Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Contrarians, Crackpots, and Crooks

Contrarians play a significant role in science. Sometimes those who are willing to take an unpopular point of view have a point that's needed to wake up everybody else. Of course they are often completely wrong and even a bit nuts. Crackpots, on the other hand, are people of strong opinions who really have no idea what they are talking about, and contribute only noise to any discussion. At the rotten end of contrarian opinion are those who dishonestly present phony science in exchange for money. I just call them crooks. It's not necessarily easy to always tell the flavors apart.

The saga of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon fits somewhere along this spectrum, and recent revelations have not been kind. Soon is one of the favorite scientists of various climate denialists, speaking frequently to conservative groups, Congress, and other crackpots. He is now accused of failing to disclose conflicts of interest in various papers despite journal rules and ethical standards requiring such disclosure. Harvard-Smithsonian is charged with accepting money from energy industry interests which comes with unethical non-disclosure and prior review agreements.

Some details from the NYT here, the Washington Post here, and the Guardian here, plus an NPR story here. Naturally the right-wing wind machine has entered the lists as well.

From the NYT:

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.

That "deliverables" word would seem to make clear that the work in question was a clear quid pro quo, rather than a considered scientific judgement.

From the Guardian:

A prominent academic and climate change denier’s work was funded almost entirely by the energy industry, receiving more than $1.2m from companies, lobby groups and oil billionaires over more than a decade, newly released documents show.

Over the last 14 years Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, received a total of $1.25m from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the documents obtained by Greenpeace through freedom of information filings show.

According to the documents, the biggest single funder was Southern Company, one of the country’s biggest electricity providers that relies heavily on coal.

The documents draw new attention to the industry’s efforts to block action against climate change – including President Barack Obama’s power-plant rules.