The revelation that Willie Soon received funding from vested interests has created a lot of chatter on the internet and in the media. The article in the New York Times Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher that broke this story is in my opinion quite good.
It provides context about Soon’s career, how bad his research is, who funded the research, and the potential conflicts of interest. Scientists also gave some very good responses about why it’s import to focus on Soon’s bad research.
However, I’ve also seen some strange remarks critiquing what was found. Arguments that private funding is normal and that using the word deliverables is normal to use, so it doesn’t matter that Soon gets to do his research as long as scientists can show it was wrong.
No, all of that does matter, as context is everything in situations where someone consistently produces bad research.
To quote the Real Climate article The Soon fallacy that I referenced earlier:
Soon’s work has been singularly poor for over a decade, first coming to prominence with the Soon and Baliunas (2003) debacle in Climatic Research which led to the resignation of 5 editors in protest at the way the paper was handled (and see more here). Another case associated with some very obvious shenanigans was Dyck et al (2007). More recently, his presentations at Heartland’s pseudo-climate conferences have come under renewed scrutiny for their level of incoherence.
The odd thing about this is that there is real, and interesting, science to be done on the impacts of solar forcing on climate. The chemical feedbacks due to photolytic reactions in both the stratosphere and troposphere involving ozone, NOx, and water vapour, can have significant impacts. Exploring the tremendous complexities in aerosol formation and growth and impacts on clouds and whether that is mediated by modulations of cosmic rays is fascinating (if, as yet, inconclusive). Indeed, there is a current NASA call for proposals on exactly these subjects (Notice of Intent due March 13!). But every time another one of these spurious correlations is touted, or one more fallaciously reasoned argument is put forward, it makes it harder for serious scientists to get involved at all without being tarred with the same pseudo-scientific brush.
Soon’s research is so bad and flawed that it sabotages research that investigates real issues and questions about the influence of the sun on our planet’s climate. Normally if a scientist consistently produces bad research they won’t be able to get funding. But it didn’t happen with Soon, he still managed to get his research funded.
This is why the recent documents are so important. The New York Times article spells it out quite clearly:
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.
They continue later on:
The newly disclosed documents, plus additional documents compiled by Greenpeace over the last four years, show that at least $409,000 of Dr. Soon’s funding in the past decade came from Southern Company Services, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, based in Atlanta.
Southern is one of the largest utility holding companies in the country, with huge investments in coal-burning power plants. The company has spent heavily over many years to lobby against greenhouse-gas regulations in Washington. More recently, it has spent significant money to research ways to limit emissions.
In the case of Soon we have a party funding bad research that then can be used to delay action. We’ve seen this before with the tobacco industry:
This is the important context of the released documents. It is the same tactic the tobacco industry used to create legitimate looking papers to delay action. Using a tobacco spokesperson for such papers, as Oreskes put it, wouldn’t pass the laugh test. But use a scientist, preferably one without obvious links to you, and the message of doubt is taken seriously by the media.
In one famous memo the tobacco industry stated that “doubt is their product.” A lesson that many science deniers have taken to heart as it’s extremely effective in delaying action.
All this combined is why not declaring these conflicts of interests is such a big deal. Shine a light on that kind of funding and you undermine the message and the messenger. After this revelation Southern Company Services is now no longer interested in funding Soon’s research. Revealing this funding might not be the main reason, but it could have been the proverbial final nail in the coffin for Southern funding Soon.
Commercial funding and talking about deliverables in the context of said funding is normal. But bad research normally doesn’t get funding as it doesn’t help a company’s bottom line. You’ll only do that when you have something to gain from producing bad research. In the case of Southern Company Services doubt about human caused global warming was needed so they could continue with current business practices.
This won’t be the last time that we’ll see this situation, as Coca-Cola recently demonstrated. Lets hope that holding companies accountable for funding this kind of bad research will make it a rare occasion.