The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Lion's Skull: Beeville Travelog

The story began when Zeke Hausfather derailed a rant I was starting on the Planet 3 mailing list.

Entitled "Science Fair Fiasco Writ Large", it was about a young girl winning a national science fair project for "disproving global warming". Now I've had a bug... er, a bee in my bonnet about science fairs for a while. I think they are a real nexus of spreading doubt about climate science, and basically I wonder whether they are a good idea at all. It's really easy to have some CO2 not cause detectable warming and much harder to have it make a difference in a cheap lab setup.

So when I spotted the story (at Tom Nelson's site) about the national prize, I was ready for a rant, and another effort to figure out how to actually build a desktop demo of the greenhouse effect, and maybe even do it.

(I've made progress on my PhD-level science fair entry; until this week my approach contained a stupid error. Here's a clue: can you construct a situation where an optically thick layer of CO2 causes cooling? Why or why not?)

But the conversation quickly took a sharp turn, when it took not six minutes for Zeke Hausfather (who will return to the saga at a later point) to remark "Huh, something seems... odd about that story".

So while I was among the first to spot the story, and I did scratch my head a time or two about it, and even though I had seen it only on a single hard-core denialist site, I didn't express any doubts. Credulity is a theme here.

On the other hand, suspicions were blazing in our crowd instantly thanks to Zeke.

Was it some sort of conspiracy that the Beeville Bee-Picyune was in on? Or was it bad reporting? I'm no fan of the press as regular readers know, so it seemed clear to me that this called for an investigation of the local paper.

I was the closest. What was I to do? What, besides a Texas road trip, could the fates possibly have in store?

(NOTE: CLICK IMAGES FOR LARGER VERSION)


I really thought the newspaper was the story, and this entry is basically the story of the newspaper and of the town, which didn't turn out as I expected.

A little digging, for instance, revealed this nightmarishly awful, coyly racist letter practically blaming Obama for the Nashville flood! Well, not really, but for "ignoring" the flood. When I read it, I missed that it was a letter and thought it was an op-ed. (An awkward consequence of a slip-up on the site design, fellers. Emphasize "letters to the editor"!)

And then there was the amazingly bombastic start to Scott R Wiley's earlier Beeville science fair story:
As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to draft legislation to rein in the release of greenhouse gases and stem climate change, an R.A. Hall Elementary School student is questioning the science supporting global warming.

“There is not enough evidence to prove global warming is occurring,” fourth-grader Julisa Raquel Castillo concluded in a science project she entered in the campus’ annual science fair on Tuesday.

Julisa studied temperatures in Beeville for the past 109 years to develop her conclusion.
Here's what I was thinking:
I think the young Ms Castillo must have won something, though, and
there is a plethora of competitions that offer a trip to Space Camp as
a prize. So the question to be asked in Beevilee is first, what she
won, and second, where this paragraph came from:

"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."

Most searches on "national medal of science" and "former astronauts"
or the like turn up the Beeville article or its remarkably many
descendants.
So it was with some trepidation that we made the long trek through South Texas to check out the lion's den of reactionary viciousness, the evident culprit, the Beeville Bee-Picayune. With attitudes like that, I was terrified that they would up and shoot me if they found out that I'm a clammit santiss my own self.


The long drive was pleasant and uneventful. Great swaths of Texas are undeveloped and almost uninhabited. Our little car has effective air conditioning. It was June in South Texas, in other words, a hot, sunny day. The three hours flew by in a blur.

A charming peculiarity of Texas is how the past never goes away. Though Texas' history is short, it is eventful, and it leaves interesting detritus of every era scattered hither and yon. The largest cities are mostly visually uninteresting, but there are gems in the small towns, abandoned and still standing because the land is so cheap. Beeville is no different. Some of my favorite Beeville ruins were old gas stations:




Also, the frank and humorous but relentlessly tacky redneck spirit was visible


somewhat mitigated by the uncomplicated Tejano/Mexicano love of hot colors


Given Beeville's simple layout, we had no difficulty navigating to the main street (North Washington)







which runs north off the Bee County courthouse square:



and right where the main street meets the square we found the Beeville Publishing Company, home of the "Bee-Pic".









If you've been following the Beeville hoax story you know what happened next. The newspaper was not at fault, or at least, despite their mea culpa, they just missed a chance to ask questions a little earlier, before the embarrassing national attention which we had hastened to bring down upon them. But they were having their chain yanked like the rest of us.

Indeed, both Beeville and the Bee-Pic, like other relatively prosperous corners of rural America, were in a sort of time bubble. Not only were we treated very well by every single person we encoutered, but the newspaper duly followed the story to its conclusion. I had expected, based on their earlier piece, that they would let it slide. I don't always agree with the journalistic ethic, but it is heartening to see it in action.

I join John Mashey in congratulating the Bee-Picayune, and in thanking Beeville for its decency and generosity. Texans have a bad name in the world, and there are reasons for it, but the caricature view of the Texas culture in the world is shallow. In some ways Texas has been crazy from the git-go, but in other ways it seems like one of the sanest corners of the world. This story has sanity as well as madness written all over it.

But before I talk any more about it, I wanted you to see the place. (OK, you have to look through my camera, or Irene's. You can see higher resolution versions of the images if you click on them. If you like my photo style, please visit PECULIAR MO, my photo blog.)

In the next installment of the Beeville Story, I'll tell you more about why we were in such a all-farred hurry to haul us down to Beeville Texas, and why, despite the turmoil this was sure to cause for Julisa, the balance of ethical pressure said to go public immediately. In that phase of the story, Zeke Hausfather will again figure prominently.


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


images by myself (Michael Tobis) and Irene Tobis (C) (CC ND 3.0)


11 comments:

Orne Batmagoo said...

Some readers might not realize that the album art depicts a biblical reference (Judges 14:8 ).

As the Rev. Gary Davis (and later, the Grateful Dead) sang, "And the bees made honey, in the lion's head."

can you construct a situation where an optically thick layer of CO2 causes cooling?

Dry ice?

Martin said...

> can you construct a situation where an
> optically thick layer of CO2 causes
> cooling?

Isn't that what's happening in (part of) the stratosphere?

About building a desktop demonstrator of the greenhouse effect, I've been thinking about that too. The problem is that if it fits on a desktop, it will be a 'model'. Not a computer model, but a model nevertheless, and even if it demonstrates what it's supposed to, the transfer of that to the real world involves model assumptions and will be questioned by the bitterenders.

A better idea might be to try and replicate Langley: a thermal IR spectrometer aimed at the Moon. But also there a model assumption: that increasing the number of CO2 molecules along your optical path by extending the path is equivalent to increasing the concentration.

Sigh. The only impeccable demonstrator would require a spare planet...

---

My own greenhorn experience of Texas: trying to find a postage stamp to the Netherlands in Fort Worth ;-)

Arthur said...

Nice photos! I married a Texan, so I know the good side of them well :)

On the optically thick layer question - basically it's acting like insulation, i.e. cutting down on the radiative transport of heat between two places. So if one side is heated and the other cooled then the heated side will warm up and the cooled side will cool down. As Martin describes with the stratosphere...

Michael Tobis said...

Right; so the idea of proving that CO2 "causes warming" shows a completely incorrect model of the problem.

CO2 slows radiative heat transfer. A warm surface will not cool as easily, but a cool surface will not warm as easily either.

But both science fair projects that I know about (intriguingly, both by girls about Julisa's age where the parent had a strong involvement) attempted to demonstrate that a CO2-rich container on a windowsill would warm more than one with ordinary air. So based on what they read, people believe or disbelieve that CO2 has magic warming properties.

Combine this with other greenie anti-science and it's no wonder that scientifically minded people come in disbelieving.

Vinny Burgoo said...

MT, where is the coy racism in that letter at the mySouTex.com site?

(And, much less important, where is the hyperrealism at your photography site?)

Michael Tobis said...

If you can't find the racism, I am not going to help you.

As for hyperrealist photography, that is sort of a joke. "That photograph is so lifelike, why, it almost looks like a photograph!"

But I think many of my themes are hyperrealist.

Michael Tobis said...

Maybe you can spot it here:

"The president has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race -- on the side that favors the black person."

-- Rep. Steve King (R-IA), quoted by The Hill, on President Obama's attitude towards race.

Dan Olner said...

On "co2 doesn't 'cause warming', it traps heat": Iain Stewart's little section showing that co2 is opaque to infrared is a nice one. How hard would that be to replicate? Webcams can already see IR, with a little tinkering, so not too expensive to do. Could put alongside... oh, I can't find the link. Think I saw it here first: a site of climate simulation games, one actually showing photons bouncing up from the ground and bouncing off little floating co2 molecules.

Michael Tobis said...

Vinny, purged. I don't want to go there. Per your argument I withdraw "racist" in favor of "shameless race-baiting".

Vinny Burgoo said...

Fair do's. (Well, fair do's about the purging. 'Shameless race-baiting' indeed!) A long meta-race-centred spiel has no place on a climate blog.

VB

Zeke said...

MT,

Thanks for the kind words. I've been "off the grid" so to speak with the family for my sister's wedding, so I'm just catching up on all the blogland doings.