A Touch of Beeville

In my Beeville travelog, I promised that Zeke Hausfather would re-enter the narrative. Zeke, you’ll recall, was the first person to express doubts about the National Science Fair, Al Gore, national medal winners, astronauts, etc.

The question at hand is how the propagation of doubt works. How do the fake stories about climate propagate so effectively, and why are the real stories so much less effective at capturing the imagination? We could ask the story about numerous ridiculous rumors, going back to the conspiracy theories about the assassination of John Kennedy, the fake moon landing, and moving on to ever more ludicrous ones, like the detonation of the world trade center not involving airplanes or Obama’s parents planting a birth announcement in a Hawai’i paper in 1961 so that the infant could be falsely seen as eligible for the US presidency in 2008. (Apparently this in turn may have something to do with preparations for the BP oil spill.)

As somebody (ironically, this has been attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, though I’m pretty sure it’s not very Churchillian) memorably said “A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on”. But, the question is, how?

Remember the story on here about how the denialists made a big fuss about something perfectly reasonable that Gerd Leopold (of Greenpeace) said in response to a trick question? To recapitulate:

– Hard hitting BBC HardTalk reporter who claims to have talked to lots of climate experts asks “you really don’t think Greenland will be ice-free by 2030, like your press release says?” (No such claim, in fact, was made)
– Greenpeace leader Gerd Leipold misses the point, since it’s so out of left field.
– Hard hitting BBC HardTalk reporter asks the question again.
– Leipold, not having the copy in front of him, shrugs, says “I don’t read every press release” and “it might have been a mistake”, as well he should.
– Denialist websites issue headlines like

“Greenpeace Leader Admits Organization Put Out False Global Warming Data”
“Greenpeace Caught Lying”
and even
Death Blow to Global Warming Tax?

By the time I noticed (eleven days after the trick question) Google had 94 PAGES of hits on “leipold global warming”. Even today the first several hits are exatly of that ilk, though happily In It is on the front page trying to rectify the problem.

Beeville, though, was noticed quickly. The lie was perhaps too amateurish, and the denialist sites too eager to run with it. It was possible to trace how the nonsense spread, and Zeke rose to the occasion. You’ve probably already seen his chart, but here it is in case you missed it.

What do we learn from this? First, we do not have 100% credulity, even among the critics of climate science. In particular, Bradley Fikes of nctimes.com gets some credit for independent thought. Second, as we always suspected, Marc Morano provides a hub of material for the anti-science crowd.

Most importantly, though, we learn that people’s credulity is very flexible. Remember what the original report claimed:

R.A. Hall Elementary School fourth-grader Julisa Castillo has been named junior division champion for the 2010 National Science Fair.

Her project, “Disproving Global Warming,” beat more than 50,000 other projects submitted by students from all over the U.S.

Julisa originally entered her project in her school science fair before sending it to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to be judged at the national level.

The NSF panel of judges included former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, 14 recipients of the President’s National Medal of Science, and four former astronauts.

Yeah, it’s possible to believe in a national science fair for fourth graders. It’s sadly possible to believe bad judging might give “Disproving Global Warming” a blue ribbon. But it’s pretty difficult (for me) to believe in that panel of judges (emphasis added above) for a fourth grade project, never mind that such a group would end up with such a result!

As I said in my travelog story, I started out believing that paragraph was garbled reporting. But dozens of anti-climate-science sites ran it credulously in less than two days!

I was aware of this by the time Irene and I set out for Beeville. We had an opportunity to at least keep one more malicious myth from entering the popular consciousness. The longer we delayed, the more this would propagate.

Once we found out that the whole thing was fake, we had to balance this against the damage that young Julisa Castillo would encounter. But surely the whole story was overreaching on the perpetrator’s part. (By the end of the day we suspected the father but hoped others would get to the bottom of that, which indeed happened very quickly.) Julisa would find out sooner or later, but it seemed important that the public find out sooner.

I do hope the Castillos get beyond this in a healthy way, somehow. It’s really not my business. Once it was clear that the original lie didn’t come from organized sources of disinformation, as far as I’m concerned the Castillo family was not my business. If there were not so much at stake I might well have let the whole thing slide in the interests of protecting the child. Irene and I certainly considered it.

The real story, here, is how such lies propagate. If people can believe transparent nonsense about fourteen national medalists judging a fourth grade science fair, how the hell do we separate skepticism, not just from stubborn hostility, but from credulity?

In Marc Morano’s defense and to his credit, he did issue a retraction. On the other hand, he investigated by calling the school principal only after doubts had been raised, and even then not by contacting NSF. Like all his followers, it’s clear he very strongly wanted to believe the story. This arguably speaks a little more strongly in defense of his honesty than I might suspect, but also argues against his ability to make reasonable judgments about the world.

In an excellent article in the current issue of Skeptic (V 15 # 4) David Brin examines the nature of criticism of climate science. The incidents described here support him on the following:

[a climate skeptic] needs to acknowledge that atmospheric scientists are human. Having tried for 20 years to use logic, reason and data to deal with a screeching, offensive and nasty denier movement, these human beings are exhausted. They have very important work on their plates. Their time is valuable and, frankly, they see little point in wasting any more of it trying to reason with folks who:
– proclaim that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas
– deny human-generated burning of carbon fuels has increased greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere
– claim the increase won’t affect temperatures
– claim there’s been no warming (while the US Navy is hurriedly making plans for an ice-free Arctic)
– claim humans have no role in the warming
– then admit we’re causing it but claim it’s too already too late to do anything about it and anyway they’ll have a longer growing season in Alberta …

and so on. In other words, any of you out there who might be serious, you need to understand the company you are keeping. The idea that this history shouldn’t affect our conversations with innocent li’l ol’ you might well be true ideally, but in practice there’s this little matter of twenty years of frank, unmitigated bullshit that we’ve had to deal with. Cut us some slack, okay?

Note: Beeville hoax story resources here.

The Swag

A minor but (perhaps sadly) amusing point regarding the Beeville hoax story.

Here are closeups of the stuff Julisa got along with the infamous letter, clipped from the photo taken by (and kindly provided to Irene by) Sarah Taylor of the Bee-Picayune.

This all explains the two logos on the letter. Apparently the perpetrator could not come up with a high resolution NSF logo for the trophies, and resorted to clip art that says “SCIENCE” on it. (The objects designated on the pedestal are obviously a telescope, a microscope, and, um, a corn dog.) So for consistency, the clip art logo appeared on the letterhead.

Update: It didn’t take long for somebody to find the original. (h/t JM) Here’s a similar item available in single quantity. Here’s what appears to be the logo itself:

Update 6/19: Links to Beeville stories by myself and others here

NSF: Letter "Fraudulent"

Regarding the Beeville hoax story:

Dear Michael,

Linda Slakey forwarded your message to me. We became aware of this
yesterday through an article in the Beeville, TX newspaper, and have
referred this matter to our Office of Inspector General.

The letter is not authentic, Linda had no knowledge of it, and it
amounts to fraudulent use of our name and logo.

We appreciate your concern about it.

Regards, Maria

Maria Zacharias
Acting Head of Media and Public Information
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22230
Fax: 703-292-9087

A New Low

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

Congratulations Julisa!

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!

L.L. Slakey

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.)

I will have more to say about this amazing and disconcerting experience later. It has been quite a day. One thing that was especially remarkable was how difficult it was to convey our suspicions to the locals. But why would anyone unfamiliar with NSF, seeing the medal and the trophy and the plaque and the letter, have any basis for suspicion? They were just thrilled for her and proud of her accomplishment.

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.

Update 6/19: A set of links to related stories, by myself and others, here

Photo: A picture of myself in Beeville, (C) (CC ND 3.0) by Irene Tobis.