Wei-Hock Soon is always in hot demand. Among climate change skeptics, few commodities are rarer. Soon isn’t just a scientist. He’s a scientist who doubts climate change is man-made. Soon doesn’t work for just any university — he works for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If you doubt man-made climate change, Soon isn’t just your man. He’s your high priest.
The Heartland Institute, a bastion of climate-change suspicion, has given him the “Courage in Defense of Science Award.” He has addressed the Kansas state legislature to rebut the overwhelming scientific consensus about man-made climate change. And he’s become something of a personal hero to conservative Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R), who maintains that climate change is a hoax. Soon is his evidence. “These are scientists that cannot be challenged,” Inhofe intoned last month.
But Soon is not without controversy. During the weekend, Greenpeace released a batch of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that showed Soon received more than $1.2 million from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. Soon didn’t disclose the money on at least 11 papers since 2008, reported the New York Times. The paper and other news organizations reported this appeared to be a violation of the journals’ ethical guidelines.
Greenpeace blogged its outrage: “For years, we at Greenpeace have been working to make public the secret paper trails that show what everyone already knows: climate science deniers – #Fakexperts – are few and far between, and most of them are paid by companies most responsible for global warming to downplay the problem.”
Soon didn’t return several requests for comment left by The Washington Post on Sunday. Nor did he comment to the Times, which quoted from a 2013 remark he made in his defense: ““I write proposals; I let them decide whether to fund me or not. If they choose to fund me, I’m happy to receive it. … I would never be motivated by money for anything.”
This is far from the first controversy that has enveloped Soon. His troubles began more than a decade ago, when as a young Harvard researcher he earned sweeping repudiation from the scientific community for announcing in a small research journal that “the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium.” Then, years later, reports showed large energy companies had underwritten some of Soon’s research. To the left, Soon was one of the “merchants of doubt” — someone planted by the energy companies to muddy the scientific waters and perpetuate a false “debate.”
But on the right, something very different was happening. Every battle, every controversy, every scandal did less to tarnish Soon than to burnish his growing legend. And today, Soon represents something beyond himself and research. He has become a galvanizing warrior taking on what many climate change doubters call the liberal establishment elite. He today straddles the fault line in a long-raging cultural war between “climate deniers” and “warmists.”
Conservatives denounced the weekend’s revelations regarding Soon’s funding. Blogs cited the reports as further evidence of a concerted campaign to silence scientists like Soon, who they say need to seek alternative avenues of funding thanks to the establishment.
“NYT smears scientist Willie Soon for telling the truth about ‘Global Warming,’ ” declared James Delingpole in a Breitbart blog. “There’s nothing new or scandalous about this latest New York Times hit job on poor Willie Soon,” Delingpole wrote, condemning the “warmist establishment.” “It’s just a continuation of a vendetta which has been waged for years against an honest, decent, hardworking — and incredibly brave — scientist who refuses to toe the official (and increasingly discredited) line on man-made global warming.”
The Daily Caller agreed, adding: “Global warming believers launch attack campaign against renowned scientist.” Then JunkScience lamented the “hit pieces” on Soon: “Basically, over the years, he, his work, or his research group may have gotten money from Big Oil, so anything he does is suspect. Of course, if your research is supported by the government and you toe the party line, you are clean and pure.”
Discussions such as these are zero-sum. To Mother Jones and Think Progress, Greenpeace’s document delivered yet another mortal blow to the “climate deniers.” But to the right, anything delivered by an organization such as Greenpeace is dead upon arrival.
“Ideological filters” can explain this phenomenon, wrote academic Andrew J. Hoffman in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The debate over climate change isn’t a debate over the science, which was decided years ago. It’s a debate “over culture, worldviews and ideology,” Hoffman argued. And the “innate desire to maintain a consistency in beliefs” means that we “refute views or arguments that are contrary to those beliefs.”
Hence, ideological filters. “We’ll consider evidence when it is accepted or, ideally, presented by a knowledgeable source from our cultural community; and we’ll dismiss information that is advocated by sources that represent groups whose values we reject,” Hoffman wrote.
This effect partly explains a peculiar study last month that showed Americans widely distrust scientific consensus. Nearly 90 percent of scientists say climate change is caused by humans — but only one-half of Americans agree. Most scientists agree genetically modified food is safe to eat. Most American’s don’t. Docs say get your kids vaccinated. Some wealthy Californians say nope.
Discussions of climate change and humanity’s role in it do not always include rational actors, but warring tribes. Tribes that draw identity and self-affirmation from their entrenched positions.
And Soon — who rarely, if ever, grants an interview to someone who might disagree with him — understands the mechanics of tribal warfare. “Those people are so out of their minds!” he said of scientists who worry over climate change. He dismissed their research as “crazy ” — snorting, “and they call this science.”
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