A Willie Soon Reader

The lead scientist of climate change denial crashed and burned in a funding scandal. Here’s how the Internet reacted.

February 26, 2015

There are vanishingly few climate change deniers with legitimate scientific credentials. And each one of those holdouts is incalculably valuable to politicians and energy-industry lobbyists trying to convince the public that global warming isn’t happening.

Last week, deniers witnessed the professional evisceration of one of their favorite scientists, Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. An aerospace engineer by training, Soon claims that variations in solar intensity are responsible for climate change, a hypothesis that has been investigated and debunked repeatedly by more accomplished scientists. He’s perhaps even more infamous for his claim—again debunked—that global warming is not threatening polar bears.

Soon now finds himself in a major funding scandal. The New York Times and many others report that he has accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry and failed to disclose that conflict of interest in his scientific papers. Disclosure of financial conflicts is fundamental to the way journals review submissions. Accepting industry funding subjects an author to enhanced scrutiny in peer review and skepticism from readers. Lying about it is enough to turn a scientist into a pariah.

There’s something slightly dissatisfying about Soon losing his last shred of credibility in a funding scandal—his atrocious science really should have been his undoing. It’s a little like sending Al Capone to prison on tax evasion charges.

But there’s still some sweet, delicious schadenfreude to be had from the incident. Here is a brief summary of some of the most interesting, amusing, and on-point coverage of the downfall of Willie Soon.

Is Willie Soon America’s Andrew Wakefield?
By Darrell Lucus
The Daily Kos

If you need evidence that failure to disclose a financial conflict really matters, look no further than ex-physician Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, he published one of the most destructive studies in medical history. It claimed that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine caused autism. (I will not link to the paper, lest I drive traffic toward it.) Wakefield did not disclose that his study was partially funded by lawyers preparing to sue vaccine manufacturers, nor that some of the litigants were among his study subjects. The shoddy research launched dozens of expensive clinical trials, which have repeatedly ruled out any link between vaccines and autism. The Lancet withdrew the original paper, and Wakefield eventually lost his medical license, but his legacy lives on in the form of falling vaccination rates and the reemergence of measles transmission in the United States. Willie Soon carries on Wakefield’s unfortunate tradition.

My Depressing Day with a Famous Climate Change Skeptic
By Adam Frank
NPR

Most of us will never get to see Soon deliver a lecture—especially now that no legitimate organization would invite him. Astrophysicist Adam Frank, a professor at the University of Rochester, had that opportunity a few years ago. According to Frank, Soon lacked “a clear line of argument or clear justifications for his claims” and barely acknowledged that the vast majority of scientists in the field rejected his views. Frank personally confronted him on that, but Soon had “very little to say” in his defense. At the end of the day, one question about climate change deniers lingered in Frank’s mind: “Is that the best they have?"

Why We All Believe Our Own Favorite Scientific ‘Experts’—and Why They Believe Themselves
By Chris Mooney
Washington Post
If you’re a climatologist—or even modestly well-read in climate science—it’s easy enough to spot the flaws in Soon’s research. But the more important issue in the current political environment is why so many people choose not to spot those flaws. Why do people listen to scientists who confirm their own preconceived notions rather than seeking out the best science? Chris Mooney is America’s leading journalist on this very topic. In this piece, he explores the minds of Soon’s followers. (Many of those, by the way, reject the idea that Soon has done anything wrong and dismiss this whole “financial conflict of interest” thing as a left-wing vendetta against poor Dr. Soon. Well, not poor, exactly…you know what I mean.)

More Willie Soon
By Greg Laden
ScienceBlogs

Biological anthropologist and superstar science blogger Greg Laden has been all over the Soon story. All his posts make excellent reading. In this article, he raises important questions about why Soon’s employer, supposedly a prestigious research institution, allowed him to ride the fossil fuel gravy train for years without blowing the whistle or simply firing Soon without fanfare. This quiet complicity calls the center’s integrity and independence into question. Laden also cites a story showing that former Virginia attorney general and climate change denier Ken Cuccinelli cited Soon’s research. There will likely be more politicians dragged into SoonGate in the coming days and weeks.

Willie Soon: ‘Too Much Ice Is Really Bad for Polar Bears’
By Sabrina Shankman
InsideClimate News

If you want to read some of Soon’s most preposterous statements all in one place, Shankman has you covered brilliantly. The best may be the title of one of his speeches (which reads more like performance art than a scientific lecture): “Endangering the Polar Bear: How Environmentalists Kill.” Enjoy.


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