"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, June 20, 2010

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.


John Mashey said...

"The real story, here, is how such lies propagate."
Yes, good, and Zeke's chart will be a classic.

but good on-the-ground investigation from MT, a good reminder that not everything is done via Internet.

And finally, once again, I reiterate that the local paper ended up showing more professionalism than a lot of big-city newspapers.

Note: UK Sunday Times retracted (disappeared) the Leake article, but where's the commentary equivalent to:
"The Apology" from the Bee-Picayune?

dhogaza said...

Yes, John, their apology, if anything, went too far. I'm glad they laid out the small-town community newspaper background, i.e. they publish tons of small-town news. Which includes lots of school and community awards for this-and-that.

Though they didn't say so explicitly, who the hell would expect someone to lie to them about a kid's science fair project?

As an aside, I hope this ends Castillo's chance to be elected to the school board.

I think we should label this fiasco "Fathergate". Remove the kid from the spotlight altogether, and let the father live with the shame.

On an utterly irrelevant personal note, I once shot Gerd in the face with a supersoaker, in Greenpeace International's old office on Keizergracht, in Amsterdam. Totally got the drop on him.

Steve Bloom said...

I think the key thing demonstrated by this incident and the parallel "Amazon-gate" business is the extent to which the denialist propaganda network exists for the aid and support of folks who believe the sort of argument David Brin listed. Much though Judy Curry tries to cast them in a better light, the more sciencey end of the denialosphere isn't going to gain credibility (should they otherwise prove to deserve any) until they've cut their ties to that crowd.

Martin Vermeer said...

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.

Sure, and more generically, it shows how lack of intellectual honesty (i.e., stopping to question when you like the answer you have) is interfering with understanding the world in a useful manner.

But then, Morano would object (in private, of course) that that's not the thing that matters: what matters is that it does not interfere with his ability to make a very comfortable living.

And that's a more generic reality too.

Brian said...

While the debunking articles have all been careful to hold the girl blameless, it will still be painful for her in the future to google her name and see these reports. I suggest leaving her name out of it.

Hank Roberts said...