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Politics

Jan 6, 2009

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, providing they flatter his ideological preconceptions, reports Margaret Simons.

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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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