On June 5th the local newspaper in Beeville, a small town in Southern Texas, published a story about a local 4th grade student who had it said had just won the Junior Division of the National Science Fair for a project entitled “Disproving Global Warming.” The student, Julisa Castillo, had received a package containing a trophy, medal, and plaque, along with a letter purporting to be from an official at the National Science Foundation and announcing her selection as the first place winner out of 50,000 projects entered from 50 states.

In the course of two days, the story had spread around to dozens of blogs, hundreds of twitter posts, and various media outlets. It also appears to have been an elaborate hoax.

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Julisa Castillo showcasing her science fair awards along with her father J.R. Castillo and school principal Villareal.

The story started when the parents of Julisa Castillo contacted her school, R.A. Hall Elementary, to inform them that their daughter had won first place in the Junior Division of the National Science Fair. The school principal, Martina Villareal, was shown the trophy, plaque, medal, and letter that announced Julisa’s award.

The letter accompanying the awards was affixed with the National Science Foundation (NSF) logo and was from L.L. Slakey, identified as being part of the Directorate for Education. It said:

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 Roco 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.

The letter also informed the family that Julisa had won an all-expenses paid trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, for the summer, and that details would be forwarded soon.

Villareal said she was proud that one of her students had won such a prestigious honor, though she was somewhat perplexed since Julisa’s project had not placed in the top five in the school’s local science fair back in January. It had been subject to a fair bit of attention by the local paper at the time which led with a description:

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.

The official-looking letter from the NSF convinced Villareal that Julisa had actually won the national competition. Villareal called the Beeville Bee-Picayune to the school to cover the story, which was published on the paper’s MySouTex website. It was picked up by Tom Nelson, a blogger skeptical of climate change, and quickly spread from there to skeptic Marc Morano’s Climate Depot website, which aggregates stories critical of climate science and policy. Within two days, the story had been repeated on more than 40 different websites, with only a few skeptical criticisms.

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Flow Chart showing the spread of the story across blogs and media outlets.

Tom Nelson also relayed the story on a blog called Climate Change Fraud. From there it was picked up by Michael Tobis, a scientist at the University of Texas, who sent the story out an e-mail list made up of climate scientists, journalists, and activists called Planet 3.0. The Planet 3.0 community was quite skeptical, noting that there was no competition called the National Science Fair (Google searches for the competition mostly turned up articles about Julisa’s prize). The closest thing that currently exists to a National Science Fair, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, does not currently have an elementary school junior division and has no mention of Julisa’s award on its website. Members were also suspicious of the claim that Vice President Al Gore had been a member of the panel — something skeptics pointed to with glee.

Tobis, curious about the story and living reasonably close to the school in question, drove out to Beeville with his wife to try his hand at some investigative journalism. Tobis met with Sarah Taylor, the Beeville Bee-Picayune reporter who wrote the story, and also with Principal Villareal who provided him with a copy of the NSF letter. Villareal also contacted Julisa’s family, who were reluctant to talk to Tobis but insisted that they had indeed received the letter and awards from the NSF.

A number of features in the NSF letter troubled Tobis, including the informal structure, amateur-seeming layout, and the description of the judges. He decided to contact the NSF official who purportedly wrote the letter to ensure that it was authentic. Slakey responded to an e-mail indicating that she had no knowledge of the letter. Further inquiries, including one by this writer, led to a response from Maria Zacharias, head of Media and Public Information at the NSF. She remarked that:

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.

Regards, Maria

At this point, it appears that the awards given Julisa Castillo were a cruel hoax, with the perpetrator not yet identified.

It also serves as a cautionary tale of bogus news stories being amplified and spread widely in the digital age with little critical scrutiny. Michael Tobis’s journalistic sleuthing is encouraging in this respect.

Topics: Climate Science