Wei-Hock Soon, an aerospace engineer and a part-time employee at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is one of the few respected scientists who spoke against the general consensus that human activity is a significant contributor to climate change. He has published 11 papers on climate change since 2008. However, it was recently shown that he received $1.2 million from oil companies in exchange for his “science”. According to leaked documents, the  papers were simply “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe a testimony he prepared for Congress.

Science against money

Image via Climate Change Psychology.

Climate change denial has very little credibility. Just 0.17% percent of all published peer reviewed papers on climate change claim that the climate change is not happening or is not man-made. There is no scientific debate as one sided as this, and yet, despite a basic consensus, the media still disproportionately includes the views of climate skeptics. When you also consider that 9 out of 10 top climate change deniers are linked with the biggest private oil company (Exxon Mobil), it becomes even clearer why we have this lack of credibility.

Wei-Hock Soon, or “Willie” as he likes to be called is one of the very few scientists who actually claimed that climate change is not related to human activities. He claims that solar variation is causing rising temperatures across the world. Interestingly enough, he has no formal training in climatology – and despite being quoted as an “astrophysicist”, he is actually an aerospace engineer, which is vastly different. He’s also not a Harvard Scientist per se – he is a part-time employee of the Smithsonian Institution which is associated with Harvard. However, Willie doesn’t receive federal funding – he is responsible for obtaining his own money.

He also uses (according to other researchers) out-of-date data, publishes spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators, and does not take account of the evidence implicating emissions from human behavior in climate change.

Gavin A. Schmidt, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, a NASA division that studies climate change, said that the sun had probably accounted for no more than 10 percent of recent global warming and that greenhouse gases produced by human activity explained most of it.

“The science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless,” Dr. Schmidt said.

In a way, this is similar to the tobacco wars of the 1960s – it was clear that tobacco was having a negative health impact, but because the industry was so lucrative, huge amounts of money were poured into making people believe that this is not actually the case; spoiler alert – it was. Today, the oil industry is by far the most profitable in the world, with companies like Exxon or Shell making over $2 billion profits a month. These companies also tend to be the biggest polluters; a 2013 study found that 90 private companies are responsible for 60% of all the global emissions. Apparently, a small part of their profits went to financing scientists (and I use the term liberally) like Willie.

“The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University and the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” a book about such campaigns, and “The Fall of Western Civilization“. “Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.”

Indeed, Willie had no problem in finding himself a warm home with Washington legislators like Senator James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who claims that “only God can change the climate“. Because hey, if you can put scientists (and their “deliverables”) on your payroll, why not get a few politicians too, right?

“What it shows is the continuation of a long-term campaign by specific fossil-fuel companies and interests to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change,” said Kert Davies, executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, a group funded by foundations seeking to limit the risks of climate change.

Black science

The thing is, while it’s highly questionable from an ethical point of view, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with receiving money from an oil company – as long as you disclose it, and as long as the money goes into actual research, not straight into your pockets. This is not what Dr. Soon did, according to leaked documents. The documents were obtained by Greenpeace, the environmental group, under the Freedom of Information Act. The biggest single donation of $230,000 came from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation; in case you don’t know, the Koch brothers made most of their fortune from oil refining, and they have a long history of tampering with science. Over the years, at least $409,000 of Dr. Soon’s funding in the past decade came from Southern Company Services, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, one of the biggest utility holding companies in the country, with huge investments in coal-burning power plants. They also invest heavily in anti-climate change lobbying. Companies such as Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Institute seemed to have eliminated donations in recent years, but curiously, just as they eliminated their funding, donations from DonorsTrust, an organization that accepts money from donors who wish to remain anonymous increased.

Chart via American Progress.

Charles R. Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, acknowledged on Friday that Dr. Soon had violated the disclosure standards of some journals and said that he will have to deal with this solution.

“I think that’s inappropriate behavior,” Dr. Alcock said. “This frankly becomes a personnel matter, which we have to handle with Dr. Soon internally.”

Dr. Soon was not  available for comments. In fact, he rarely responds to questions, except the times when the questions are asked by conservative media outlets. According to the NY Times, he has reacted angrily to questions about his funding sources, but ultimately admitted some corporate ties and said that they had not altered his scientific findings.

“I write proposals; I let them decide whether to fund me or not,” he said at an event in Madison, Wis., in 2013. “If they choose to fund me, I’m happy to receive it.” A moment later, he added, “I would never be motivated by money for anything.”

What will happen now

It’s not clear what will happen next. Dr. Soon is discredited and he has lost pretty much all his credibility. But then again, he had little credibility to begin with, and was still quoted by the Senate. His papers will likely be removed, since he violated the ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work by not disclosing his source of funding – I find it highly unlikely that the journals will continue to back him up. Scientific journals can’t really check out every publishing scientist to see where his money comes from, so they just have to trust him. If that trust is breached, there can only be one response.

“We assume that when people put stuff in a paper, or anywhere else, they’re basically being honest,” said Dr. Strangeway, editor of the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics.

As for Harvard and the Smithsonian, they may or may not remove him. It’s not clear at this point whether the institutions actually knew where his funding was coming from; if they did, then they will likely be more flexible and allow him to continue his “work”. Still, this is a significant case which may set a precedent – preventing such future cases from happening, or on the contrary, giving corporate money a green light for buying more scientists.

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Dr. Oreskes, the Harvard science historian, said that academic institutions and scientific journals had been too lax in recent decades in ferreting out dubious research created to serve a corporate agenda.

“I think universities desperately need to look more closely at this issue,” Dr. Oreskes said. She added that Dr. Soon’s papers omitting disclosure of his corporate funding should be retracted by the journals that published them.

 

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16 Comments

  1. 1

    Nice try you fear mongers!

    *34 years and still not the climate action you remaining “believers” want. Gee, maybe you should have forced science to break the rules to SAVE THE PLANET and have said; “PROVEN” instead of 34 years of “could be” from science and 34 years of “will be” from you conservative hating eager “believers”. Who’s the fear mongering neocon now? You goose step our kids to your exaggerated greenhouse gas ovens with sickening childish glee and call yourselves; “progressives”? How about uncivilized?

  2. 2

    what are you talking about you mouth-breathing dung-heap? I can tell from the buzz words that you are one of these fringe radical dipshits that can’t understand science and hates reality, but I cannot for the life of me tell what your point is in this post.

  3. 3

    not surprisingly, the GOP is flopping around in the muck with this guy. Koch industries, big oil, and a GOP Senator, all tied to a lying scumbag with no morals.

  4. 4

    mememine… what an idiot. I am a student at a research university and have helped climatolagists gather data and compile it into something meaningful. You, frankly, have no idea what you are talking about.

  5. 5

    Firing and blacklisting are appropriate and standard responses for this sort of corruption in science.

  6. 6

    Yeah, nice try. Soon has a Ph.d, He is a scientist. His fields of expertise are Earth Science and Solar Physics. Anyone who tries to dismiss him as a mere engineer who is unqualified in the area of climate science is either a liar or ignorant.

    I want to remind everyone that the allegation Soon has received undisclosed funding from the fossil fuel industry is just that – an allegation. It is too easy for a malicious party to fabricate a “leaked” document for the express purpose of sullying Soon’s reputation, in the hope that by the time the truth surfaces the damage caused to Soon will be irreparable, forever leaving a lingering smudge on his name.

    On March 2 Soon made a statement about the allegations, saying ‘He had “been the target of attacks in the press by various radical environmental and politically motivated groups”. He described this as “a shameless attempt to silence my scientific research and writings, and to make an example out of me as a warning to any other researcher who may dare question in the slightest their fervently held orthodoxy of anthropogenic global warming.” He continued, “I have never been motivated by financial gain to write any scientific paper, nor have I ever hidden grants or any other alleged conflict of interest. I have been a solar and stellar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for a quarter of a century, during which time I have published numerous peer-reviewed, scholarly articles. The fact that my research has been supported in part by donations to the Smithsonian Institution from many sources, including some energy producers, has long been a matter of public record.”[ Some of the journals that had published Soon’s work had begun reviewing the papers in relation to their policies requiring disclosure. Soon said he had “always complied with what I understood to be disclosure practices in my field generally”. He would be “happy to comply” if they required further disclosure, and “would ask only that other authors—on all sides of the debate—are also required to make similar disclosures.”‘ — Source — Wikipedia.
    Finally, I want to address this ridiculous comparison between the tobacco industry and the so-called AGW denial industry. It is true that in the 1960’s and 1970’s some within the tobacco industry were blithely claiming that smoking did not cause lung cancer. What most were saying, however, is that a causal link between smoking and lung cancer had not been shown. At the time, this claim was actually true. But anyone can discover that there is a statistical link between smoking and lung cancer simply by interviewing sufferers of lung cancer, because 95% of them will have had a long history of smoking. On the other hand, no-one can show for themselves that AGW is real by simply hanging a weather station out their window. In fact, the science underlying AGW is completely inaccessible in any way to the general public. If you want to believe in AGW, you must do so on faith. Also, the CEOs of a tobacco companies could at least take comfort in the belief that they could discourage their own children from ever smoking. One inescapable implication of the idea that big oil is funding a AGW denial conspiracy is that the CEOs of oil companies must be such monsters that they don’t care about condemning their own children and grandchildren to a future of global catastrophe.
    To me, using the legacy of the tobacco industry as an example of why people should trust a prevailing science is about as fair as my using thalidomide as an example of why they shouldn’t.

  7. 7
  8. 8

    Oceans heat content has risen with GHG concentration in the air. Case closed, humans are changing the climate.

    Doesn’t matter. Really it does not matter, because solar and wind backed with hydro and waste and electricity to fuels are cheaper, faster to install, can use zero land, zero rare earths, little water, can be carbon negative not just carbon neutral with Biochar.

    http://www.lazard.com/media/1777/levelized_cost_of_energy_-_version_80.pdf
    search lazard energy version 8 if that does not work.

  9. 10

    As an Environmental Science instructor at a local college I wanted to open a discussion about Global Warming but I was told that I would not be renewed for future classes if I taught that Global Warming wasn't real and dangerous.

  10. 11
  11. 12

    If a scientist supports Global Warming and takes money from a renewable energy company then that company is lauded as a protector of the planet. If an oil company gives money to a scientist that disputes Global Warming then the company was bribing the scientist. The desperation of the Warmists gets worse daily as no warming continues for another decade.

  12. 13
  13. 14

    The case is closed for now, we can reopen it anytime someone have new evidence or reasoning. which you don't.

  14. 15

    Are you still using fossil fuels? If so then you have no business complaining about other people using them.

  15. 16

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