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Willie Soon Be Gone?

Mar. 06, 2015 by | Comments (77)

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In the past few weeks, there has been a tremendous furor over the disclosure of the ethics of a noted climate denier, Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon. He has been one of the “stars” of the climate denial lobby, spending most of his time speaking to right-wing media and denialist groups, and being promoted by prominent denialist politicians like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Even though the problems with his research, and with his funding, were public knowledge for many years, it made news because of recent discoveries revealed by the New York Times of just how much money he was paid for his work. His situation is even more problematic because he failed to report this funding in his publications and signed “conflict of interest” statements that he then violated. Naturally, the denialist institutes and right-wing media have fought back and defended their man, and Soon himself made a statement (brilliantly dissected by Greg Laden) to the press in his own defense. But the facts of the case seems incontrovertible, no matter what you might think of the climate change debate, and it appears that serious consequences will be forthcoming.

First, some background. Soon is often hyped as a “noted climate change scientist”. He is nothing of the sort. His doctorate was in aerospace engineering, with a thesis on plasma physics, so he has no research experience or specialized training in the fields of climate science on which he so often writes, such as ice cores, tree rings, atmospheric chemistry, and even polar bears. As I have written many times, beware of people working outside their own field of training! A Ph.D. does not make you a universal expert, and if your doctorate is not in the appropriate field and you have no peer-reviewed publications in the relevant fields, your are no more qualified to write about climate science or evolutionary biology or any other specialized field than you are qualified to write a symphony or fix a car. Climate science, in particular, is plagued by the intrusion of people from other unrelated fields of science (especially unrelated areas of physics). They seem to think that they can do this research and know what it’s about when they’ve never studied an ice core, spent hours looking down the microscope at planktonic microfossils (as I have), run isotopes on a mass spectrometer (as I have), analyzed atmospheric gases or satellite images. These are the specialized research skills you must have to know enough about the primary data and its limitations to do this sort of work competently. If you don’t have this first-hand research experience, you’re just an outsider, an amateur dabbling in a field you don’t really understand. Yet Soon has written attacks on climate science in these very fields (but these papers are never published in respected peer-reviewed journals), even though his only relevant training is understanding the physics of the solar wind and solar radiation.

Second, supporters of Soon often tout his affiliation with the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, as proof he is legitimate because he works for respected institutions. In truth, Soon is not an employee of the SAO, nor an employee of Harvard, but merely an adjunct scientist, allowed to use the facilities and the institutional name, but not paid to work there; nor does the SAO endorse his research. This is a classic case of institutional credential-mongmering, where someone like Soon got his connection through noted climate denier and astrophysicist Robert Jastrow (who hired him right out of grad school to work at Mt. Wilson, where Jastrow was director) before moving on to SAO. When Soon started at SAO, his relevant research was about solar plasmas, which is a legitimate topic to study there. But since then, his work has stretched far beyond his training, and it shows. This is comparable to the famous case of Richard Sternberg, the creationist who held unpaid temporary associate position at the Smithsonian, which meant he had a small office and could use their affiliation for three years. But then he began using his affiliation to push his creationist agenda, and the Smithsonian disavowed Sternberg for his dishonest use of his temporary affiliation. His affiliation had expired anyway; they did not “fire him”, as creationists claim.

This is not the place to list all of Soon’s discredited science, but a few examples are illustrative. In 2003, he and Sallie Baliunas published a review paper (an invited paper to give an overview on a topic, which are normally not carefully reviewed nor rejected) in the journal Climate Research, where he falsely claimed that the twentieth century was not the warmest of the past millennium (based on data from tree rings, ice cores, and other data he is not trained to understand). The problems with the paper and its conclusions were many. Soon and Baliunas used data from changes in moisture, rather than temperature; they did not distinguish between regional and hemispheric mean temperature anomalies; and they reconstructed past temperatures from proxy evidence that does not have the resolution to distinguish decadal trends. This paper was torn to pieces by the scientific community for its slipshod methodology, misuse of statistics, and cherry-picking and deliberate misrepresentations, and 40% of the editorial board of the journal resigned from the board over the journal’s failure to conduct proper peer review.

In 2007, Soon published an unreviewed editorial letter in the journal Ecological Complexity, claiming that there was no decline in polar bear populations, a claim that is patently false. Most readers will not see the “Viewpoints” heading and realize that this claim is just an editorial, not a reviewed scientific paper, so it gets cited again and again by climate deniers despite the overwhelming evidence of the damage to the Arctic ecosystem.

In 2003, in anticipation of the 2004 IPCC report on climate change, Soon and his denialist buddies plotted an attack paper on a report that wasn’t even finished! In files released from Soon’s work, he wrote:

“Clearly they [the AR4 chapters] may be too much for any one of us to tackle them all … But, as A-team, we may for once give it our best shot to try to anticipate and counter some of the chapters, especially WG1—judging from our true expertise in the basic climate sciences … Even if we can tackle ONE single chapter down the road but forcefully and effectively … we will really accomplish A LOT! In all cases, I hope we can start discussing among ourselves to see what we can do to weaken the fourth assessment report or to re-direct attention back to science …”

This is not the writing of an objective scientist, waiting for results to be properly reviewed and published before critiquing them, but a “merchant of doubt” playing a PR game to create controversy and confusion about a scientific topic for ideological and political, not scientific reasons.

Despite Soon's claim that global warming is due to increased solar radiation, the actual data show that the radiation has been decreasing as the planet has warmed. (From http://skepticalscience.com/solar-activity-sunspots-global-warming.htm)

Despite Soon’s claim that global warming is due to increased solar radiation, the actual data show that the radiation has been decreasing as the planet has warmed. (From http://skepticalscience.com/solar-activity-sunspots-global-warming.htm)

Soon’s main claim to fame, however, is his interpretation of the historical data of solar radiation on the earth, and his argument that increased solar input explains global warming. This research has been thoroughly debunked many times, mostly because Soon has misinterpreted the data source, misused statistics, and cherry-picks the results that support his predetermined conclusions. More importantly, even if it were true that the solar input were increasing (when it has actually been decreasing for the past 45 years), the difference in the amount of solar radiation is minuscule. It would not make nearly enough difference in the global temperature compared to the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming. Yet Soon has testified many times that the warming of the earth is due to the sun, not man-made causes, and makes his living now claiming that anthropogenic climate change is not real.

All of these examples of incompetent and politicized science should have led to Soon’s dismissal long ago, but somehow the SAO is either very tolerant of his freedom of speech and freedom to do bad science, or else reluctant to deal with him for fear of the controversy over “censorship.” But this time Soon has done something worse that conducting bad science: he committed ethics violations. It has been well known for years that all of Soon’s funding comes from energy companies like ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, and from the denialist fronts that they fund. This is itself is serious problem, because it clearly presents “conflict of interest” problems if Soon is cranking out research that is biased to please his funders. But even more shocking is what the New York Times reported:

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work. The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

This is very serious. Nearly every scientific journal requires that you clearly disclose any sources of funding, and most also require that you sign a statement about “conflict of interest” to prove that you have not biased your results to please the funder. This is not a simple slip-up by Soon, but a deliberate effort to not reveal the obscene amounts of money he was getting paid, and where it came from. Such an ethics violation, if proven, would typically lead to a strong action (such as dismissal) by any university or research institute in the country, no matter how famous you were, and how good your previous reputation might have been. In particular his description of his work as “deliverables,” something bought and paid for by his funders, clearly shows his intent to act as a “hired gun” and give his funding sources what they paid for—not following the data wherever they may lead, and interpreting them honestly and in an unbiased fashion, as a real scientist must do.

I’m not saying that taking money from energy companies automatically taints your research or disqualifies you from being relevant to climate change science. A great counter-example is UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, who was initially a climate doubter. As I blogged about previously, he accepted funding from ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, and other denialist sources to re-examine the global temperature data compiled by NOAA, the Goddard Institute of Space Science, and the Hadley Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. He did so, and then in March 2011 shocked the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Committee, who called him as a sympathetic expert witness to debunk the temperature data. Instead, Muller behaved like a real scientist: he realized that the data from the other three institutes were indeed valid, and told the hearing so. It says a lot about Muller that he kept his scientific integrity and followed the data wherever they might lead, rather than bias his results to please those who paid him.

The Soon affair has actually blown up in the climate denialists’ faces. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) has just announced a congressional investigation of science funding by the denialist lobby:

“For years, fossil fuel interests and front groups have attacked climate scientists and legislation to cut carbon pollution using junk science and debunked arguments,” Markey said in a statement. “The American public deserve an honest debate that isn’t polluted by the best junk science fossil fuel interests can buy. That’s why I will be launching this investigation to see how widespread this denial-for-hire scheme stretches within the anti-climate action cabal.”

So what will happen to Willie Soon? Now that the Soon affair has exploded in controversy over his ethics violations, expect the bosses at the SAO to terminate his connection to them. According to the New York Times:

Charles R. Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, acknowledged on Friday that Dr. Soon had violated the disclosure standards of some journals. “I think that’s inappropriate behavior,” Dr. Alcock said. “This frankly becomes a personnel matter, which we have to handle with Dr. Soon internally.” “I am aware of the situation with Willie Soon, and I’m very concerned about it,” W. John Kress, interim under secretary for science at the Smithsonian in Washington, said on Friday. “We are checking into this ourselves.”

The Smithsonian just released the following statement:

The Smithsonian is greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon’s failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research.
The Smithsonian is taking immediate action to address the issue: Acting Secretary Albert Horvath has asked the Smithsonian Inspector General to review the matter. Horvath will also lead a full review of Smithsonian ethics and disclosure policies governing the conduct of sponsored research to ensure they meet the highest standards. Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon is a part-time researcher at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. He was hired to conduct research on long-term stellar and solar variability. The Smithsonian does not fund Dr. Soon; he pursues external grants to fund his research.
The Smithsonian does not support Dr. Soon’s conclusions on climate change. The Smithsonian’s official statement on climate change, based upon many decades of scientific research, points to human activities as a cause of global warming.

Bye, bye, Willie. We in the scientific community are not sorry to see you go.

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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