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The Soon fallacy

Filed under: — gavin @ 24 February 2015

As many will have read, there were a number of press reports (NYT, Guardian, InsideClimate) about the non-disclosure of Willie Soon’s corporate funding (from Southern Company (an energy utility), Koch Industries, etc.) when publishing results in journals that require such disclosures. There are certainly some interesting questions to be asked (by the OIG!) about adherence to the Smithsonian’s ethics policies, and the propriety of Smithsonian managers accepting soft money with non-disclosure clauses attached.

However, a valid question is whether the science that arose from these funds is any good? It’s certainly conceivable that Soon’s work was too radical for standard federal research programs and that these energy companies were really taking a chance on blue-sky high risk research that might have the potential to shake things up. In such a case, someone might be tempted to overlook the ethical lapses and conflicts of interest for the sake of scientific advancement (though far too many similar post-hoc justifications have been used to excuse horrific unethical practices for this to be remotely defendable).

Unfortunately, the evidence from the emails and the work itself completely undermines that argument because the work and the motivation behind it are based on a scientific fallacy.

Putting aside papers where Soon was only a minor contributing author, and the hopelessly slanted ‘forecasting principles’ papers with Green and Armstrong (see here for why they add nothing to the discussion), most of Soon’s work has been related to finding correlations of a very specific solar reconstruction (see figure below) to some observational time-series. There are very real criticisms that can be made of the solar forcing time-series he uses, and of course, of the cherry picking of specific time-series without mentioning that correlations to others (such as the global mean) are very low, but even accepting all that, there is a much more fundamental problem.

It is most succinctly highlighted in an article Soon wrote ‘It’s the Sun, stupid’ (not sure if it was ever really published anywhere, but he did send it to his contacts at Koch Industries). Towards the end he states:

The evidence in my paper is consistent with the hypothesis that the Sun causes climatic change in the Arctic.

It invalidates the hypothesis that CO2 is a major cause of observed climate change – and raises serious questions about the wisdom of imposing cap-and-trade or other policies that would cripple energy production and economic activity, in the name of “preventing catastrophic climate change.”

It is the leap from the first to second sentence that drives Soon’s research – the notion that if you can find enough correlations to solar forcing, the impact of CO2 must be diminished, if not obliterated altogether. But this is a fallacy. It is equivalent to arguing that if total caloric intake correlates to weight, that exercise can have no effect, or that if cloudiness correlates to incident solar radiation at the ground, then seasonal variations in sunshine are zero. The existence of one physical factor affecting a variable in a complex system says nothing whatsoever about the potential for another physical factor to affect that same variable.

Even if the correlations existed at the level Soon claims (and they don’t – see figure), it would still not indicate that CO2 had zero effect, and indeed, it could never do so. The impacts of CO2 on radiative transfer have been studied since the 1860s, and modern spectroscopic databases date to Air Force calculations for heat seeking missiles in the 1950s and have been validated by an enormous number of observations, both in situ and via remote sensing. The vertical fingerprint of the impact of increasing CO2 (warming troposphere, cooling stratosphere) was calculated in 1967 by Manabe and Wetherald, decades before it was observed. None of this science disappears because a regional temperature series correlates for some short time with something else.



Figure 1. Updating the Soon (2005) correlations by correcting for an obsolete and almost certainly incorrect solar reconstruction (replacing with the SORCE reconstruction) and extending the temperature data to the present, shows an almost complete collapse of the initially impressive correlation (click for larger version).

The only way this might even begin to make sense would be if attribution of recent global warming was based purely on a linear regression of temperature to CO2 (which it isn’t). Given that we know there are multiple drivers of climate operating (the sun for sure, but also volcanoes, aerosols, greenhouse gas changes, land use change, etc.) the only way to do attribution properly is calculate the physical fingerprints of each of these drivers across multiple variables and see which combinations provide the best fits. Indeed, this is indeed exactly what is done. This kind of attribution is not based on single-factor correlations and is even robust to errors of magnitude in the calculated responses.

Soon’s work has been singularly poor for over a decade, first coming to prominence with the Soon and Baliunas (2003) debacle in Climatic Research which led to the resignation of 5 editors in protest at the way the paper was handled (and see more here). Another case associated with some very obvious shenanigans was Dyck et al (2007). More recently, his presentations at Heartland’s pseudo-climate conferences have come under renewed scrutiny for their level of incoherence.

The odd thing about this is that there is real, and interesting, science to be done on the impacts of solar forcing on climate. The chemical feedbacks due to photolytic reactions in both the stratosphere and troposphere involving ozone, NOx, and water vapour, can have significant impacts. Exploring the tremendous complexities in aerosol formation and growth and impacts on clouds and whether that is mediated by modulations of cosmic rays is fascinating (if, as yet, inconclusive). Indeed, there is a current NASA call for proposals on exactly these subjects (Notice of Intent due March 13!). But every time another one of these spurious correlations is touted, or one more fallaciously reasoned argument is put forward, it makes it harder for serious scientists to get involved at all without being tarred with the same pseudo-scientific brush.

Moving on from this low-quality, pointless kind of solar forcing shtick can’t come ‘Soon’ enough.

References

  1. W.W. Soon, "Solar Arctic-Mediated Climate Variation on Multidecadal to Centennial Timescales: Empirical Evidence, Mechanistic Explanation, and Testable Consequences", Physical Geography, vol. 30, pp. 144-184, 2009. http://dx.doi.org/10.2747/0272-3646.30.2.144
  2. S. Manabe, and R.T. Wetherald, "Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity", Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, vol. 24, pp. 241-259, 1967. http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/1520-0469(1967)024<0241:TEOTAW>2.0.CO;2
  3. W.W. Soon, "Variable solar irradiance as a plausible agent for multidecadal variations in the Arctic-wide surface air temperature record of the past 130 years", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 32, 2005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2005GL023429

56 Responses to “The Soon fallacy”

  1. 51
    patrick says:

    #49 Chris Dudley: I agree with how you frame the article. I happily consulted it.

    #41 Ken Caldeira: I feel similarly, but it’s not to the point.

    Willie Soon is a distraction. That is exactly what he is meant to be. That is his role. That is the slot he is plugged into in the effort to discredit and obfuscate legitimate climate science. It is disingenous for the Smithsonian, or anyone involved in any way, to ignore this effort.

    People are bending over backwards to be fair to Soon. But the academic freedom at stake is the academic freedom of climate scientists actually qualified with the expertise to do research that needs to be done. Does it hurt them, delay them? Yes. And it distracts everyone else.

    Willie Soon said: “I don’t like to claim that I am an expert on anything…” (2:59-3:01):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WgTq57XQno#t=183

    This is another twist on: “I am not a scientist.” Either way, it’s the (I’m just an) innocent bystander disclaimer. Nothing particularly unsophisticated about that–as disinformation. I think.

    Naomi Oreskes is right. Further, the Smithsonian should investigate itself from the top down about this.

  2. 52
    Matthew R Marler says:

    patrick: But the academic freedom at stake is the academic freedom of climate scientists actually qualified with the expertise to do research that needs to be done – See more at: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2015/02/the-soon-fallacy/comment-page-2/#comment-626866

    On the whole, some mechanism to deny academic freedom based on who “is actually qualified” is likely to be abused to deny academic freedom to academics whose views are unpopular. What you wrote sounds good until you ask “Who judges the judges?” and such questions.

  3. 53
    patrick says:

    Matthew R Marler: I certainly agree with you in principle. I don’t care to sound like the credentials committee. Albeit Willie Soon and backers do. They tag him as an astrophysicist–which is one of the things that the Smithsonian has been gamed for in this matter.

    On the question:

    > “Who judges the judges?” and such…

    1) An engaged, practicing, and accomplished historian of science like Naomi Oreskes, particularly because of how her view was sharpened both by her study of the process of new-era geoscience (re: plate tectonics) and by her study of monkey-wrench health science (re: tobacco, etc).

    2) A disinformation deconstructer and doublespeak debunker like John Mashey.

    They should be consulted in the Smithsonian’s investigation of itself.

    Willie Soon’s climatology is part of a process that is much more than denialism. John Mashey calls it “anti-science,” which describes it well–and which he defines admirably. This term, “anti-science,” rounds out the picture of the assault on climate science by contract media. The term, “anti-science,” minimizes cognitive dissonance and helps to define a starting point for what to do to keep the assault on climate science from infecting journals and scientific institutions–and sources of funding too.

    Follow the money. But follow the cognitive dissonance–it was put there on purpose.

    http://www.desmogblog.com/2015/02/27/was-willie-soon-paid-science-or-anti-science

    It isn’t academic freedom when it’s only a “sciency facade” (Mashey). It isn’t free, it’s slavish. It’s merely academic. So to speak.

    Plus: Willie Soon (and backers re: climate) have left this freedom completely unattended by the responsibility that is supposed to attend upon it.

    Plus: the assault comes with costs that only a practicing climate scientist could detail with the kind of nuance found here: “But every time another one of these spurious correlations is touted, or one more fallaciously reasoned argument is put forward, it makes it harder for serious scientists to get involved at all without being tarred with the same pseudo-scientific brush.” – See more at: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2015/02/the-soon-fallacy/#sthash.SfsqtfXj.dpuf

  4. 54
  5. 55

    I read through the Monckton et al. paper. Basically, all they do is introduce a single equation for temperature increase, then use a very low value of climate sensitivity and a net negative value for climate feedbacks to argue that there will be very little warming. Given the assumptions in the paper, the conclusion is inevitable. Given that the assumptions in the paper are wrong, so are the conclusions. Q.E.D.

  6. 56
    patrick says:

    From “Climate Progress,” posted and updated March 23/24:

    “We feel very grateful for David Koch’s contributions to helping, I hope, the American public and us being able to bring science to them.” –Rick Potts (2010)

    This is another symptom of how deep equivocation runs at the Smithsonian, as an operative mode.

    Rick Potts is the long-time director of the Smithsonian Human Origins Program and author of “What It Means To Be Human,” written to accompany a Koch funded exhibit at the Smithsonian.

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/03/23/3637313/smithsonian-climate-change-koch/

    I think Rick Potts’ condescension is pathetic. Ditto, Smithsonian cartoons of what it means to be human (see video). The American public would be just fine–better off, really–without David Koch and Rick Potts to “bring science to them,” I think.

    What is particularly outrageous to me is the suggestion that humans might adapt to current climate change by developing more sweat glands. This kind of thing is worse than silly. It bends the mind toward superstition. It is the product of an intellect already alienated from the body itself, the outdoors, living systems, and evolutionary timescales.

    The IPCC notes the increasing difficulty of working outdoors as a consequence of global warming with economic impact. I have yet to find serious imagination of what future warming holds for the human body and outdoor labor, in warming scenarios. The surface of THIS planet itself is being turned into a hazardous zone that will require increasingly specialized gear, modules, and/or routines for things that were once normal. Mars is us, so to speak.