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Jan 12, 2009

Rundle: Hoax a telling blow to the Right's cred

Windschuttle didn't need to suspect anything was amiss to do proper editor's duty on the Sharon Gould piece, writes Guy Rundle from Mexico City.

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Out in the zocalo, Mexico City’s grand central square, they’re drinking margaritas at the cafe tables as the warm winter sun streams down through the stone spires. Roving guitarists are serenading the tourists, and the sweet smell of freshly-made fruit candy wafts through the art deco arcades.

But for the fourth day running I’m spending too much time in a ratty old internet caff, because if Frida Kahlo herself emerged from an Aztec pyramid in a tower of flame, crystal skulls dancing around her, it would be less captivating than the Windschuttle — Sharon Gould hoax. For God’s sake someone give Wilson/Gould a book contract quickly, this would be the hot beach read for Australia’s decadent elite next summer.

Having avoided the web for a few days, your correspondent got hit with the brouhaha all at once, the initial revelations jammed together with the absurdities — i.e. Helen Dale’s damage limitation advice, on a par with parenting tips from Medea — and Quadrant‘s (and the right wing blogosphere’s) counter-attack, arguing that the hoax was a minor matter of a few footnotes.

What’s most striking getting it in a single hit is the desperation of the Quadrant crowd’s counter-attack, stepped up by Hal G.P. Colebatch in today’s Oz. The gist is that the hoax was nothing other than a few misdirected footnotes and a false bio — more like a dud cheque than a genuine hoax in Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle’s words. This defence has been helped by attempts to turn the debate to the ethics of hoaxing, and by various editors nervously hedging their bets by saying that anyone could be taken in.

None of this holds true, and it’s worth reminding ourselves why. At the core of the Wilson/Gould hoax was this — that at the centre of an article, purportedly about how public fears stifle scientific progress, and as its key piece of evidence for this assertion, was a CSIRO research programme THAT HAD NEVER EXISTED. This was Exhibit A for “Gould’s” argument that scientific research should be allowed to continue independent of public scrutiny. Other stuff — the exaggeration of the progress of human-plant hybrids in agriculture, the deliberately mangled accounts of “epigenomes” — was peripheral to this core falsehood.

Windschuttle didn’t need to suspect anything was amiss to do proper editor’s duty on this piece — he simply needed to have the basic ethical nous to know that the veracity of the assertions were beyond his expertise, and send the piece out. He has since claimed that it would not be possible for a small magazine to do this. Crap again — most of what such magazines publish don’t require that sort of vetting, because they’re based on general knowledge (when WW2 started etc) or are pure opinion. Secondly, a full peer review wasn’t required — surely Quadrant has some friendly general scientists who would have spotted the addled science on a first read, thus ringing alarm bells? Third, a simple google of credentials would have done the same thing. Put simply, any article leaning on footnotes in plant biology journals needs to be sent out, that’s editing 101.

It’s precisely because Windschuttle was in agreement with “Gould’s” sentiments about greens, GM etc, that he should have done this — he should have been hyperaware that his enthusiasm might be blinding his judgment. Thinking as a onetime editor, I looked at the Gould piece and wondered how I would have assessed a “reverse” form of it — i.e. one which used the same evidence to argue that a secret undemocratic campaign by GM scientists to bypass public debate was underway.

My suspicion would have been that the author was an overenthusiastic green, keen to see dystopian possibilities everywhere. Ensuring that an honest case be made against GM would have demanded getting a review of the piece, even if it delayed publication of a (non-time-sensitive) article by months. If Windschuttle doesn’t have more material than he can use for each issue of Quadrant, then he’s not doing his government-subsidised job.

But of course Windschuttle wouldn’t have done this — because he’s Windschuttle. The man who’s now editing Australia’s premier conservative magazine was advocating the revolutionary potential of LSD in the 60s, media studies as “radical pedagogy” in the early 70s, was enthusiastic for Pol Pot peasant-style revolts in the late 70s (“the oil is almost gone — soon the Aborigines and poor whites will rise up” he wrote in Nation Review in the late 70s) and re-emerged in the 90s, after the global collapse of the left, as a man who thought there was no Tasmanian genocide, that the White Australia policy was a left-wing plot, that John Steinbeck made up the Great Depression and that the British Empire could not have been cruel because its officers were Christians.

Like a mendicant Pope, he’s spent his life wandering from one state of certainty to the next, in the search for godknowswhat. The Gould article appealed to his 2007 values just as much as the Club of Rome Report appealed to Windschuttle circa ’77. Why fact-check something you know to be true?

No conservative movement worth its salt would let such a man anywhere near the editor’s chair of their flagship publication. But the Australian Right is in such poor shape as a movement, that the only people with real organisational energy are ex-radical leftists, such as Windschuttle, the ex-Maoist Christopher Pearson, and that damp old anarchist, the late Paddy McGuinness. Having transferred their pseudo-religious needs from one side to the other, they spent the Howard years doing the lion’s share of the actual work of gingering up scandals, crises, front groups, pseudo-conferences, vanity publishers etc.

You can gauge what they were up against by a consideration of the recent fuss over MUP’s collection of essays by liberals on liberalism. Offered free rein to circulate their ideas, none of the three leaders of the party were either willing or able to actually reflect on their beliefs long enough for a essay the length of a first year politics assignment. Australian conservatism is an empty shopfront with an illegal dog fighting ring (Bolt in 3-D!) in the alley behind.

Why is the “Gould” article such a telling blow to Windschuttle, Quadrant and the Right’s cred? Because right from the start, they have presented debate around climate change, GM and other green matters as one of truth versus lies, science versus pseudo-religion, evidence versus assertion, and so on. The reverse is the case, as the “Gould” article shows. The CC-sceptic, pro-GM etc push, in the form Windschuttle gives it, is a sort of right-wing Lysenkoism, in which facts are selected for their usefulness to a previously established politics.

The journal Social Text never really recovered from the Sokal hoax, even though it limps on — indeed the Sokal hoax pretty much put the lid on a certain type of free-floating post-structuralism, prompting many to think about what exactly they’d been writing all these years (though few will admit it). Indeed the Social Text editors did more damage to themselves in trying to explain away the hoax — arguing that it didn’t matter to the play of discourses, that it was a demonstration of different knowledges — until the laughter drowned them out. We await with interest what Windschuttle’s next move will be.

In the meantime, one can only admire the elegance and generosity of the Wilson/Gould paper. With the Sokal hoax and The Guardian’sbad science” column mentioned in the first two paras, with the CSIRO report being footnoted as having vanished without trace, footnotes to papers authored by “Harold N Trick” (he’s real; I checked) … man how many clues do you need?

My favourite though, is a reference to hybridised mosquitos on page four, since it is a repeat of the clue that James McAuley offered Max Harris in the original Ern Malley poems. McAuley constructed a poem from an anti-malaria manual about mosquitos (anopheles) whose first stanza ends:

Now have I found you my anopheles
(There is a meaning for the circumspect).

Meaning, that Harris was the little prick who irritated McAuley — but also that McAuley was stinging Harris. The one thing he knew Harris wouldn’t be was circumspect. Windschuttle never got it either. Ironically for someone keen on the paranoid style of politics, he didn’t spot the one time someone was actually out to get him.

Nevertheless, this evening, I will go through the cinnamon-scented shadows and light a candle for him at the altar of Santa Muerte, protector of those who are dead but do not yet know it…

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8 thoughts on “Rundle: Hoax a telling blow to the Right’s cred

  1. Julius

    John and Coleman have skewered Rundle already, who ought to be realising that his piece says more about him than about Windschuttle. Precisely because I share some of what are supposed to be the prejudices that “Sharon Gould” appealed to in Windschuttle I think I would have been very keen to follow up the only important and surprising information in the article, namely the CSIRO’s supposed dropping of the research. It would have been for that reason that I would have looked at footnotes which would have been shown to be false. But there is nothing of the Sokal or Ern Malley hoax in it. The scientific research described was not only not such as to alert an ordinarily educated layman to a lie but it wasn’t even impossible or meaningless as a description of scientific research programs. Mind you Windschuttle has enough enemies amongst his old comrades on the left that he needs to watch his back better than he has done this time round. Another small point: Windschuttle obiously published it for the reasoning rather than the factual premises underlying the reasoning so treated the facts with indifference, presumably because he knew (or believed, correctly I suggest) that another set of facts could be found and substantiated to support the thrust of the article even if not as sensational as the CSIRO behaving in the extraordinarily craven way depicted. At least that is my suspicion about his failure to arrange for the footnotes to be checked. It is a more commonplace explanation than one which is given in portentous terms of Windschuttle’s ideological fixations.

  2. guy rundle

    My critics in the comments section are all in error or have missed the point.

    John claims that I have misrepresented Colebatch’s defence of Quadrant. Ninety per cent of Colebatch’s article concerns the Sokal and Ern Malley hoaxes – the only time he specifically discusses the Gould hoax is to bleat about Quadrant being a small underfunded magazine. At no point does he face the core truth about the Gould hoax – that Quadrant willingly and unquestioningly published an article accusing the CSIRO of bowing to public pressure, and relying for its argument on some hard science, without even the most informal check of the facts.

    Coleman doesn’t seem to have understood my point about people selecting facts that suit them – Windschuttle obviously believes that climate change, GM protest etc is irrationalism, and thus he never bothered to scrutinise the facts in an article supporting it. I’m not suggesting that Windschuttle invented the CSIRO ‘facts’ – Wilson/Gould did. Re-read Margaret Simons’s overview and my article Coleman, you simply haven’t understood the events as they occurred. A little too quick resorting to the comments button?

    Julius, in defending Windschuttle basically agrees with the criticism of him – he didn’t bother to question the facts because they ‘looked’ real, that an editor should have checked the CSIRO report, and that facts don’t matter anyway because it was an opinion piece, which is, well, pretty postmodern.

    Great work gang. You’re really holding the line…

    With friends like that, Windschuttle doesn’t need enemies, although to be fair, in his life, most people he’s associated with have been both….

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