The Daily Mail’s critical thinking test

On  14th February this year, British newspaper the Daily Mail inadvertently published a critical thinking test in its paper and web site. Some of the people who failed the test have been loudly proclaiming it on blogs, opinion columns and comments in forums such as The Guardian‘s Comment is Free. Apparently they don’t know they failed.

The article reported an interview with climate scientist Prof Phil Jones. The headline tells us that Prof. Jones has admitted that “there has been no global warming since 1995.” This article has been used as a “citation” by global warming deniers to show that there’s no scientific consensus on the reality of global warming. To a critical thinker, this should be very suspect. Let’s go through the mistakes one by one.

They didn’t read the source they were citing. Here’s a quote from the Mail article

He also agreed that there had been two periods which experienced similar warming…

Wait! “Similar” to what? We were just told that global warming isn’t happening!

…but said these could be explained by natural phenomena whereas more recent warming could not.

So while the headline says there’s no warming, the article itself talks about a recent warming that isn’t natural. This source undermines the point it’s being used to support.

They didn’t fact-check. The Daily Mail piece was entirely based on an article on the BBC web site. It’s nothing more than a commentary on that interview, which presents Prof. Jones’ exact words. The BBC interview can be found very rapidly with a search engine such as Google. In the interview, Prof. Jones is absolutely clear that the world is warming and that it can’t be explained by purely natural activity. He sets out a clear, consistent and appropriately cautious position. This explains the inconsistencies in the Daily Mail piece: the headline was, as the Economist‘s blog post has called it, a lie.

They presented as fact something which is controversial. A quick Google News search at the time of the article found plenty of articles calling the Mail out on its misrepresentation of Prof. Jones. For example, the LA Times writes, “The way [the Mail] cherry-picked and repackaged Jones’ February talk with the BBC would be laughable if the result hadn’t been so misleading.”

They didn’t consider the source. Perhaps it’s not well-known outside the UK and Ireland, but the Daily Mail has a long history of pseudo-science reporting. In the 1990s, it was enthusiastically promoting the Bible Code (the idea of hidden messages in the original text of the Bible) after that had been thoroughly debunked. Like other tabloids, they bought into (and promoted) the MMR-autism scare and other damaging health claims, while promoting perpetual motion machines and similar nonsense (documented in Bed Goldacre’s Bad Science book and blog). Whether the Mail staff are scientifically illiterate or just cynically telling its readers what they want to hear, I don’t know: I suspect both.

They suffered from irony failure. If you want to claim that the climate scientists are selective with evidence, use unreliable sources, hide controversy and taint the facts with spin, it can’t help your argument if it brazenly does exactly what you’re complaining about. There is a particular irony in using the Daily Mail to complain about “politicised” science. The Mail reports on political and social matters from a very right-wing point of view (it was pro-Nazi back in the 1930s). If you think science is being distorted and spun to serve an ideology, it’s hugely ironic to “cite” this source out of all the others you could use.

This is a staggering list. To sum up, deniers who use this didn’t just make a critical thinking mistake. They didn’t do any critical thinking at all.

Some more analysis of this incident – and the hate being directed against scientists by deniers – comes in video form in this Climate Denial Crock of the Week episode:

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