Journalists writing for two national-audience Web publications that focus on climate issues recently trained their attention on developments in Texas schools:
- Julia Harte reported for SolveClimate that a 2009 Texas curriculum mandate, spearheaded by climate change skeptics and opposed by scientists and environmentalists, is “being largely ignored by educators across the state.”
- Zeke Hausfather, writing for The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, detailed how a Beeville newspaper’s report that a 4th grader had won a national award for a project titled “Disproving Global Warming” was widely repeated by climate change skeptics before the prize was exposed as “a cruel hoax.”
Harte’s article for SolveClimate concerned science curriculum standards adopted last year by the State Board of Education, which required that public school students be directed to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.”
The Austin American-Statesman reported at the time that Board Chairman Don McLeroy, explaining the action, said, “Conservatives like me think the evidence (for human contributions to global warming) is a bunch of hooey.”
(McLeroy also has claimed that “evolution is hooey.” He was part of a bloc on the board who secured curriculum changes on evolution, too. The Texas Freedom Network, which promotes “a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right,” said they contained “plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms.”)
Regarding the “different views” mandate on climate, the American- Statesman added:
But the state board approved standards that engage some of the underlying causes and effects of global warming, including one that calls on students to “analyze the empirical relationship between the emissions of carbon dioxide, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and the average global temperature trends over the past 150 years” and another to “describe the effect of pollution on global warming, glacial and ice cap melting, greenhouse effect, ozone layer, and aquatic viability.”
Despite that additional language, the Texas League of Conservation Voters declared that the new standards “at best, raise questions about the existence of global climate change and, at worst, lead Texas students to join board members burying their heads in the sand rather than acknowledge that addressing climate change is of paramount importance to humanity’s future on this planet.”
More than a year later, critics continue to bemoan the Texas board’s action. This month, writing in The Huffington Post, the CEO of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Alan I. Lesher, said the curriculum directive was an attempt “to weaken K-12 science education” that was “troubling and perplexing” because “the science of climate change is clear.”
Harte’s effort to assess the standards’ implementation found, however, that not much “weakening” seems to have happened so far with regard to climate change. She wrote:
Now, more than one year later, it appears that (the climate change curriculum) rule is being largely ignored by educators across the state, a SolveClimate examination has found.
In fact, dozens of inquiries failed to turn up one science teacher in Texas whose approach to the subject of climate change has been at all affected by the amendment to the state science curriculum. The standard has also done nothing to turn students against the consensus view of man-made global warming, according to educators.
Some even said that their students are more receptive than ever to the established science.
Hausfather’s article for the Yale Forum examined the rapid dissemination via Twitter, blogs and news organizations’ Web sites of a Beeville Bee-Picayune story, which turned out to be based on false information, concerning an elementary school student’s science fair project.
The Bee-Picayune reported last December that the student, Julisa Castillo, was “questioning the science supporting global warming” in her entry in her school’s annual science fair, which was based on her study of Beeville temperatures over 109 years. The project did not receive one of the event’s top prizes in January.
But on June 5, the newspaper reported that it had “been named junior division champion for the 2010 National Science Fair,” prevailing over more than 50,000 entries from across the country in a competition sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and judged by a panel including “former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, 14 recipients of the President’s National Medal of Science, and four former astronauts.”
Gore, probably the world’s best-known advocate of action against man-made climate change, would have been an unlikely person to honor a school project disputing its very existence. But there was physical evidence suggesting the award was real: Accompanying the article was a photo of the student wearing a medal, holding a plaque and a trophy, and flanked by the school’s principal and her father, J.R. Castillo, a former member of the Beeville school district’s board.
In the course of two days, the story had spread around to dozens of blogs, hundreds of Twitter posts, and various media outlets.
[An] official-looking letter from the NSF convinced [Principal Martina] Villareal that [the student] 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.
One person who was skeptical, however, was Michael Tobis, a research scientist associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. Hausfather related his subsequent role:
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 [the student’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. [The official] responded to an email 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.
Zacharias wrote that the NSF “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, [The official whose name was on the letter] had no knowledge of it, and it amounts to fraudulent use of our name and logo.”
In its own followup to the initial award report, the Bee-Picayune reported last week that the student was the victim of a hoax, the perpetrator of which was then still unknown: “It’s hard to guess why anyone would use a science fair to scam a fourth-grader. But that’s exactly what happened.”
However, a subsequent article in the newspaper was headlined “Father says he is sorry for science fair hoax.”
It reported that Castillo sent an email in which he admitted the deception and added that it “was intended to be a way to honor our daughter for a job well done on her project.”
Hausfather concluded his article with this observation:
[The hoax] 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.
– Bill Dawson
[Disclosure: Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson is also a regular contributor to The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.]