WASHINGTON — 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 realize 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 unauthorized release last fall of hundreds of e-mail messages from a major climate research center in England, and more recent revelations of a handful of errors in a supposedly authoritative United Nations 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 center of the controversy, confessed to a special committee of Parliament on Monday. But he sharply disputed charges that he had hidden data or faked results.