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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fake outrage: Anthony Watts falsely smears while complaining about smears

Sou | 4:38 PM Go to the first of 36 comments. Add a comment

Who'd a thought it. Anthony Watts, who makes blog pocket money by smearing climate scientists and others, has published an article by Kip Hansen, saying he is "so sickened by this that I really don’t care to discuss it". The "this" being the latest publicity given to Willie Soon and his funding sources. Anthony is painting this as a poor little denier fighting a corrupted climate science. The mainstream media is painting it as a scientist possibly being corrupted by funding sources.

The chicken or the egg?

The issues are being mixed up quite a bit around the few traps I've visited. One of the central issues is funding sources. The implication is that Willie Soon is writing papers that suit the interests of his funders. That he has tailored his results to suit their perceived interests.

You could turn it around the other way, and argue that his funding sources like the general tenor of his research and stance on climate science, and therefore send funds his way.

I've already made some comments in another thread that science is judged by science, not by who pays for it. As I see it, the issue at hand can be summarised as follows:
  • Willie Soon is used by some lobby groups in their efforts to dispute AGW.
  • Willie Soon has received a lot of research funding from fossil fuel companies, right wing lobby groups and Donors Trust.
  • The question is being asked about whether or not Willie Soon has declared all his funding sources when he should have, as required by many scientific journals. This is the conflict of interest question.
  • Willie Soon's published research relating to climate is generally not regarded as good science.

This isn't a new issue. It's just resurfaced. As I see it, the current spate of articles are mainly intended to highlight Willie Soon's funding sources. The "smear" being the implication that if one receives substantial research funds from fossil fuel companies or organisations representing right wing interests (Donors Trust), then that research is suspect. 

It has long been known that Willie Soon's funding sources include parties that are keen to deny climate science. The extent of this funding has been revealed by FOI requests.  The point of some of these articles is not so much that he that he received this funding, but whether or not he consistently failed to declare these funding sources when he should have. (Some people argue that his recent paper with Monckton etc should have indicated funding sources. Soon says it was done in his own time. It boils down to "he said" "he said". The paper was so silly there's not much point making a fuss about it.)

Irony indeed: Anthony Watts falsely smears while complaining about smears

What I find ironic, in this case, is that Anthony Watts posted an article by Kip Hansen who sez that he is "sickened" by the "smear" and doesn't "care to discuss it". Anthony Watts wasn't so "sickened" - in an earlier article the same day (archived here), Anthony wrote:

Smear campaign: “His judgment cometh and that right soon”
The title is a quote from the framed embroidery over the Warden’s wall safe in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, which is a story about one man fighting the corruption of the penal system at the hands of the warden, who was using his position to profit, bully, and murder. Since the quote turned out to be wildly ironic, I thought it was appropriate for what’s happening to Dr. Willie Soon at the hand of green activists and the compliant media. I often think of the warden as a figurehead for people like Dr. Lawrence Torricello, who once called for the death of climate skeptics.

"Wildly ironic" indeed. Anthony Watts is trying to paint Willie Soon as the martyr - fighting some mythical "corruption". That's how Anthony Watts is portraying Willie Soon. It won't stand up. Presumably Anthony will acknowledge that Soon's "fight" is against facts, and is being paid for by vested interests, including some fossil fuel companies, right wing lobby groups and the shady Donors Trust.

Since Anthony called on wild irony, let me point out another supreme irony in that paragraph of his. Anthony again "smears" Lawrence Torcello (and doesn't even get his name right) - completely misrepresenting what he wrote in an article at the Conversation - again.

In fact, Anthony and others so successfully lied about and "smeared" Professor Torcello that it resulted in hundreds of emails ("upwards of 700"), including some very nasty threats. Some of these would have been a direct result of a call by Anthony Watts for deniers to write to Professor Torcello's university, as I described here.

Dr Torcello did not call for the "death of climate skeptics". The closest he came was writing: "an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent". How many countries sentence the "criminally negligent" to death? And "climate skeptics" are not necessarily "an organised campaign funding misinformation". They are the target of such a campaign.

Maybe Anthony sees himself as part of "an organised campaign funding misinformation" - although he is more likely to be a recipient of funds than a funder. (Can you imagine Anthony Watts, the cyberpanhandler, giving his hard-begged funds away? He's often putting his hand out, and rarely delivers).

Which leads us back to the funding issue.

The Smithsonian Institution wants to get the facts straight

The Soon matter is reportedly being looked into by the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian doesn't have any requirement for people to declare their funding sources, but it does expect it's affiliates and staff members to comply with the requirements of the journals they publish in.

As well as the New York Times and the Guardian writing about the story, Jeff Tollefson has an article about this in Nature. He reports about the Smithsonian Institution:
The institution has no explicit policy requiring its researchers to disclose funding sources when they publish, says CfA director Charles Alcock, but they are expected to comply with journal rules, which typically require that authors report potential conflicts of interest.
“We want to get the facts straight,” says Alcock. “If there is evidence of failure to disclose, yes, we have a problem.”

Declaration of funding sources and questionable research

On the matter of questionable research, the Nature article refers to the infamous paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas. Some editors of the journal that published that paper, Climate Research, resigned over the fiasco. Incidentally, the declaration on that disputed paper reads:
Acknowledgements. This work was supported by funds from the American Petroleum Institute (01-0000-4579), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (Grant AF49620-02-1-0194) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Grant NAG5-7635). The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are independent of the sponsoring agencies. We have benefitted greatly from the true and kind spirit of research communications (including a preview of their thoughts) with the late Jean Grove (who passed away on January 18, 2001), Dave Evans, Shaopeng Huang, Jim Kennett,
Yoshio Tagami and Referee #3. We thank John Daly, Diane Douglas-Dalziel, Craig and Keith Idso for their unselfish contributions to the references. We also thank the Editor, Chris de Freitas, for very helpful editorial changes that improved the manuscript. We are very grateful to Maria McEachern, Melissa Hilbert, Barbara Palmer and Will Graves for invaluable library help, and both Philip Gonzalez and Lisa Linarte for crucial all-around help.

I also see that Willie Soon has declared his funding sources on some other papers, too. For example, in this paper published in GRL, he writes:
I thank Igor Polyakov for kind access to his Arctic SAT data, Peter Frick for sharing his insights and programs on wavelet transform, and Gene Avrett and David R. Legates for comments. I further thank Julia Pham and Benjamin Soon for motivation. Both referees offered helpful suggestions for significant improvements. This scientific research was supported by generous grants from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, American Petroleum Institute, and Exxon-Mobil Corporation. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are independent of sources providing support.

On the other hand, there is no declaration of funding sources in this 2013 paper in the (low impact factor) Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics. (The paper is mainly cited by various contrarians and science deniers, so it got no traction.) That journal does require disclosure as follows:
Conflict of interest
All authors are requested to disclose any actual or potential conflict of interest including any financial, personal or other relationships with other people or organizations within three years of beginning the submitted work that could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, their work. See also Further information and an example of a Conflict of Interest form can be found at:

The extent to which there is a "failure to disclose" on the part of Willie Soon has yet to be determined. Regardless, the publicity has once again brought his funding sources to light. The "by association" may well influence people who otherwise aren't in a position to assess the scientific merits or otherwise of Willie Soon's work.

To my way of thinking, the implied argument that Willie Soon's research was made to order for the funding bodies is too much like the denier argument that scientists only say what the government wants to hear. (Which is nonsense - there isn't a government in the world that wouldn't want global warming to go away). I doubt anyone will be able to categorically determine motivation. It requires mind-reading. His climate research is questionable at best and much of it has been shown to be flawed. (Which came first - the flawed science or the funding?)

Other scientists have received funding from some of the same sources. Think the Berkeley Earth temperature reconstruction, which received a fair whack from Koch. If that research had found something different would it have been because of the funding source? Or would scientists have decided its merits or otherwise on the strength of the work itself?

The real issue

To my mind, the problem is not so much Willie Soon's published papers, but any influence he might have in the deniosphere. (Many of the few climate papers he's had published are in journals that are not highly regarded. Many of his citations are by himself or other "contrarians".) Even in relation to his talks, I'd question whether anyone takes any notice, except for the denialati. Yes, he's called on by the deniers in the Republican Party - but so is Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, John Christy and others who the deniers among the Republicans probably think are willing to distort scientific facts.

This latest attempt to taint Willie Soon's name may be effective, or not. It will depend on whether or how often he has not declared interest when he should have. If he has declared interest in most of the cases he should have, then that particular line of argument will have gone nowhere. If he hasn't, maybe the Smithsonian will take action.

At the end of the day, it's the flaws in Willie Soon's utterances at his speaking engagements and his research publications that need to be highlighted if one is to show that he's not anyone worth listening to.

As Gavin Schmidt wrote at almost four years ago:

... the real issue is not how he gets paid, but the quality of his science


  1. For Watts, it's a bit of "pot meet kettle." And I fully agree with your ending. Well done Sou!

  2. Sou please consider submitting and adapted version of this article to the NYT Science page
    I'm certain that it would be a welcome addition to the NYT's Soon coverage.

  3. I agree, the bottom line is the quality of the science.

    But I still find the strange funding arrangements troubling, the end result is Dr Soon will be able to continue producing poor science if he continues to receive funding.

    Of Dr Soon ideology I have no doubt - at a presentation he lashed out at a reporter who goaded him, repeating various climate change denial talking points.

  4. "Some people argue that his recent paper with Monckton etc should have indicated funding sources. Soon says it was done in his own time."

    It doesn't matter that Soon did it "in his own time". Not only did he use his Harvard-Smithsonian affiliation (suggesting he did *not* do it "in his own time"), the journal CoI policies explicitly indicate that prior funding from e.g. companies is to be disclosed. They even request disclosure of speaking fees/support for conferences if the funder has some potential CoI with the research described. No one will be in doubt that a fossil fuel company has a CoI when it comes to research that minimizes their influence in climate change. Soon failed to disclose something he should have.

    1. Its impossible to do science in your own time and unfunded. If you cite an institutional affiliation then you have to cite the funding that allows you to work there. Even if the work is unrelated to your grant funding, its not done in a vacuum. Funding agencies and institutions where extramural funded investigators work require you to state the percent effort expended on individual projects. However work that appears outside of the limits of the funded work is often stimulated by funded studies; no grant proposal can foresee the future direction of funded research. So all the papers an investigator publishes should cite relevant funding sources and those studies should be described in progress reports to funding agencies. However I doubt that much will come of Soon's transgressions, probably no more than a slap on the wrist, unless he continues to skirt conflict of interest guidelines of journals.

    2. Mike, it is very possible to do science on your own time and unfunded by external sources. In fact I am looking forward to it in a few years when I "retire" and have time to do what I want when I want. Clearly, there are many amateur astronomers who self-fund their own telescopes and execute very successful science programs .. and then go to work in the morning at the office doing something more mundane. If you had asked me in the 1970s whether serious astronomy could be done by amateurs I would have replied unlikely except for variable stars. Now with easily affordable large telescopes (you can even rent remotely operated ones in Africa for a song) and very affordable state-of-the-art imaging and computer systems astronomy science projects once costing millions can be done for thousands. That's well within the reach of many. Unfunded and serious science is also found in many other fields by those unaffiliated with some "professional institution." However, I do agree that investigators publishing their science results should disclose their funding sources, even if it is Joe Blow's own bank account.

    3. Jonathan, my comments were directed more at active scientists such as Soon. But as you note in "retirement" external funding might not be required, however science cannot be done for free. It can be done cheaply but will still cost something even if it comes from retirement savings. This is one reason why journals, conferences, etc want authors to make a statement on any possible conflicts of interest.

    4. I am retired and have set up a state of the art astrophotography system in my backyard. It cost ME all up close to $100K with the observatory building. I do not use the name of organisation I used to work for add credence to my images. They stand alone for the world to evaluate.

      Here is one image. It is a mosaic of six panels of 3nm NII data. About five hours exposure per panel.

      The deception occurs if I use this image to claim incomprehensible rubbish about aliens or lizard people while saying I am a member of a highly regarded institution.

      The paid deniers of course are a bit more subtle.

      In my case I want to be totally responsible for my current work unlike when all my efforts went into making my superiors famous at my previous institution.


    5. The image is of the Vela Super Nova Remnant. It is about 8x6 degrees of sky. This SN occurred about eleven thousand years ago and would have been witnessed by our ancestors. It is now about 100 light years across.
      There is a neutron star pulsar at its centre.
      It is in the constellation of Vela near the Southern Cross.Bert

    6. Wow! That's quite the picture, Bert! Beautiful. My astrophotography consists of using cords and a soup can to attach my camera to my 8 inch Celestron, and being happy if blur doesn't render the object unidentifiable. Very impressive work on your part.

      Re: doing science unfunded. A great deal of work on birds is done by dedicated and unfunded birders. They've been submitting their data for decades, now made much easier with the advent of e-bird. This repository of bird data is used by organizations and individuals, and birders who volunteer their time to collect the data, and then sift through it, can make important contributions and sometimes have papers published (caveat: if you're using the data from a central repository, you'll be asked if you want to co-author with one of their folks---far as I know, you don't have to have a co-author, but you're usually working with someone fairly well known so that name recognition on the paper doesn't hurt.

    7. The science behind the image.
      In interstellar space most free atoms can be monotonic as they never have a chance to combine into the molecules that we see in our atmosphere.
      So there is very little H2, O2 ,N2 etc. apart from some gravitational aggregations that lead to clouds of complex molecules but that is a story for another day.
      Light in the image is produced by monotonic Nitrogen ie a single N atom that interacts with an electron. The driving force of these interactions is large blue UV emitting stars.
      The filter I have in my telescope lets through only the wavelength emitted by monotonic N. It blocks all others. This cannot occur on Earth as all N is N2. Its correct designation is N[II] . The solid brackets denote 'forbidden' transitions.
      Those wispy tendrils you see in the image are most probably monotonic N at a concentration lower than any vacuum attainable on Earth.
      So again science has done much ado about almost nothing. A bit like 280 ppm vs 400 ppm of CO2.Bert

  5. You know what the deniers say - follow the money!

    I agree. There should be an investigation into how some scientists are corrupted by their funding as Soon as possible.

  6. Excellent piece, Sou, clear and evenhanded. Kudos.

  7. I strongly disagree with you Sou. CoI statements are a crucial part of the scientific process and not just window dressing, and their requirement reflects the experience that many journals have of being gamed by corrupt scientists.

    For example many journals refuse to accept papers funded by the tobacco industry, because this industry has a history of lying and faking data, and tobacco industry funding is a red flag for fraud. Journals accept pharma-funded papers but they expect full disclosure and the source of funding may lead to additional demands in peer review. Peer reviewers don't and can't always do the full work required to check the basic honesty of a paper, and the CoI statement is like a minimal proof of honesty.

    Many people thing that the modeling and theory part of the paper is not vulnerable to influence from the funders but this just isn't true: modeling is an art not a science and judgments can be affected by funders, with subtle influences on what information is presented to the reviewer and how.

    For two examples: Wakefield's MMMr autism paper (he had an interest in a rival product, and if the reviewers had known that they might have questioned his fake data); and the recent Novartis scandal in Japan where hte statistician was on loan from a pharma. Results were shonky in both cases but the peer reviewers would have known to ask more questions if they saw these reasons.

    In Soon's case he appears to have a specific non-disclosure contract with his funders. That's direct corruption of the 1980s-Big-Tobacco kind, and no journal would ever have published his work if they knew he had that agreement. Such an agreement is completely unacceptable in modern science, absolutely 100% wrong. I assume that the HSA knew about that clause, and if so they should be abolished forthwith.

    1. You make some good points, CF. It does seem to me, though, that the sort of research Willie Soon published would be easier to check than the sort of research the tobacco industry may have funded. The data on climate is much more freely available than would details of research on a small human cohort or lab animal population.

      I wasn't aware of a non-disclosure contract. Are you referring to this - from the Nature article:

      The documents also illuminate the CfA’s role in the funding arrangements: in a contract signed in 2008 with Southern Company, a utility based in Atlanta, Georgia, the CfA agreed to notify the company before disclosing it as the source of the funding. Alcock calls that “a mistake” and says that the CfA “would not do that again.

      Notifying Southern Company beforehand is not quite the same thing as not allowing disclosure. If the funding body didn't want their funding disclosed, it would mean that Willie Soon couldn't get any of that funded research published if it meant him flouting the journal's requirement to disclose funding sources. (I agree that even that sort of clause is not something that the Smithsonian should have agreed to - and they agree.)

    2. That sort of clause is an absolute red flag Sou. It tells you everything you need to know about Soon's research practices - no scientist of repute would ever sign such a clause unless they were providing analysis services directly to the company. See e.g. William Gosset as an example of how principled scientists used to handle this (his workaround is no longer possible). There are serious reasons that journals don't accept this, and they aren't to do with flowery ethical poncery - they exist because most journals have been burned by frauds.

      Conflict of interest extends beyond simple fraud though. I have had the experience once of removing my name from a paper that was clearly being manipulated by its funders for political reasons, and there was no data fraud involved, just naive researchers not getting it. There are many subjective decisions involved in an analytical project and many subtle data dodges (how you handle missing data, how you code complex variables, how you choose to represent certain effects, how you choose to handle confounders) that can hide or obscure outcomes. Consider, for example, a tobacco-industry funded paper studying the relationship between radon and lung cancer. Maybe the data set contains data on smoking, but the scientist doesn't mention this and produces a model that over-estimates the effect of radon on lung cancer, because they haven't adjusted for smoking. A very easy way to suggest that radon is a major cause of lung cancer, to cast fear and doubt - but also a case of straight-out fraud that no one can detect.

      Non-disclosure of conflict of interest is a really despicable practice. It is a red flag for dishonest science, and the demand for disclosure is not a cosmetic detail in modern science - it is a crucial requirement that journals have been forced to add to their publication process through long, hard experience of being gamed by tobacco, pharma and other special interests.

    3. I agree with CF in many respects. However, I have a "red herring" anecdote about disclosing funding sources. In the distant past I performed some research for a government agency whose name did not want to be disclosed and said so explicitly in the contract. Ever the contrarian, I argued that the research performed was valuable and the rest of science needed to know about it. The agency agreed with the value but refused to allow publication for fear of disclosing any relationship between the agency and the research.(i.e., leaking). In the end we came to an agreement, the research was published ("censored" accordingly by the agency) with the source of funding sufficiently obscured, although it was still credited to federal funding (not the Dept of Agriculture, haha). How does that situation fit into the current discussion of disclosure and CoI? I am sure my tale is not unique, even today. Sorry about using "anonymous" but ... well, you'll just have to believe me.

  8. Wtf?? -> Pachauri resigned,

    1. Really Bad News.

      This will be greeted by endless crowing from the deniarati, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the overwhelming scientific case for global warming.

    2. Michael Mann & Penn State & paedophile & climate science

      Pachauri & IPCC & sexual predator & climate science

      Alleged sexual predator, of course, not that that will matter. I can understand why Pachauri resigned. Taking one for the team, basically.

    3. I'm thinking of how 'they' framed Julian Assange.
      It IS greeted by endless thuggery from the thugs - I am sorry to have to say I actually found the news first on the bully's site.

    4. His Lordship will doubtless express sympathy over unauthorised use of an email address:

      "Could you then explain how this claim originated from a message sent from your email address? "

    5. The hacking of Pachauri's phone has echoes of both the faux-scandal "climategate", and the nefarious deeds of the Murdoch press. One of Murdoch's senior minions is doing time for the phone-hacking escapades, which included hacking a missing girl's phone, making her parents think she was still alive, though that may have been inadvertent.

      The Murdoch press would have made a meal out of Pachauri, and probably still will. That increases my suspicions, but it is probably for the greater good that Pachauri stepped away. He is a more honourable man that the ones who tried to do him down.

  9. He's going to fight a sexual harrassment suit, which, without wishing to minimise or pre-judge, seems on the milder end of the scale - unwanted texts and so forth - and he denies all charges, claiming he's been the victim of a malicious hacker.

    He will, of course, be guilty until shown to be guilty in certain quarters...

  10. Shit happens. If true (and we should remember he denies wrong doing), it reflects on Pachauri as a person. There is no way it reflects on the science. We should be sure to state that loud and clear.

    Oh, and BTW, Real Climate has just posted an article: 'The Soon Fallacy'.

  11. Sou: Non disclosure contract

    " Publicity: Smithstonian shall not publish and utilize the name or otherwise identify Southern Company Services ." ( hat tip to the rabit )

    Sounds like they all have something to hide.

  12. ==> "To my way of thinking, the implied argument that Willie Soon's research was made to order for the funding bodies is too much like the denier argument that scientists only say what the government wants to hear."

    I agree. Leave that kind of fallacious argument for "skeptics."

  13. Why not load Willie's bibliography into Academica , ResearchGate , or some other general puurpose scientist-ranker, and let its disinterested software score Willie's work ?

  14. Jr is so upset at Soon's treatment he's called the removalists, That's gotta improve property prices.

    The incessant attacks and smears are effective, no doubt, I have already shifted all of my academic work away from climate issues. I am simply not initiating any new research or papers on the topic and I have ring-fenced my slowly diminishing blogging on the subject. I am a full professor with tenure, so no one need worry about me — I’ll be just fine as there are plenty of interesting, research-able policy issues to occupy my time. But I can’t imagine the message being sent to younger scientists. Actually, I can: “when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.”

    1. PG - that comment to relates to the request from US Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) for Roger Pielke Jr's own funding sources, not to the treatment of Willie Soon.

      PS Repeat request: Pls link to source or archive of the source when quoting. Here is the link:

    2. Really? RPJ is getting out of climate commentary because of persecution by the nasty consensus?

      I suppose that it has nothing to do with the fact that even more seriously ignorant deniers can no longer keep repeating their dross without looking like total fools...?

    3. I didn't link it because I lifted it from CE.

    4. Roger Pielke Jr is not "under investigation". As far as I am aware he (or his university) can simply ignore the request.

      US Representative Raúl Grijalva appears to have a track record for doing this type of thing - I think fishing expeditions like this are a bad idea.

    5. Okay, thanks PG. My comment policy can be tricky to navigate.

    6. "Actually, I can: “when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.”"

      Is RPJ completely lacking any sense of irony or self-awareness? You put out work in line with the scientific consensus you have your emails hacked, you have politicians calling for your private correspondence and all your rough work, you have them wanting to prosecute you, you're expected to appear before hearings to defend yourself, you have to waste time, energy and money defending yourself from frivolous and invasive requests for information from other politicians, your name and reputation are slandered by entertainment media like Fox on their "news" and from the bloviating radio pinheads and commentators they support.

      Sheesh, if RPJ actually had done any work that supported the consensus he would have taken his ball and gone home over a decade ago because obviously he can't handle even a tiny taste of what mainstream scientists have been putting up with for a long time. (not to say I agree with Grijalva's approach, which is just as offensive now as it was when the same things were done to expert climate scientists).


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