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Researchers must stay on the moral high ground

This important article was published in New Scientist last week. It's a very important message that clarifies the nonsense that's been talked about in many of the UK newspapers and media in the last couple of weeks.

The disclosure of personal emails can be embarrassing. And so it proved this week when hundreds of them, accumulated over more than a decade in the files of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, UK, tumbled into the public domain as a result of an illegal hack.

Climate change deniers claim that the emails expose a conspiracy at work to make human-induced global warming a fact. A columnist for the Guardian newspaper in London said that the emails could scarcely be more damaging. One blog for the Daily Telegraph, also in London, called it "Climategate: the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming", adding "this scandal could well be the greatest in modern science". The sceptical climate scientist Patrick Michaels told the New York Times: "This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud."

But the charge that the emails are proof of a climate change swindle is ludicrous. As we report (see "Hacked archive provides fodder for climate sceptics"), there is no evidence in the hundreds of emails that data is being systematically falsified or dishonestly manipulated in refereed journals.

The overwhelming impression from this peek into the world of climate scientists is their anger about voluble outsiders who won't play the game by the accepted rules of science. They mean those naysayers who generally publish by blog or in non-peer-reviewed journals; who demand access to raw data and personal computer codes; who take preconceived positions to which almost any data will be moulded - and who then accuse the other side of playing dirty.

This anger is understandable. Over the past two decades, the CRU has compiled the most authoritative record of recent temperatures on the planet. It is how we know the world is warming. Yet its researchers have been inundated over the past few years with what feel like unreasonable and malicious demands for their raw data. They fear the hacking of their emails is the culmination of a concerted attack by data terrorists.

Climate researchers have been inundated with what feel like malicious demands for their data

They deserve to be protected. The trouble is that there should also be a place in the scientific dialogue for critics to make their views known, for the heretics who are not part of the scientific consensus.

Researchers being paid from the public purse should not treat their detractors as enemies but make reasonable attempts to engage with them honestly, no matter how unpalatable their views. Nor should they ask each other to delete emails - in response, apparently, to a freedom of information request. Scientists in general need to address how such destructive antagonism can be prevented, before the flow of research data dwindles. If that were to happen, science itself becomes the victim.

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