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Big brother meets climate change

Self-censorship of private scientific e-mail-exchanges cannot be the solution to the threat from hackers.

It would be easy for climate scientists to become paranoid following the public exposition of thousands of private messages in one climate researcher's inbox. The illegal hack into the computers of the world-renowned Climatic Research Unit in Norwich, UK has brought the dwindling fringe of climate change deniers a rare flurry of media attention.

Whatever is written in the e-mail exchanges of any one climate researcher will not make a noticeable dent in the scientific case for global warming. Both the community of researchers and the independent lines of evidence are too diverse to allow this to happen. Nevertheless, the story — big brother meets climate change — was too good to let go, and the timing, just before the Copenhagen climate conference, was perfect.

Amidst the calls for more caution in communication, it must be remembered that e-mails are an essential scientific tool when research groups span continents and schedules are tight. Yes, there is a limit to what should be put in writing. But in messages that are not meant for the public eye, there must be room for an open-minded and opinionated discussion, for example, of the quality of papers published by other authors. And when writing to someone who is familiar with the context, there is generally no need to choose every word quite so carefully.

If private messages are exposed through criminal activities, it is important for the affected parties to make the context available to the public speedily. And in the case of the Norwich e-mails, more climate researchers should have assured the public more quickly that the case for human-induced climate change is not affected. The alternative — making every private e-mail between scientists unambiguous and fit for public consumption — would seriously hinder the progress of science.

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Big brother meets climate change. Nature Geosci 3, 1 (2010).

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