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How Windschuttle swallowed a hoax to publish a fake story in Quadrant

Keith Windschuttle, the editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant, has been taken in by a hoax intended to show that he will print outrageous propositions.

This month’s edition of Quadrant contains a hoax article purporting to be by “Sharon Gould”, a Brisbane based New York biotechnologist.

But in the tradition of Ern Malley – the famous literary hoax perpetrated by Quadrant’s first editor, James McAuley – the Sharon Gould persona is entirely fictitious and the article is studded with false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes.

In accepting the article, Keith Windschuttle said in an email to “Sharon Gould”:

I really like the article. You bring together some very important considerations about scientific method, the media, politics and morality that I know our readers would find illuminating.

“Gould’s” article, which is blurbed on the front cover of Quadrant and reproduced online, (subscribers only) argues for the insertion of human genes in to food crops, insects and livestock.

It contains the bogus claim that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation planned to commercialise food crops engineered with human genes, but abandoned the projects because of “perceived moral issues”.

The hoaxer, who intends to remain anonymous, has provided details of how the hoax was constructed, including a blog-style Diary of A Hoax, liberally studded with ironic quotations from Ern Malley’s poetry.

Diary of a Hoax is published here, and the article submitted to Quadrant is here but, unless it is taken down, can also be read by subscribers on Quadrant’s website here or in the print edition, which hit newsagents in the last few days.

I rang Keith Windschuttle this morning seeking comment. He said that claims the article was a hoax were “news to me” and said he wanted to see the material the hoaxer had provided to me before commenting. A copy of Diary of a Hoax and his own correspondence with “Sharon Gould” was emailed to him this morning.

He rang back a short while ago, and said that he would respond to these events in full on the Quadrant website shortly. More on Windschuttle’s conversation with me below.

“Gould’s” article uses a mélange of fact, misconstrued science and fiction masquerading as science to argue that science research, such as that behind genetically modified foods, should be above scrutiny by the media and the public. It criticizes the Rudd Government for “shameless populism” for inviting “ordinary” Australians to be part of the 2020 Summit. The article says:

What has become unspeakable is that journalists and their publics, like small children reaching for the medicine cabinet, do not always understand what is best.

In a ruse designed to lampoon Windschuttle’s historical research, which began by checking the footnotes of leading historians, the article contains some false references.

In Diary of a Hoax, the hoaxer writes:

Some of the footnotes are completely fabricated. Others are genuine references to science articles, but have nought to do with what’s asserted in the essay.

(The footnotes have not been included with the published version of the article. In keeping with Quadrant practice, a note at the end says that they are available from the Quadrant office.)

The Gould hoax is designed to be a companion and a counter to the famous Sokal hoax, in which the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to a postmodern cultural studies journal to show that post modernists would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

The Sokal affair became part of the “science wars” which were a series of intellectual battles between post modernists and realists, and a companion to Australia’s “history wars”, in which Windschuttle has been a leading contender.

On the day Windschuttle informed “Gould” that the article would be published, the hoaxer wrote in Diary of a Hoax:

For pity’s sake, Quadrant fell for my ham-fisted ruse! At least with the Sokal hoax, Alan Sokal was a bona fide physics professor. So it’s understandable that a journal editor might unquestioningly publish his nonsense. But so neatly did my essay conform with reactionary ideology that Quadrant, it seems, didn’t even check the putative author’s credentials. Nor it seems did they get the piece peer-reviewed. Nor did they check the “facts”; nor the footnotes. Nor were they alerted by the clues…Still, now my experiment has worked, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Do I feel schadenfreude? Not really. I feel ambivalent. I’m almost embarrassed for you, Windschuttle… I didn’t do this to be unkind to you personally. This experiment wasn’t designed with ill-intent, but to uncover hypocrisy in knowledge-claims, and also spark public debate about standards of truth when anything is claimed in the name of ’science’.

The persona of “Sharon Gould” was constructed with a false e-mail address and a website, which was online but has since been taken down. We publish it here. In it, Gould describes herself as a 41-year- old New Yorker based in Brisbane with a Phd in biotechnology. She claims she is related to the American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and has been inspired by his example to embark on a popular science writing career. The website had suggestive links to other “Goulds”.

“Gould” claimed to Windschuttle that the article had earlier been presented at an international conference on genome informatics – but while the conference existed, the paper was not presented there.

The article claims that the CSIRO wanted to put human genes into wheat so they could trigger immune responses to fight pre-cancerous cells, into cows so they would produce milk that would not trigger allergic responses in lactic intolerant infants, and into mosquitoes to render their bites less dangerous.

Commercialisation of both these projects was abandoned…possibly…because of perceived ethical issues in the public and media perception.

“Gould” first submitted the article to Windschuttle early last year, but did not hear back from him until “she” followed up in August. Windschuttle told “her” that the original article had gone missing. “She” resubmitted, and Windschuttle accepted the article enthusiastically. The only contact between the two was by e-mail.

Windschuttle asked for some changes, which involved cutting a lengthy explanation of the Sokal hoax from the first paragraphs – which the hoaxer had intended as a clue.

Windschuttle wrote to “Gould”:

Many of our readers would be aware of the Sokal hoax and its implications, and I think your introduction would lull them into thinking the whole article is another analysis of the follies of constructivism, whereas it is really much more interesting than that.

“Gould” made the changes Windschuttle suggested, but left a reference to the Sokal hoax in the first paragraph. A few other minor editorial changes were made between the version submitted and that published.

Keith Windschuttle is a leading cultural warrior. In recent years he has accused senior historians of falsifying and inventing the degree of violence against Aborigines. He has also accused academic historians of exaggerating the racism involved in the White Australia policy.

This morning in a conversation with me, Windschuttle asked to know the identity of the hoaxer, and was refused. He said that at least some of the footnotes in the article were genuine, and that it was not reasonable to expect the editor of a popular publication to check all footnotes. He asked me to provide him with information on which footnotes were genuine, and which bogus. This will be done by e-mail later today.

Comparing this to the Sokal hoax, Windschuttle made the point that Sokal had been frank about his role in the hoax, and that in that case all the footnotes provided with the article were bogus.

The nub of the Sharon Gould hoax is a play on Windschuttle and Quadrant’s advocacy of empirical research as being divorced from social and political consequences, and therefore beyond question.

Windschuttle said that the hoax would backfire, including on me and on Crikey.

In 2006 the Howard Government appointed Windschuttle to the ABC Board – the last of a number of appointments of leading right wingers, including the anthropologist Ron Brunton (whose term has now expired) and columnist Janet Albrechtsen. Windschuttle’s term expires in 2011.

Windshcuttle replaced the controversial Paddy McGuiness as editor of Quadrant early last year. When his appointment was announced, Windschuttle was quoted as saying that he would campaign against decadence in the arts.

Quadrant is an historically important conservative magazine, praised by John Howard when he was Prime Minister as his “favourite” magazine and as a forum for “fine scholarship with a sceptical, questioning eye for cant, hypocrisy and moral vanity” and a “lonely counterpoint to stultifying orthodoxies and dangerous utopias that at times have gripped the Western ‘intelligentsia”.” Howard said Quadrant was: “Australia’s home to all that is worth preserving in the Western cultural tradition”. Howard described Windschuttle’s articles on Aboriginal history as particularly close to his heart.

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  • 1
    Allen Glover
    Posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    As left as I am, I cant help but think of all those poor people living in glass houses.

  • 2
    Michael H Goldhaber
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Windschuttle, of whom I have never previously heard, is wrong in suggesting that Sokal’s footnotes were all bogus. In fact they were literally true. Sokal just felt that what he quoted was senseless, which was debatable.

  • 3
    Christine Hyde
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Quadrant readers are natural sceptics and spoofs are simply time wasted in concoction when there is so much of interest to be explored. As for the Ern Malley hoax, that was perpetuated by two people who did not have the insight to see that even if they wrote gibberish, they were unable to write badly. Shame on them!

    Please! There is no wit in this Sharon Gould effort!

  • 4
    Jack
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know much about Quadrant, but I do know this isn’t Ern Malley and that this isn’t a clever “hoax”.
    This is odd, and says more about the author than anyone.
    It is easy to deceive if this is your goal - just ask the Enron auditors !
    I am embarrassed that this is what a Crikey subscription currently offers me - where is Stephen Mayne ?
    It brings to mind Brian’s mother’s line: “He isn’t the messiah, he is just a naughty little boy !”

  • 5
    Mmm
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I already have a name in mind. It looks like a royally executed prank. Whether it really has deeper political consequences I’m really not sure. One for the literati perhaps. By all means enjoy. Something to console oneself as Howard gets his medal of freedom.

    Notice how the Toad, to quote a veteran wonk, wraps himself in the flag even at this dreadful time. A bit like Henderson airbrushing perhaps a million deaths and saying history still has to judge. Like yeah we did in the street in Sydney 2003 with 250,000 -500,000 rally unprecedented in my time saying No War in Iraq.

    As if the Australian people agreed with him and he still says it’s a medal in our name. What a nerve the guy has. Is Windshuttle the Toad’s toadlet as it were still on the ABC Board?

  • 6
    Jenny L
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Solipsistic to the core Windschuttle will comfort himself with denial and plod on as before. Nothing will shift him or his factions from their blinkered view of being tailors of truth. Which is a shame because if Keith Windschuttle is so genuinely committed to transparency he should be thankful for his exposure as a human being warts and all. What a shame Windshuttle’s reality check has come this late in his career.

  • 7
    Miss Viv
    Posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Although this article seemingly exposed a hoax article, I am sure most of you wouldnt be surprised by the fact that the basis of the article “the insertion of human genes in to food crops, insects and livestock” is a topic that is very real and based on fact. Scientists have be actively polluting of our food sources with “modified genes” for quite awhile now. Even mutating species is not above the “ethics” of scientists in this day an age.
    So what exactly about the bogus article doesnt ring true? The fake references?
    I can guarantee that somewhere out there, there is a few scientists mixing up a genetic cocktail waiting for the opportunity to be legally able to add these human “modified” genes to our prepackaged food and food sources.
    Twenty years ago most of us would never have thought that a strain of wheat would have the capabilities of being able to produce a “natural” toxin that would kill all insects on touch. We also would not have thought that it was possible to create a breed of fish that glowed in the dark, thanks to a little gene splicing with jelly fish DNA.
    What makes anyone think that we dont already have human DNA implanted into our food sources already?
    Science has been know to make more than a few mistakes on an environmental stage, cane toads for one.
    Although this was a hoax article I believe there is information within the article that sets my alarms off.
    I dont care if it was fake to payout Windschuttle, I do believe that there are many people out there wanting to further modify out food sources and it scares me.
    If human DNA is spliced into our food “soylent green is people” will no longer be a classic film quote but our reality.

  • 8
    J Laws
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    What on earth are you challenging JohnG? Windschuttle has admitted he got stung by a hoaxster as you try to tell us something else. Keith Windschuttle was done over professionally on Keith W’s own admission and you p*ss into the wind about the reporter being part of a leftist plot. If that’s not contrary to your demands for a ‘different media’ (I assume the biased right wing press to which we’re so accustomed) I’m stuffed.

  • 9
    Sam Collyer
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Mr Windschuttle made a mistake, let’s be clear. But the fact that Crikey has hung another right wing figure out to dry is hardly a news flash. The next question here is how Crikey, in the spirit of demonstrating its commitment to fairness, is progressing in its pursuit of those of alternative political/philosophical persuasions. In all my time reading Crikey, I can’t recall similar journalistic doggedness in relation to someone who was demonstrably left-wing. It makes one recall Smaller Fish to Fry, that wonderfully-cutting episode of Frontline where Mike Moore keeps missing the bigger stories. That said, clearly it’s only people with the surnames Akerman, Bolt, Devine and Albrechtsen that make such unprofessional errors warranting such a detailed investigation. Thank you for keeping us all informed.

  • 10
    Stephen Rowley
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get it. I’m no fan of Windschuttle by a long stretch - on the contrary - but the article “Sharon Gould” submitted is a completely pointless hoax. There isn’t anything in it that makes Windschuttle foolish for publishing it: having read through it, it’s a perfectly lucid, well-written piece. It’s not even virulently right wing. Perhaps some footnotes don’t check out, but even there, most are correct. So what’s the point being made against Windschuttle: that he doesn’t check every footnote? Wow. Perhaps a peer-reviewed academic journal should feel foolish for publishing this, and not picking up the fact that the CSIRO research didn’t exist, but it seems petty in the extreme to suggest Quadrant should have checked every reference. Slipping a few errors and bodgy footnotes into an otherwise completely coherent article is not what the Sokal hoax was all about.

  • 11
    Daniel
    Posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    So what’s the point being made against Windschuttle: that he doesn’t check every footnote? Wow.”

    Yes, why should Keith Windschuttle, historian and editor, be checking sources and footnotes??

    Crikey is just being meeeeeeeeeeaan.

  • 12
    Dave Clancy
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    I agree totally with Stephen Rowley and disagree with most of the gloating toadies on this page and elsewhere. The article was almost all correct. Windschuttle is a nasty-minded person but what a pointless waste of time this exercise was. It exposes far more the pettiness and stupidity of the author, and in this case, of Crikey, rather than of the editor. Anyone who has any degree of scientific literacy in the area will tell you the same.

  • 13
    Richard Farmer
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    A magnificent yarn!

  • 14
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Dead right, Stephen Rowley and Dave Clancy. “…empirical research as being divorced from social and political consequences, and therefore beyond question”…what a ridiculous, stupid and ignorant misrepresentation.

  • 15
    Margaret Simons
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Give me a break, Sam. If a hoaxer had taken down a lefty, and approached me with the story, all other things being equal I would have behaved in exactly the same way.

  • 16
    Cathy
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got one word to say to Keith Windschuttle - well-earned Karma.

  • 17
    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Windschuttle isn’t accountable for quality of science. He doesn’t even pretend to be a scientist.
    I am a scientist and have serious problems with professionals purporting to have scientific ability but have so little that they are guided by the wisdom that tells them my claims are ‘to good to be true’ ‘no one like me could be so far ahead of the game’ (I have been used to being way far ahead of the game since I was 14) that they call me a hoax with the comfort of that wisdom.
    Even these horrible experiences contribute quality and dimension to my wisdom.
    Wisdom is what Windschuttle can demonstrate and for which he can be accountable if he claims such. If babbling nonsense makes him popular he is no more accountable than the sexy teenage girl in a mini-skirt believing she is ‘hot’ or others believing she must be an easy poke.
    Wisdom belongs to the wise we should stop trying to give it away to anybody that stands in-line with their hand out.

  • 18
    Scott
    Posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Journalistic doggedness? A cunning hoax?

    Come on people — this is undergraduate foolery! If I had based a history essay on the work of David Irving I would have been failed and rightly so. The whole point of Quadrant is that it considers itself above the slings and arrows of the Left. That they should fall for something so obvious proves that their ‘critique’ is nothing but a pose. We rely on Crikey, and we should be able to rely on Quadrant, to constantly question their own platform and preconceptions. That’s the difference between paid journalism and a self-referential-congratulatory blog chosen at random from the internet!

  • 19
    Kate Jackson
    Posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    You would think the preliminary queries of an editor reviewing articles for publication would be: who is the author, what other works have they produced and what are the credentials. Me thinks Quadrant might be short on contributors and skimped for editorial talent with Windschuttle elevated to an administrative role beyond his ability.

  • 20
    JohnG
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    The truth means nothing to Crikey. Your extreme left wing tendencies have been exposed. How about giving the world the truth instead of left wing spin. You have a chance to make a difference and you are frittering it away. Nearly as bad as ‘Get Up’

  • 21
    Cheese
    Posted Saturday, 17 January 2009 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Poor Keith, hoist on your own ideological petard. Suffer, you fraudulent fascist bastard.

  • 22
    Euan
    Posted Tuesday, 6 January 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    it couldn’t have happened to a nicer old bastard! Crickey you have made my day. Somebody had better send him the employment section.

  • 23
    Christina
    Posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    What on earth is going on? I understand that Windschuttle exposed historians who wrote works under their own name without doing the requisite research and using dubious sources. How does this equate to a dodgy article under someone else’s authorship being slipped into Quadrant - notwithstanding duty of care by the magazine? My moral compass must be from another universe.
    Christina.

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