For many years, when the right wanted to prove that there was a legitimate "debate" among scientists about climate change, they would point to Richard Muller, a Berkeley physics professor and longtime skeptic about the climate crisis.
A few years ago, following the so-called "Climategate" story, Muller launched a project intended pull together all of the evidence, scrutinize it, and settle the argument once and for all. The Koch Foundation gave Muller's project $150,000 and delighted conservatives said they would accept whatever results the Berkeley scholar came up with.
That didn't last. After completing his research, Muller announced that the climate crisis is real
. He labeled himself "a converted skeptic
," prompting Republicans to go looking for an entirely different scientist who would tell them what they wanted to hear.
More often than not, that meant celebrating Wei-Hock Soon, who's often called Willie Soon, an aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center who frequently argues -- at congressional hearings, in state legislatures, at conservative conferences -- that it's the sun, not human activities, that's causing global warming. He is, naturally, a favorite of deniers like Senate Environment Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
The New York Times reported
over the weekend, however, that far-right politicians are not Soon's only fans. He also enjoys support "from corporate interests" with an interest in the fight.
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. The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as "deliverables" that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.
Inhofe recently pointed to Soon as one of his allied scientists whose work "cannot be challenged." Now might be a good time to update that talking point.
To be sure, these financial arrangements may themselves be the basis for scandal in academic circles, but the Times' report added that among experts, the quality of Soon's scholarship adds insult to injury -- he "uses out-of-date data, publishes spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators, and does not take account of the evidence implicating emissions from human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."
The head of Goddard Institute for Space Studies called Soon's work "almost pointless."
Charles R. Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, acknowledged on Friday that Dr. Soon had violated the disclosure standards of some journals. "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 is employed by the Smithsonian Institution, which jointly sponsors the astrophysics center with Harvard. "I am aware of the situation with Willie Soon, and I'm very concerned about it," W. John Kress, interim under secretary for science at the Smithsonian in Washington, said on Friday. "We are checking into this ourselves."
Watch this space.