Blog Archive

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

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

by Stephen Mulkey,, March 4, 2015
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. Wei ­Hock “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 scientists – 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 — and soon.
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.

About Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey has recently served as Director of Research and Outreach/Extension for the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida, and as science advisor to the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida. During this period, he was tenured faculty in the Department of Botany, and a research associate with the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida. He received a PhD in ecology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986. Prior to coming to the University of Florida in 1996, Mulkey co-founded and later directed the International Center for Tropical Ecology, a nationally ranked graduate training and conservation program at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Mulkey's research was focused on tropical forest form and function, and he was affiliated for over 20 years as a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution, Tropical Research Institute. He is a scholar of the interdisciplinary literature in climate change and sustainability. Mulkey is active as a public interpreter of climate change science. His recent research focuses on the role of landscape carbon stocks in climate mitigation. Beginning in August 2008, he joined the faculty at the University of Idaho as director of the program in Environmental Science. He has been the lead in obtaining National Science Foundation funding for the creation of the new Professional Science Master’s degree at the University of Idaho. Supported by major funding from NASA, he is presently directing a project focused on climate change education. Stephen Mulkey is the current president of Unity College in Unity, Maine. Efforts led by Mulkey have resulted in Unity College being the first college in the US to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and the first college in the US to adopt sustainability science as the framework for all academic programming.

No comments: