu took the unusual step of issuing a statement to explicitly refute an article about his work in the Mail Online, which grudgingly responded by making some minor amendments while still refusing to correct the most egregious errors.
An official objection was made by Mr Philip Bell, and the Press Complaints Commission ruled last month that the article was in breach of the Editors' Code of Practice. But rather than correct the errors, the Mail Online simply removed the article from its website without posting any explanation or apology.
Then this week, the Mail Online demonstrated that it had learned nothing from the episode when it misrepresented a new paper on 'Orbital forcing of tree-ring data' by a group of German, Swiss, Finnish and UK scientists, published in the journal Nature Climate Change on 8 July.
The study describes a reconstruction of summer temperatures over the past 2,000 years in northern Scandinavia based on an analysis of tree rings, concluding that there has been a gradual cooling trend over this period and that regional temperatures during Medieval and Roman times may have been warmer than previously thought.
Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, issued a press release about the new paper on 9 July to publicise the role of one of its staff, Professor Jan Esper, as lead author of the study. The release provides an accurate summary of some of the key points under the heading 'Climate in northern Europe reconstructed for the past 2,000 years: Cooling trend calculated precisely for the first time'.
Somewhat predictably, the press release was picked up by climate change 'sceptics', who are obsessed with the Medieval Warm Period in the profoundly mistaken belief that if it can be proved that global average temperature was higher than today about 1,000 years ago, it will overturn the many lines of compelling evidence that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are causing the Earth to warm now. The current evidence suggests that some parts of the northern hemisphere may indeed have been as warm during the Medieval Warm Period as they are today, but it is not clear that it was a global warming.
'Watts Up With That', the climate change 'sceptic' website in the United States, reproduced the press release on 9 July under the headline 'This is what global cooling really looks like - new tree ring study shows 2,000 years of cooling - previous studies underestimated temperatures of Roman and Medieval Warm Periods'. This headline, of course, wrongly indicated that the study had investigated global temperatures, rather than just those in northern Scandinavia.
As is so often the case, the distorted account of the research paper's contents was soon transmitted to climate change 'sceptics' in the UK. On 11 July, The Register, a UK online newspaper for computing professionals which has a bizarre sideline in misleading and inaccurate reports about climate change, followed the lead set by 'Watts Up With That', with a story about the research under the headline 'Climate Was Hotter in Roman, Medieval Times Than Now'. The second paragraph of the article by Lewis Page, published at 12.44 pm on 10 July, states: "A large team of scientists making a comprehensive study of data from tree rings say that in fact global temperatures have been on a falling trend for the past 2,000 years and they have often been noticeably higher than they are today - despite the absence of any significant amounts of human-released carbon dioxide back then".
Page's inaccurate report was reproduced at 8:48 am on 11 July on the website of the UK's main lobby group for climate change 'sceptics', the Global Warming Policy Foundation, before it was eventually spotted by Rob Waugh, a journalist for the Mail Online, whose Twitter profile describes him as "UK journalist writing about the web, gadgets, games etc". Waugh's account of the research paper, published on 11 July at 1:22 pm, propagated the glaring inaccuracies introduced by 'Watts Up With That' and The Register, under the headline 'Tree-rings prove climate was WARMER in Roman and Medieval times than it is now - and world has been cooling for 2,000 years'. The opening paragraph of the article states: "Rings in fossilised pine trees have proven that the world was much warmer than previously thought - and the earth has been slowly COOLING for 2,000 years".
When I contacted by e-mail Dr Robert Wilson, a co-author on the research paper and a Senior Lecturer in Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, he sent me this response:
"Of course the Mail has gone too far. Our paper is for northern Scandinavian summer temperatures so extrapolating to large scale annual temperatures is not really correct. However, previous regional tree-ring series have been used in large scale compilations and if there are low frequency biases in ring-width series, then it is likely that previous attempts may underestimate temperatures in previous warm periods such as the RWP [Roman Warm Period] and MCA [Medieval Climatic Anomaly]. More density series need to be developed from other regions to test this however."
This case yet again exposes the apparent total disregard that the Mail Online has for the current self-regulatory rules about accuracy, and its willingness to misrepresent the results of climate research. However its slavish regurgitation of this sort of climate change 'sceptic' propaganda is making it a national laughing stock.
Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.Suggest a correction