Readers may be aware of a recent controversy originating in Beeville, Texas, in which a fourth grader allegedly was awarded national honors for “Disproving Global Warming” in a science fair project.
Since, by Texas standards, this is local, my wife Irene and I drove to Beeville to investigate whether the implausible story holds any truth.
It turns out that the 4th grader, Julisa Castillo, received a package containing the trophy, medal and plaque, along with a letter of which I have obtained a copy. A scan is available here.
Here is the text:
May 3, 2010
On behalf of the National Science Foundation, we are proud to declare you the Jr. Grand Champion in our 2010 National Science Fair for your project titled “Disproving Global Warming”. Out of over 50,000 projects entered from all 50 States, including the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, you and your project were declared our overall winner in the 9 to 11 year-old Jr. Division.
You, your family, your school and your community should be very proud of this accomplishment! We are proud to say that this year’s panel of judges included fourteen recipients of the President’s National Medal of Science, four are former astronauts for NASA and we were honored to have our former Vice-President of the United States Al Gore serve on the panel, as well.
To commemorate your accomplishment as our 2010 National Science Fair Jr. Grand Champion, we are presenting you with a plaque, a trophy and a medal. Also, you have earned an all expenses paid trip and a wonderful opportunity to train like an astronaut at Space CampTM at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There you will have the experience of a lifetime as you choose from the Space Track, the Aviation Track or the Robotics Track and have a hands-on space training experience like no other. Our partners at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center will be contacting you and your family in the next few weeks with more details or you can call 1-800-63-SPACE for more information.
Once again, congratulations! We wish you continued success and encourage you to keep expanding your horizons in the world of science. We are the National Science Foundation: Where Discoveries Begin!
Directorate for Education
Although the name of an actual officer of the National Science Foundation is appended to the above, you will see from the scan no signature, contact information, or other identifying information appears.
The principal of the school, Mrs. Martina Villareal was contacted by the Castillo family, and she appears in the trophy photo along with Julisa’s father, J.R. Castillo. Mrs. Villareal invited the Beeville Bee-Picayune to the school to cover the story.
Ms. Sarah Taylor, a young reporter at the Beeville Picayune, was assigned to the story. Principal Villareal made a copy of the letter and gave it to Ms. Taylor, who treated it more or less as a press release, with the results you may have seen. Ms Taylor also claims to have taken a high resolution photograph wherein the text of the plaque is legible. So far I have only seen the low resolution version on the website and in the newspaper.
When Irene and I arrived in Beeville, we made (ahem) a beeline for the Bee-Picayune head office, an anachronistic sprawl of a low slung building where three local papers (for Bee and two adjacent counties) are written, printed, and sold. When we arrived and announced our interests, we were guided through the print shop, where machines were busily being tended, and back to editorial, where we met Ms. Taylor.
We also visited Principal Villareal at the elementary school at the edge of town. She phoned the Castillos, who seemed reluctant to talk to us, and relayed to us that Mr. Castillo insisted that yes, the letter was from the National Science Foundation.
I have no reason at this time to believe that anyone in Beeville is acting in bad faith in this matter. It’s clear that the principal and the reporter, having had no prior communication from NSF, were not in a position to form doubts on its authenticity and had no reason to do so.
I on the other hand take note, in addition to suspicions others have raised, of
- the informal structure of the letter, without an addressee
- the peculiar layout of the letter, including the amateurish placement of the text “2010 National Science Fair” and the duplicate logos
- the breathless and commercial tone of the prose, especially “Jr. Grand Champion”
- the peculiar description of the panel of judges
- the lack of a claimed credential by Dr. Slakey
- the lack of a signature by Dr. Slakey
We also confirmed that there is no sign on the internet of prior contests, of this contest prior to the article in the Beeville Bee-Picayune, or of any “Sr.” division to complement the “Jr. Grand Champion”.
Principal Villareal also informed us that she had spoken to a couple of people from out of town by phone earlier in the day; one from Oregon and one from “Climate Depot”. It appears that she confirmed all the details to Morano, before Irene and I raised any suspicions in her eyes.
I do not know what Mrs. Villareal now believes. She actually expressed relief in one respect: she had been astonished that the national winner did not even place in the top five in her school’s science fair. This had called into question for her the quality of the local judges! From that comment of hers I gather it is likely she would not quite so confidently confirm Mr. Morano’s inquiries if he had called after my arrival.
There being no Kinko’s in town, we went back to the Bee County Library, and with the considerable help of a very kind librarian scanned the letter and mailed it to the NSF officer, or at least tried. At this point I put on my academic hat, mailing via the utexas system and signing with my credentials, in the hope of getting the officer’s attention quickly. The first response was
“Dear Dr. Tobis,
I can’t open the attachment, for some reason. Pdf files usually open
smoothly, but this one didn’t. Can you try sending it again, please?
“I am grateful for your inquiry – I just got a call from a reporter about
this, and did not know what she was talking about. Perhaps this will
help me see the picture.”
Likely the reporter was Ms. Taylor, as nobody but she and Irene and myself and Principal Villareal and the Castillos and the perpetrator knew Dr. Slakey’s connection to these events prior to the publication of this article.
I so far have no clear disavowal of the letter from her, but I do have “did not know what she was talking about” which is pretty close to clinching the matter for me. (Update: NSF has officially disavowed the letter.)
The clearest lesson to be learned from this is how amazingly base this behavior is. What sort of person would manipulate the emotions and expectations of a ten-year-old girl in this vile and crass way for a small political point?
Update: Sarah Taylor of the Beeville Bee-Picayune informs me via email that
I did speak with a representative from NSF who confirmed that they do not have a National Science Fair, no one there had ever seen the letter, and I also called space camp, who told me that they did not receive anything from NSF either.
By the way, I’d like to emphasize that, much as I often fault the press for many things, I don’t fault Ms. Taylor for initially taking this all at face value. Not everyone out in the world is obsessed with the politics of climate change (much though we may think they ought to be), and she had no initial reason for suspicion.
Indeed, everyone we met yesterday in Beeville without exception has been kind, open and thoughtful.
Update: Seen on Reddit: “What kind of vile and crass person investigates the legitimacy of a small child’s science fair award?” It crossed my mind.
Update: Sarah Taylor’s Bee-Picayune account of the story is interesting.
NOTE: I’d like to be left out of further speculations or investigations on whodunit and why, thanks. Much appreciated.
There’s more to this story than the initial hoax. Stay tuned.
Photo: A picture of myself in Beeville, (C) (CC ND 3.0) by Irene Tobis.