What’s in a name: Willie Soon and the public perception of credibility

Update:  Inside Climate News has profiled my experience with Soon here.

I attended a conference billed as a forum for scientists in Boise in 2010, in which the panelists – and one in particular – delivered angry, polemic, nonscientific arguments against climate change. It was nauseating to watch one notable scientist cherry-pick data from short time frames and small geographic areas to try and debunk centuries of global data showing a rise in global temperatures.

At one point, the scientist, Dr. Wei­Hock “Willie” Soon, claimed rising acidification of ocean water would lead to larger shells and bulkier weights for lobster and crab populations.

Not many in the crowd would have known that lobsters and crabs have chitinous exoskeletons, not calcium carbonate shells. The carbonate chemistry of the ocean has been massively altered by CO2-induced acidification, as demonstrated by numerous experiments and observation of imperiled shellfish populations. His conclusion about lobster and crabs was not only irrelevant; it was false. Nevertheless, the audience nodded their approval. I sat there stunned.

Quoted in a National Public Radio story on Soon, University of Rochester professor Adam Frank gave a similar reaction to the flimsy nature of one of his talks. “If Soon had been giving a Ph.D. defense,” Frank reported, “he would have been skewered.”

For many citizens, when a “Harvard climate scientist” says global warming doesn’t exist and thus presents no threat to civilization, the argument stops there.

But what if such a conclusion didn’t come from Harvard, wasn’t done by a climate scientist, and was funded by corporations vested in the outcome?

The motivations of scientifically corrupt climate change deniers were laid bare last week with reports in The New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian that Soon – a scientist at the Harvard­ Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics – accepted more than $1.2 million from the petroleum industry over the last decade to write papers – “deliverables,” he called them – attempting to debunk the scientific fact of rapidly increasing global temperatures.

Worse, he failed to disclose those payments. The New York Times reported at least 11 papers he published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure. “In at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work,” the Times reported.

As is common among Harvard-Smithsonian scientists, Soon — who claims variations in the sun’s energy explain global warming – is expected to bring in external funds to support the Center. He relies on outside grant money, which the Center for Astrophysics doesn’t require its scientists to disclose.

Soon is often described as a “Harvard astrophysicist,” but he is neither. A Harvard spokesperson told the Times that Soon has never been employed by the university … even though he carries a Harvard ID and uses a Harvard email address. And he is not an astrophysicist; he is a part-­time employee of the Smithsonian Institution with a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering. There’s a difference, but one that is easily lost on many audiences.

There should be no confusion. The vast majority of experts – real climatologists with no vested interest except scientific truth – have concluded climate change is real, and that human-caused emissions pose long-­term risks to civilization.

This controversy reveals an inherent tension between academic freedom and the role of the scientific establishment in verifying the integrity of its participants. Should we look the other way when science is compromised by outside interests simply to respect the freedom of scholarship?

For the world of higher education, the problem is less with the industry-funded research that attempts to debunk scientifically undeniable underpinnings of global warming than with the cloak of academic legitimacy beneath which such efforts are hidden.

For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments with industry-funded people like Soon. Soon testified before Congress and infected the debate in state capitals, damaging our ability to shield civilization from further harm.

But Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, said academic institutions and scientific journals have been too lax in vetting dubious research created to serve a corporate agenda, and she called on the journals that published Soon’s work to disclose the corporate funding behind it. I concur but, sadly, much irreparable damage has been done when the world of higher education is associated with junk science like Soon’s.

Just as the fight against global climate change is an ethical call to do the right thing by our planet and for the generations of our children and grandchildren who hope to inherit it; the academic community needs to look deeply at itself and start implementing ethical reforms that protect the integrity of academia. That means full disclosure of funding sources and a new look at whether public funding of scientific research is sufficient, and whether privately funded research is sufficiently tracked.

Meanwhile, for the sake of the preservation of critical thinking and the restoration of higher education to its place at the pinnacle of our civilization, we join the call of Dr. Oreskes – and scores of other legitimate, peer-reviewed scholars – that Soon’s papers be consigned to the trash heap, and that any legislation or policy debates arising from his work be revisited and rescinded.

Dr. Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College, holds a Ph.D. in biology and ecology from The University of Pennsylvania and served as director of the environmental science program at the University of Idaho and science adviser to the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida.