The most remarkable aspect of Willie Soon’s soiled science scandal is that in the light of damning evidence of a serious ethical lapse, the climate denial camp shows no interest in self-policing.
When documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act showed Soon was promising “deliverables” for climate research funded by fossil fuel affiliates, the judgment outside the climate denial sphere was swift, largely because the evidence was from Soon’s own hand.
But many who embrace climate denial not only saw nothing wrong with this, they circled the wagons around their embattled Man of Science.
Many who embrace climate denial not only saw nothing wrong with this, they circled the wagons around their embattled Man of Science.
Soon crossed what most scientists believe are several inviolable ethical lines. While academia doesn’t generally disdain funding from parties who may have an economic or ideological stake in the outcome, transparency is key. Soon, via his unpaid climate-related research with the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, failed to reveal on multiple papers that his climate change-related publications were largely bankrolled by Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, and the Charles Koch Foundation.
He also gushed about how the results would please prospective funders. “I have a big super-duper paper soon to be accepted on how the sun affects the climate system,” he wrote to a Southern Company sponsor. Southern is the biggest electric utility in the Southeast U.S., is heavily coal-dependent, and clearly would have something to gain should a scientific paper throw the sun under the bus for what the vast majority of scientists believe to be fossil fuel-driven climate change.
The Climate Investigations Center and Greenpeace* obtained and released the documents. Some climate activists crowed. Editorial pages scowled. The Smithsonian promised a swift investigation.
Soon’s defenders, meanwhile, pulled out what is now a reliable playbook for conservatives confronted with accusations of errors, omissions and downright lies: They doubled down and went on the attack.
The Heartland Institute, which has listed Soon as an in-house expert, took the reins as his communications clearinghouse, releasing Soon’s official statement on its website along with a volley of counterattack. Heartland chief Joe Bast called climate scientists and advocates “mental midgets.” To be fair, that may signal a softening of Heartland’s hard line, since three years ago they were likening their foes to mass murderer Ted Kaczynski.
The Breitbart.com site was particularly unhinged in its response. The release of Soon’s own documents was a “crucifixion”, and reporting on the documents by The New York Times was a “hit piece” and a “smear.” Congressman Joe Sestak (D-Penn.) was singled out for the offense of re-tweeting the Times story. (Heartland’s Bast co-authored the “crucifixion” piece.)
Fox News took a more passive stance, deploying crickets. While Fox’s website lists multiple stories about sexual harassment allegations against R.K. Pachauri, the recently resigned head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Soon’s soiled science appears to have received only one brief mention on a Sunday talkshow. The only other reference to climate change on Fox in recent weeks have centered on attempts to prove that a cold, snowy month in much of the U.S. is Exhibit A against climate change.
Fox’s high-profile primetime host Bill O’Reilly didn’t mention the scandal, either. O’Reilly once embraced climate science, telling 60 Minutes “Global warming is here… all these idiots that run around and say it isn’t here, that’s ridiculous.” But as climate denial has embedded itself in conservative doctrine and in Fox’s Fair-and-Balanced reporting, O’Reilly no longer believes climate scientists.
O’Reilly might be excused for skipping the Soon story. Like Soon’s supporters, he’s busy doubling down to defend against his own accusers’ allegations that he embellished his own war-correspondent stories.
And in that is an illustrative lesson in how climate denial and American conservatism became inseparable: Doubling down against critics is the standard defense, no matter how demonstrable the evidence is against you. It’s what Dick Cheney did on his whirlwind media tour last December, in which he defended both the Iraq war and the use of torture by American intelligence officials. It’s what Pat Michaels, another widely-cited skeptical scientist, did when soliciting coal producers’ money back in 2006. And it’s what Oliver North, the Grandpappy of modern-day doubling down, did in the late 1980’s when he was caught at the center of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. He became a hero to millions of Americans.
To this day, Ollie North still hosts a weekend show on Fox News. So in the event that Willie Soon has to face the music because ethics outweighs doubling down, there may be an opening for a Fox News science show host. It would be Super-Duper.
*I used to work for Greenpeace in the 1980’s. That’s full disclosure, Willie.