I was tempted to ignore the whole Willie Soon saga, but since everyone else is writing about it, I thought I would post something. Personally, I think academic freedom is extremely important. If someone can get funded to do research and can get their work published, good on them; that’s how it’s meant to work. There may be issues with peer review that could addressed and maybe we should be looking at how some journals operate, but none of that changes that people should be free to research whatever they want to (well, within the bounds of ethics). If, however, he didn’t disclose his funders and/or didn’t disclose possible conflicts of interest, that is a serious issue and should be addressed. I have a feeling, however, that this may reflect as badly on the Smithsonian as it does on Willie Soon himself.
One reason I don’t care greatly about this whole saga is that it’s fairly clear that Willie Soon’s research is mostly rubbish. I wrote about the recent Monckton, Soon, Legates and Briggs paper. Realclimate has a post pointing out the fallacy in some of his research. There’s the whole Soon and Baliunas controversy. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with some people publishing rubbish. Willie Soon is almost certainly not alone in doing so.
The more worrying thing – which is what I think Adam Frank is getting at in this article – is how someone like Willie Soon has managed to get such a prominent public profile. Rubbish research would normally simply not get noticed and the researchers would disappear into obscurity. I have no problem with there being rubbish researchers (I may be one myself), but I do have a problem with rubbish researchers gaining prominence when their research is so obviously drivel. Academic freedom means that you have the freedom to do whatever research you want. It doesn’t mean that you get to do so and avoid criticism when it’s nonsense. I also see no reason why anyone who wants to be credible would be comfortable with Willie Soon’s research having the prominence it does, irrespective of their own views on global warming. Surely, we would all like the public and policy makers to be as well-informed as possible. We should all be comfortable with calling out obvious nonsense, irrespective of who is presenting it (and I do mean obvious nonsense, rather than what some think is nonsense, but others don’t).
Of course a more interesting issue is what this implies overall. On an earlier thread I ended up in a lengthy discussion – that I should probably have tried to stop – about how some people think that skeptics are prevented from getting funded, and prevented from getting their work published, because there is an active attempt to control what is funded and what is published. Given my own experiences, this seems highly implausible, but if Willie Soon is one of the leading climate skeptics, then this seems completely nonsensical. If he’s one of the best, then it would seem obvious that the reason skeptics might find it hard to get funded and published is because their work is rubbish, not because there is some active conspiracy to stop them.
Anyway, that’s my view, FWIW. I realise that this post has some thoughts about conspiracy ideation, but I have no great interest in lengthy discussions about possible conspiracy, especially as – in my view – the Willie Soon saga essentially shows that there isn’t one. Maybe people could bear that in mind when crafting their comments.