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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.

I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that Quadrant is particularly keen about either side of the GM argument, while the article seems to barrack for both sides simultaneously.

Indeed, if Quadrant’s contributor’s agreement is anything like On Line Opinion’s and requires an author to vouch for the accuracy of their piece and indemnify the publisher against misrepresentations, then the hoaxer has committed not just a breach of trust, but fraud, and should be liable to the publisher, making the hoax even closer to hacking.

The affair is replete with irony.

It was exposed by journalist and academic Margaret Simons in the eJournal Crikey!. I have a lot of admiration for Crikey!, but whatever virtues it might have, scrupulous accuracy is not one of them. I used to joke that its financial model was blackmail. There used to be two reasons to read Crikey!: to see whether you have been defamed, or to see whether the defamation you sent them of someone else has been published. Either way subscribing to it was a matter of survival for the political and chattering classes, and much of what it carried totally, or substantially, untrue.

It has changed under current management, but it is still not what one would call a “journal of record”.

Then the affair was given currency on the front page of The Australian, an organ which has been a strong supporter of Windschuttle. Subsequently they carried a defence of Windschuttle by Helen Dale, who once pseudonymously won a literary prize. This has also been described as a hoax, which is about as accurate as saying that Swift’s A modest proposal is a hoax.

The hoax is modeled on the Ern Malley affair. This is ironic because this was perpetrated by two Australian poets - Stewart and McAuley. McAuley went on to become the founding editor of Quadrant, the magazine that has been hoaxed this time.

Finally, the affair was amplified by just about every left-wing blog in the country, and defended by a number of right-wing ones, even though they all, with some very few exceptions, regularly publish material which is wrong.

For me the greatest irony of all is that so many of the intellectual class in this country fail to see that Windschuttle’s predicament is their own and that the joke is on them (including the hoaxer).

And this irony proceeds from the widespread idea that particular individuals, and groups, have a monopoly on truth. The corollary of this is that one must always be right, and to be wrong in any one particular is fatal to your intellectual standing. That makes the maintenance of intellectual respectability practically impossible and leads to stubborn refusal to accept any improvement or corrections to one’s ideas, because that would mean that you had been less than right in the first place.

It also makes proper intellectual argument impossible, unless you believe that everything there is to be known is known now, and completely. In which case close the science laboratories, and retire most of the publishers. We only need to keep the intellectual world on maintenance from hereon.

When we founded On Line Opinion it was because we perceived the need for a neutral ground where people could express ideas without having those ideas automatically rejected because of the point of view that On Line Opinion was thought to espouse. If you published in Quadrant, you were “obviously” a “fascist”, and if you published in say Meanjin, then you were “obviously” a “socialist”.

The idea was to provide a space where tribal boundaries softened to some extent. We’ve had some successes, but despite those, I’m sure that the standard of public debate has become more toxic over the last 10 years that we have been in existence.

Recently I wrote a blog piece in response to a tweet by NYU university professor Jay Rosen who suggested people blog because of the inadequacies of the mainstream media who played “safety first”. My post suggested that most people blog for tribal reasons and to establish their identity as part of the group.

This affair tends to reinforce my perception.

What is important is not whether publishers make mistakes or not, but whether authors are diligent and honest in their work. Katherine Wilson wasn’t, and neither are many in the blogosphere and the mainstream.

The problem we have as an intellectual community is that we are too prone to accept what we want to believe. Wilson is right. There is a problem with science reporting in this country, as anyone who has followed the greenhouse debate should know. There is also a problem with reporting in almost every other area with journalists operating on group think. But it is not just journalists, but academics, scientists, politicians and public thinkers.

Whatever Windschuttle’s flaws (and I think some of them are significant) at least he has done the sort of fact-checking that others should have done. He should not be vilified because he has inadvertently made an error in this instance, particularly as the motive for the vilification is not because it is such a large error, but that he has been so effective in fact-checking the claims of others.

Whatever happened to playing the ball, and not the man?

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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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