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Global warming - Grudgingly, many scientists are beginning to engage critics, admit mistakes and open up their data.

world Updated: Mar 04, 2010 01:12 IST

For months, climate scientists have taken a vicious beating in the media and on the Internet, accused of hiding data, covering up errors and suppressing alternate views. Their response until now has been largely to assert the legitimacy of the vast body of climate science and to mock their critics as cranks and know-nothings.

But the volume of criticism and the depth of doubt have only grown, and many scientists now realise they are facing a crisis of public confidence and have to fight back. Tentatively and grudgingly, they are beginning to engage their critics, admit mistakes, open up their data and reshape the way they conduct their work.

The unauthorised release last fall of hundreds of e-mail messages from a major climate research centre in England, and more recent revelations of a handful of errors in a supposedly authoritative U.N. report on climate change, have created what a number of top scientists say is a major breach of faith in their research.

They say the uproar threatens to undermine decades of work and has badly damaged public trust in the scientific enterprise.

The e-mail episode, dubbed “climategate” by critics, revealed arrogance and what one top climate researcher called “tribalism” among some scientists.

The correspondence appears to show efforts to limit publication of contrary opinion and to evade Freedom of Information Act requests. The content of the messages opened some well-known scientists to charges of concealing temperature data from rival researchers and manipulating results to conform to precooked conclusions.

“I have obviously written some very awful e-mails,” Phil Jones, the British climate scientist at the centre of the controversy, confessed to a special committee of Parliament on Monday. But he disputed charges that he had hidden data or faked results.

Some of the serious allegations against Jones, director of the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia, and other researchers have been debunked, while several investigations are under way to determine whether others hold up.

But serious damage has already been done. A survey conducted in late December by Yale University and George Mason University found that the number of Americans who believed that climate change was a hoax or scientific conspiracy had more than doubled since 2008, to 16 per cent of the population from 7 per cent.

Climate scientists have been shaken by the criticism and are beginning to look for ways to recover their reputation.

They are learning a little humility and trying to make sure they avoid crossing a line into policy advocacy.

First Published: Mar 04, 2010 01:10 IST