Terrestrial carbon (C)-climate feedbacks depend strongly on how soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition responds to temperature. This dependency is often represented in land models by the parameter Q10, which quantifies the relative increase of microbial soil respiration per 10 °C temperature increase. Many studies have conducted paired laboratory soil incubations and inferred “active” and “slow” pool Q10 values by fitting linear two-pool models to measured respiration time series. Using a recently published incubation study (Qin et al. in Sci Adv 5(7):eaau1218, 2019) as an example, here we first show that the very high parametric equifinality of the linear two-pool models may render such incubation-based Q10 estimates unreliable. In particular, we show that, accompanied by the uncertain initial active pool size, the slow pool Q10 can span a very wide range, including values as high as 100, although all parameter combinations are producing almost equally good model fit with respect to the observations. This result is robust whether or not interactions between the active and slow pools are considered (typically these interactions are not considered when interpreting incubation data, but are part of the predictive soil carbon models). This very large parametric equifinality in the context of interpreting incubation data is consistent with the poor temporal extrapolation capability of linear multi-pool models identified in recent studies. Next, using a microbe-explicit SOM model (RESOM), we show that the inferred two pools and their associated parameters (e.g., Q10) could be artificial constructs and are therefore unreliable concepts for integration into predictive models. We finally discuss uncertainties in applying linear two-pool (or more generally multiple-pool) models to estimate SOM decomposition parameters such as temperature sensitivities from laboratory incubations. We also propose new observations and model structures that could enable better process understanding and more robust predictive capabilities of soil carbon dynamics.