A wonderful little news story spread quickly around a number of contrarian climate blogs earlier this week, and of course was then picked up by several major news aggregators: a 4th grader in Beeville, Texas had won the National Science Fair competition with a project entitled “Disproving Global Warming”. Denialists rubbed their hands in glee. Even more deliciously, the panel of judges included Al Gore.

Wait, what? Surely that can’t be right? Now, anyone who considers herself a skeptic would have been immediately, well, skeptical. But apparently that word no longer means what it used to mean. It took a real scientist to ask the critical questions, and investigate the source of the story: Michael Tobis took the time to drive to Beeville to investigate, as the story made no sense. And sure enough, there’s a letter that’s clearly on fake National Science Foundation letterhead, with no signature, and sure enough, the NSF have no knowledge of it. Oh, and of course, a quick google search shows that there is no such thing as a national science fair. Someone faked the whole thing (and the good folks at Reddit then dug up plenty of evidence about who).

So, huge kudos to MT for doing what journalists are supposed to do. And kudos to Sarah Taylor, the journalist who wrote the original story, for doing a full followup, once she found out it was a hoax. But this story just begs the question: how come, now that we live in such an information rich age, so few people can be bothered to check out the evidence about anything any more? Traditional investigative journalism is almost completely dead. The steady erosion of revenue from print journalism means most newspapers do little more than reprint press releases – most of them no longer retain science correspondents at all. And if traditional journalism isn’t doing investigative reporting any more, who will? Bloggers? Many bloggers like to think of themselves as “citizen journalists”. But few bloggers do anything more than repeat stuff they found on the internet, along with strident opinion on it. As Balbulican puts it: Are You A “Citizen Journalist”, or Just An Asshole?

Oh, and paging all climate denialists. Go take some science courses and learn what skepticism really means.

3 Comments

  1. “How come, now that we live in such an information rich age, so few people can be bothered to check out the evidence about anything any more?”

    Yes, it’s a fascinating question. Random comparison: recycling gets done by the council on my street once a fortnight. People put it on the doorstep. This last Monday was not recycling day – and yet, unusually, loads of recycling was out. What happened? Well, clearly, it seems, a good proportion of people on the street (and surrounding streets, where it spread to) take their cue from whether other people have put recycling out.

    So, there’s plenty of information flow, signalled by the presence of a recycling box on a doorstep – but it can still be 180 degrees wrong.

    Some while back there was a paper modelling this tendency to make entirely false group conclusions in this way, can’t remember for the life of me what it was…

    Anyway: information quantity/velocity and information quality, it would seem, can have very little to do with one another.

  2. What is interesting is the story was outed as a fake on June 8 by WUWT…

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/06/08/the-beeville-science-fair-hoax-but-look-at-the-story-the-data-tells/

    [Why is that interesting? It was the day after MT posted the results of his investigation. – Steve]

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