If you have not been living in a cave, and had you been, I’d respect that, you know about Willie Soon Gate. Willie soon is a researcher on soft money at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon is well known for producing research of questionable quality that anemically attempts to buck the scientific consensus that human caused greenhouse gas pollution is rapidly raising the Earth’s temperature. Soon’s links to the fossil fuel industry have been known for some time, but recently, he has gotten into even more hot water over having published papers without properly disclosing that the work was funded by Big Fossil. The story is complex and I will not recite it here. What I want to do instead is to place the story in a larger context.
Soon did not arrive on the horizon recently. His involvement with anti-climate change science activism goes back over ten years. The rise of Willie Soon and the early effects of his ‘research’ on policy have been well documented in Michael Mann’s book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.
Let me give you the short version first, followed by elaboration using a handful of quotes from Mann’s book. Really, though, you should just go read the book. (By the way, if you do read it, consider leaving a review at Amazon; there has been a concerted effort by science denialists to leave bogus one star and otherwise horrid, inaccurate reviews on that site!)
The following graphic shows the march of global surface temperatures over the period we call the “Instrumental record,” which is the period of time best measured by thermometers and, later, satellites. The inset is a version of the famous “Hockey Stick Graph produced by Michael Mann and colleagues, showing recent warming in the context of previous natural variation. The inset shows both the “Hockey Stick” (in blue) and an independent reconstruction by the PAGES2k group (in green) which is an independent validation of the original Hockey Stick result.
This shows a the very end of period of mainly “natural variation” followed by a dramatic increase in surface temperatures owing to increased greenhouse gas pollution.
Here is a closeup of the same graph showing just the period of time over which the surface temperature variation, which amounts to an average increase, that is unambiguously anomalous compared to the past. This increase is pretty much entirely due to the effects of humans.
I’ve marked off a section of this graph that shows just the data since about 2003. This is the year that these two things happened: 1) Willie Soon co-authored two papers arguing that global warming wasn’t really happening, or was not human caused; and 2) Senator Jim Inhofe held Congressional hearings on climate change at which Soon, Mann, and others, testified.
There is no doubt whatsoever that action to reduce climate change has been slowed or even simply stopped in some cases by Big Fossil funded anti-science activism, which generally has involved an unholy marriage between crappy science and political maneuvering in Congress and elsewhere, a marriage involving a big dowery from fossil fuel interests. Willie Soon’s papers and Inhofe’s use of bad science is only part of the picture, but a key part, and at least, illustrative of the process. The following are brief quotes from Mann’s book describing part of the story. Again, read the book to get the full context and all of the details.
Soon after Mann and his colleagues published the Hockey Stick research, there was a range of reactions among which were attacks from the denialist community. One of these was a non peer reviewed piece put on a web site.
“The Summer of Our Discontent” (August 1998), had been invited from Sally Baliunas and Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. [Suggesting] that we had extended the MBH98 hockey stick no further back in time than A.D. 1400 for fear of encountering the warmer temperatures of the medieval warm period—a charge that … is nonsensical, since the stopping point was entirely determined by objective statistical criteria. Second, they claimed that our reconstruction suffered from an issue known as the “divergence problem”…
In a section of his book called “The Paper That Launched a Half-Dozen Resignations,” Mann talks about the Soon and Baliunas paper. Both Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon were at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Soon being a protege of Baliunas’. She had previously worked on the role of the sun in the Earth’s climate system.
The two went on to publish a number of articles analyzing the relationships between records of past solar variability and climate. … the Soon and Baliunas article took the form of two nearly identical papers published simultaneously in two different journals in spring 2003. One version of the paper appeared in the journal Climate Research while the other (which, it turns out, was simply a longer, unedited version of the first, but with three more coauthors added) was published in the journal Energy and Environment. Duplicate publication of a paper is highly unusual, and in fact is strictly forbidden by most academic journals. That both the authors and the study had been supported by the American Petroleum Institute—each of the authors had a long history of fossil fuel industry funding—combined with the highly unusual dual publication of the paper raised some eyebrows. Questions had been raised, moreover, about the two journals that jointly published the paper. Climate Research had in the recent past published a spate of contrarian papers of questionable scientific merit. Some members of the editorial board had already expressed concern that one editor at the journal known for his advocacy for the fossil fuel industry.
[One of the journal’s editors,] Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen … quite remarkably confessed in an interview … “I’m following my political agenda—a bit, anyway. But isn’t that the right of the editor?” The Soon and Baliunas study claimed to contradict previous work—including our own—that suggested that the average warmth of the Northern Hemisphere in recent decades was unprecedented over a time frame of at least the past millennium.
Mann goes on to explain in detail why the papers were scientifically flawed, and notes that …
The authors in many cases had mischaracterized or misrepresented the past studies they claimed to be assessing in their meta-analysis … Paleoclimatologist Peter de Menocal of Columbia University/LDEO, for example, who had developed a proxy record of ocean surface temperature from sediments off the coast of Africa, indicated that “Mr. Soon and his colleagues could not justify their conclusions that the African record showed the 20th century as being unexceptional … My record has no business being used to address that question.”
In response to Soon and Baliunas,
A group of twelve leading climate scientists joined me in authoring a rebuttal to Soon and Baliunas in Eos, the official newsletter of the American Geophysical Union. … The American Geophysical Union considered our rejoinder important enough to issue a press release entitled “Leading Climate Scientists Reaffirm View That Late 20th Century Warming Was Unusual and Resulted from Human Activity” in early July 2003, just prior to the article’s publication. Nevertheless, the Soon and Baliunas study was immediately taken up by the U.S. Senate’s leading climate change denier, Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
This brings us to the use of Soon’s and other denialist work as a tool to develop a contrarian argument in a Senate Hearing. Senator James Inhofe, famous for claiming that climate change is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public, chaired the hearing which was held in July 2003. Again, you should read Mann’s account for all the amazing details; it is a rousing story! In essence, Soon and his work were being used to argue against the importance of Global Warming, and Mann represented the scientific view. The story also involves Hillary Clinton (in case you were wondering about her position on climate change). Here’s the part of Mann’s recounting I want you to see:
Midway through the hearing, [ranking member] Jeffords dropped a bombshell. He announced that his staff had received a note from Hans Von Storch announcing his resignation as chief editor of the journal Climate Research, in protest over the publication of the Soon and Baliunas paper. Von Storch was no scientific ally of mine. Indeed … he and I had had disputes in the past regarding the relative merits of statistical climate reconstruction methods. But ally or not, Von Storch was outraged that such a transparently flawed paper had been published in his journal. His note, which Jeffords read aloud, was to the point: “My view … is that the review of the Soon et al. paper failed to detect significant methodological flaws … The paper should not have been published in this forum, not because of the eventual conclusion, but because of the insufficient evidence to draw this conclusion.” Von Storch’s resignation had been precipitated by the refusal of the journal’s publisher, Otto Kinne, to allow him to publish an editorial expressing his view that the peer review process had clearly failed with the Soon and Baliunas paper. Several other editors quit as well (ultimately six editors—half the editorial board—would quit in protest over the incident)….
Perhaps the single most troubling issue to arise from the Soon and Baliunas affair was that of apparent editorial malpractice. At the two journals that published versions of the paper, the peer review process appears to have been compromised to produce a study in the scientific literature that could be seized upon by those with a contrarian policy agenda. … It is particularly pernicious when that process is compromised or co-opted for political ends.
Funded, I’ll add, by Big Fossil.
I asked Michael Mann how much damage he reckons Soon and Baliunas, and others like them, have done to the process of developing good policies to combat climate change. He told me, “Well, they are the hired hands of the “Merchants of Doubt”, the ones who do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by muddying the waters and confusing the public into thinking that there is still a scientific debate about whether climate change is happening, whether it is due to human activity, and whether it is a problem. There is none. It is hard to know just how much damage these deniers-for-hire have done to our civilization and our planet by needlessly delaying the action necessary to avert dangerous climate change.
As a follow-up, I wondered if he thought the recent exposure of climate science denials tactics would change the nature of future Senate hearings for the better. “I do—in my dreams,” he said. “Sadly, we are not there yet. While there is a worthy debate to be had about how we confront the challenge of averting the climate change threat, there is no legitimate debate to be had about whether or not the problem exists. Currently we have a congress that is committed to keeping that fake debate alive, as we have seen all too recently in the antics of folks like Senator James “climate change is a hoax” Inhofe, who now controls the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. We have to get past that.”
Finally, I asked Mann if he saw evidence that the peer review process has ultimately been improved as a result of clear abuses by denialist authors, or the reaction of publishers to those abuses. He told me, “Well, I certainly think that the scientific community is now far more aware of some of the bad faith efforts that have been made by industry-funded climate change deniers to pollute the peer-reviewed literature with antiscientific, agenda-driven screeds. Cracks still exist in the system, but slowly they are being repaired as scientists and editors increasingly learn more about the forces of antiscience that are still very much at play today.”
Other posts of interest:
- New Research Suggests Global Warming Is About To Heat Up
- New Research Demonstrates Link Between Greenhouse Gas Pollution and Global Warming
- Has Global Warming stopped?
Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.