The South Texas grade school student's science fair entry was news fodder from the get-go. Down in 12,000-population Beeville headlines can be hard to come by, and getting jabs in at international climate conferences even harder, it appears. When a fourth-grade student at R.A. Hall Elementary studied the local temperature record and determined that through it she could disprove the science of global warming, the Beeville Bee-Picayune couldn't resist, featuring her science fair entry as a spin on the massive climate change conference then taking place in Copenhagen.
Though the student's project didn't place, a package of award metal greeted her six months later when she received a medal, plaque, and trophy, purported to be from the National Science Foundation. A letter explained that none other than Pulitzer Prize-winning former Veep Al Gore (aka Mr. Global Warming) and a group of former astronauts selected the anti-Warming project as the best in its age group from among 50,000 submissions.
Then came photos with the school principal, the child outfitted like a victorious Olympian. And another story in the local paper.
The story of the NSF award ladled over with Al Gore irony began to make the rounds at climate contrarian websites like North County Times and run as fact in American Spectator, where Paul Chesser wrote (safely using that qualifier “allegedly” that journos have grown to love better than chocolate):
But with increased attention, the story began to unravel. For starters, the NSF doesn't sponsor a science fair.
“Clearly some of the details of it attracted attention from people when supposedly this one was one of 50,000 entrants, supposedly the judges included Al Gore and I think it was 12 winners of the National Medal of Science, and then the winning entry was disproving global warming,” Maria Zacharias, spokesperson for the NSF, told the Current. “Those kind of details will attract some attention and get people asking some questions.”
Helping bring the scandal to a more rapid close was science writer and UT scientific programmer Michael Tobis, who made a quick trip to Beeville to investigate for his blog Only in it for the Gold.
Tobis, as it happens, has an enduring interest in global warming and science fairs. And when two collide, back away slowly. So much bad science is communicated at such events, he writes, that the combination represents a "nexus of spreading doubt about climate science." So when the Beeville blurb hit his RSS feed, he took note. Used to seeing truly awful anti-global-warming science fair entries (how many open cans of Coke would it take to model climate change in a 50-gallon aquarium anyway?) he didn't think fraud immediately. Bad journalism, most likely.
“She obviously won some prize,” he remembered thinking during his trip down from Austin. “It couldn't possibly have been the National Science Foundation directly, maybe it was somebody funded by NSF. It couldn't have been Al Gore and 14 national medalists and four astronauts because you couldn't get a panel together like that to judge a fourth grader; it didn't make any sense. Something was wrong, but I did not expect the whole thing was a fraud until I got down there.”
In Beeville, everyone insisted there actually was a letter from the NSF. And when revealed, it held the name of an NSF official, L.L. Slakey, NSF's director of undergraduate education and former University of Massachusetts professor. After Tobis communicated what he had discovered to the NSF, things moved quickly. Possibly shocked by the national attention he had generated, the girl's father, J.R. Castillo, admitted on Friday that he was the perpetrator of the hoax.
Castillo wrote to the Picayune, “What was intended to be a way to honor our daughter for a job well done on her project has really gotten out of hand and we're ready to put this behind us.”
Lies, damn lies, and all those good intentions.
In the meantime, the Beeville paper finally found cause to challenge the aspiring musician and one-time school board candidate's claims to a variety of degrees. As for packing the fraud away like a victimless crime, well, the National Science Foundation and L.L. Slakely will have the last word on that. Unless, of course, his daughter decides to press charges.