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The Windschuttle hoax - replete with irony

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 12 January 2009


The Windschuttle hoax, where writer and blogger Katherine Wilson convinced Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle to publish a piece on science reporting containing deliberate errors, shows how petty, provincial and tribal Australian public intellectual life is. It also underlines the need for journals like On Line Opinion which have an open and Socratic publishing philosophy.

No one would be interested in the hoax if Keith Windschuttle hadn’t exposed errors in the work of some prominent historians, and wasn’t a protagonist in the so-called “culture wars”.

The hoax is a counter-blow from the other side. But instead of being effective, it shows many of Windschuttle’s critics to be more interested in playing group politics, than dealing with real intellectual issues.

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Sure, Windschuttle published a piece that contained errors, but he did this not knowing that they were errors. When this was pointed out he immediately accepted the truth, and all this was done as editor and publisher, not author.

The historians who Windschuttle exposed were the authors of their own work, and in a position to know that what they were writing was wrong. When confronted, they defended the indefensible, and their peers came in and supported their defence.

There are two issues here - whether you knowingly author an error, and how you react once the error has been exposed. As editor Windschuttle couldn’t be guilty of the first, and acted correctly with respect to the second. As authors, historians like Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan did neither.

Editors have to be held to different standards to authors. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have published the Katherine Wilson piece. It is poorly written, and the claim that human DNA has been incorporated into wheat by CSIRO is obviously bogus. That should have been enough to send a diligent editor scratching through the rest of the piece for other blunders.

But I’m not sure that we would have picked the errors, given resources and the pressure of time. And it shouldn’t matter if we had published it. Neither should it matter that Keith Windschuttle and Quadrant did. Journals like both of ours publish many articles that are wrong, either in minor details, or in substance: that is the nature of opinion publishing, or any publishing, for that matter. The publisher and the editor don’t certify that they agree with every fact or argument in an article, just that it is worth reading.

If publishers and editors took any other view, then it would be almost impossible for new ideas to have a chance of being debated. Non-fiction books would also be impossibly expensive as it would cost far more to edit them than to write them, and when finished they would be more the work of the editor than the author.

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Wilson’s is a poor article, but inasmuch as it touches on a few areas of public concern, and assuming the editor hadn’t picked it as a deliberate deceit, then it could rate as publishable, depending on what else had been submitted that month and how much space needed to be filled.

As a hoax, the piece isn’t much. It self-consciously compares itself to the Sokal hoax, but in that case the hoaxer got obvious gobbledygook into a peer-reviewed science journal. [I should have been more careful, the detail is incorrect. The journal wasn't peer-reviewed at the time and is in cultural studies. GY] That should be like hacking into the Pentagon. Beating the fact checking process in an opinion magazine is more like hacking into Aunt Hilda’s personal home page. There is a difference between opinion and fact, as well as an overlap.

It’s also been compared to the Ern Malley hoax. That is a closer fit, in that a poetry magazine makes judgments about quality not facts. But the Malley hoax was effective because Max Harris published the poems and accepted the fictitious biography, because they both fitted his prejudices.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is a writer, and a former vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party.

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