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)

Monday, June 7, 2010

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.

47 comments:

Nick Palmer said...

Can I be the first to name this gross propaganda stunt as fourthgradergate?

barry said...

Were you able to ascertain if the student had entered the alleged competition in the first place? How did her project come to the attention of people outside the school?

If the lass is expecting to be trained like an astronaut, and it turns out to be a hoax, as it seems, what a rotten thing to do to her. If the school and parents haven't been contacted by the NSF, as would be expected when a minor is invited away by persons unknown, then someone may be breaking the law.

For me, the lack of follow-up is very shady. This is wrong in all sorts of ways.

James Annan said...

Nice work. I look forward to more digging!

Joel said...

"Where Discoveries Begin" was the motto of the NSF... for its 50th year anniversary in 2000.

deepclimate.org said...

"The Castillos received a package ..."

So there are still some unanswered questions for the Castillos. In the article, J.R. Castillo talked about completing and sending in an application. How is that possible if the contest didn't exist?

Anyway, congratulations on a great story.

07_TeddyF_Silvey0 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
EliRabett said...

Whatever this letter is, it does not use the NSF logo.

allthenittygritty said...

Also note the trademark is not superscripted at the "Space Camp" part.

EliRabett said...

and, oh yes, there does not appear to be a "National Science Fair". After Westinghouse dropped the science fair, Intel picked it up and it now goes under the name International Science and Engineering Fair.

What we have here ladies and gentlemen is a fraud.

Nick Palmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
glacierstate said...

Marc Morano, of Swiftboating, Sen. Inhofe's Environment and Public Works Committee and Climate Depot infamy has been on blogs saying "I talked to the principle [sic]. The story is legit. Some details may not be quite right."

Somehow, I'm starting to see some smoke from Morano's gun here.

bigcitylib said...

Linda L Slakey is indeed with the NSF, though:

http://www.aacc.nche.edu/RESOURCES/AACCPROGRAMS/ATE/CONF2008/Pages/speakers.aspx

bigcitylib said...

Ah, but you know that already.

dhogaza said...

You should try to make sure that the package envelope is saved.

If it indeed is a fake propaganda stunt, offering a bogus prize through US mail is a crime, I'm certain. The postal inspector's office would most likely be happy to investigate.

Of course they may've used a commercial carrier, in which case it's not a postal crime, and probably a lot harder to follow up on legally.

Bradley J. Fikes said...

Excellent job of reporting. You did the work the Beeville newspaper should have done in the first place.

barry said...

glacierstate,

"Somehow, I'm starting to see some smoke from Morano's gun here."

If so, he'd be a very clever operative.

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

More likely someone else loaded it.

duffandnonsense said...

Even so, I would like to offer my personal congratulations and encouragement to Miss Castillo who, in writing her paper, at least took a healthily sceptical line in a school environment in which exactly the opposite was almost certainly the order fo the day!

David Duff

AHuertas said...

Cheers for looking into this!

Aaron Huertas
Press Secretary
Union of Concerned Scientists

Pat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Climate Depot said...

Great work Michael. Great due dilingence on this story. I will link to your site now and correct the record. Many thanks!
Sincerely,
Marc Morano
www.ClimateDepot.com

EcoTretas said...

Great skeptic work!

Ecotretas

dhogaza said...

To Marc Morano's credit, he did just as he says (I wasn't sure it was really him posting so checked).

Tom said...

Well done, Mr. Tobis. And your next assignment is...

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, BP.

leoboiko said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
leoboiko said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JS said...

I was taken in by it. I guess I wanted to believe that a courageous schoolgirl was being recognised for daring to look at the data, and think for herself, in the face of an establishment utterly convinced (so it would seem) by the climate alarmists.

I covered it on my new blog: http://climatelessons.blogspot.com/

EliRabett said...

David Duff, this was in Texas, you know the place with the large oil industry, the blow dry governor and the state school board that . . .

An interesting question is how many more of these went out

ourchangingclimate said...

Guess we can add this one to the list of hoaxes that "skeptics" are all too eager to buy into?

http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2008/08/17/climate-hoax/

Good detective work.

Bart

EcoTretas said...

While the prize can be a hoax, Julisa deserves the credit for putting Beeville on the map.

Seems that Beeville´s temperatures are interesting. You can check this out at

http://ecotretas.blogspot.com/2010/06/being-skeptic.html

Ecotretas

Martin said...

JS,

not surprised that you were taken in... anybody reminded of the 'benthic bacteria' flap some while ago? Believing what you wish to believe is asking to be taken for a ride.

What surprised me a bit was that Morano was taken in... I took him for not dumb. Already the story was improbable, and he could not have failed to spot the obvious giveaways in the letter.

Live and learn.

Hank Roberts said...

So did they use the US Mail to deliver this? If so has it been reported to the Postmaster?

NewYork said...

It's good to see this exposed quickly. Although it's probably inevitable it would have been debunked sooner or later, sooner is better, for at least the family's sake. My guess is the perpetrator probably wanted it to bounce around the media for at least a few weeks, getting maximum exposure before it was quietly debunked.

A story was done on this child's project several months ago, with the child's name in the story, so it was already out there.

http://www.mysoutex.com/pages/full_story_landing/push?article-Conclusion-+%E2%80%98pretty+creative%E2%80%99%20&id=5061446

It would be nice if the denial crowd left children out of their silly little political game.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

This is sad. That poor little girl. Can you imagine what she might be enduring at school now?

I don't care who did it, or why- it's borderline emotional child abuse, and I want the perpetrator publicly shamed and disgraced. I just hope it wasn't a parent attempting to make her feel better, that would be even worse than what she's already endured.

cpwinter said...

This was a despicable stunt. Does the upper logo suggest anything? It's hard to see in the scan, but it looks like some flowers.

Michael Tobis said...

Re: upper logo, see this follow-up

Dan Olner said...

Whoa. First-up - amazing work tracking this down. Second - this story is one of those that makes me go "I actually have no idea what's happening in the world or what people are doing." I mean - fraudulent school prizes? What the hell??? That's so far outside my frame of reference, I just have no idea how to begin to understand the motivation behind it. And, yes, poor girl.

At WUWT I'm glad to see they're weirded out by the fraud, but apparently think the "real news" is the temperature data covered. Wow - it really isn't. The audacity of saying this is incredible: googling "watts up with that climategate" brings up a whole wodge of stories picking away at that scab. And yet, here's a bizarre and unprincipled fraud, with some poor schoolgirl being used - and that's not the story. I'm almost speechless.

Orion said...

Very interesting post - congratulations on following it up. It just proves the ongoing relevance of the Royal Society's motto "Nullis in Verba" ("On No One's Word").

It was obviously not from the NSF. As someone else has pointed out, their motto is no longer "Where Discoveries Begin". I think these days "Where Scpeticism is Ruthlessly Punished" would be more appropriate.

We need more people that have the real scientific method at heart - question, question, question.

A fable for our (sad) times I think.

Martin said...

Orion, in the spirit of your comment, the motto of the Royal Society of London is 'Nullius in Verba'. I was there ;-)

And rather than 'question, question, question', I would say 'evidence, evidence, evidence'.

Michael Tobis said...

NOTE: It is not difficult to find discussions elsewhere of who is responsible for this. This blog is not participating, nor am I personally, though I am following the developments elsewhere with interest.

So if you sent a comment about whodunnit or a link to one of those conversations, don't be surprised if your comment doesn't appear.

EcoTretas said...

Follow-up on the story.
The temperature data for Beeville seems to validate Julisa Castillo's findings:

http://ecotretas.blogspot.com/2010/06/more-about-beeville.html

Ecotretas

Michael Tobis said...

Nobody who lived through the brutal summer in south central Texas in 2009 is going to take seriously a project which claims that it "has been cooling for several years".

Perhaps this featured in why it did not place in the top five in the fourth grade in a small elementary school.

Now, admittedly that's a naive way of looking at things. On the other hand, you have to squint really hard at the data to see any sign of recent cooling in Beeville.

You Watts folk have an odd way of looking at data. Irene saw your NASA graph and thought it clear evidence that Julisa's claim was wrong!

tidal said...

MT, great effort on this.

re: the surfacestations troll - as yoda would say, the stupid is strong with this one. (or was that annakin?)

EliRabett said...

A modest suggestion

Rattus Norvegicus said...

That call from OR wouldn't have come from Cave Junction, would it have?

Ed Darrell said...

Beeville was just a warmup hoax:

http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/spanish-skeptic-of-warming-claims-a-bomb-in-the-mail-so-called-skeptics-caught-unskeptical/

atomandyves said...

NewYork said... "It would be nice if the denial crowd left children out of their silly little political game."

Yeah, using the same tactics as the alarmists, only confuses the simple minded gullibles.