Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Quadrophenia: The Windschuttle hoax

This morning the national and metropolitan newspapers have reported on the Quadrant hoax story which Margaret Simons broke in yesterday’s online edition of Crikey. The hoax was perpetrated on the ideological Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle who published a spurious piece about popular scares on biotechnology issues in the magazine’s January/February issue. The Australian’s Samantha Maiden interviewed Simons who denied that she was the hoaxer but admitted she knew about it in advance. “They approached me about three weeks ago, after Keith Windschuttle had accepted the article,” said Simons. “In other words the hoax had already achieved aim in the sense it had been accepted. It was before Quadrant was published.”

Meanwhile today’s Sydney Morning Herald has a David Marr article which has Windschuttle’s version of events. Entitled “Quadrant falls victim to its own reasoning”, Marr’s article said the hoax was beautifully done. Marr said the hoaxer concocted the scheme “provoked by Quadrant's embrace of global warming sceptics”. The aim, he wrote, was to "employ some of Quadrant's sleight-of-hand reasoning devices to argue something ludicrous". But after Windschuttle was advised, he apparently was relieved to find it was “only 10 to 15 per cent” invented. “When I discovered that my gloom and embarrassment changed completely,” he told Marr.

In her Crikey article yesterday, Simons revealed why Windschuttle was gloomy and embarrassed to begin with. She said the article by a “Sharon Gould” was written in the spirit of Ern Malley, the 1940s literary hoax mocking modernism perpetrated by Australian poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley (who himself was the first editor of Quadrant). The new hoax contained the bogus claim that the Australian scientific body CSIRO (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 Gould hoax is designed to be a companion and a counter to another famous hoax, the so-called Sokal affair. In 1996, New York University physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the post-modern cultural studies journal Social Text 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 paper was published, though crucially at the time Social Text had no external peer review process. Simons said the Sokal affair became part of the “science wars” which were a series of intellectual battles between post modernists and realists, which had many similarities to Australia’s “history wars”, in which Windschuttle was a major player.

Simons would not reveal who “Sharon Gould” was, other that to say it wasn’t her. She linked to the website Diary of a Hoax (protected but viewable via Crikey) which was Gould’s blow-by-blow account of how the ruse was put together. The hoaxer claimed he/she didn’t do this to be unkind to Windschuttle personally. “I almost feel like apologising, because, as hokey as it sounds, as much as I love a good piece of culture-jamming,” he/she wrote, “I also hold Lauren Slater’s position on ‘the critical role of kindness in writing and in life’”.

Windschuttle was unimpressed by the hoaxer’s “almost apology”. Late yesterday he published an online response in Quadrant. Windschuttle denied it was a genuine hoax similar to the Sokal and Ern Malley affairs because it relied upon real issues, real people and real publications for most of its content. He wrote: “None of the principal subjects, personnel or publications discussed by 'Gould' in Quadrant are bogus. The biotechnology controversies she discusses genuinely occurred. The authors she quotes do hold the positions she says and they did write the works she cites. The institutions she says were involved in the biotechnology products she discusses are real institutions and are well known for funding projects of this kind.”

The writer and lawyer Helen Dale has advised Sharon Gould to reveal herself/himself. Dale was the author of the 1993 award-winning novel “The Hand That Signed the Paper” which purported to tell her fictitious Ukrainian family's bleak wartime history under the pseudonym Helen Demidenko. Now Dale is urging Gould not to repeat her mistakes. On her shared blog Scepticlawyer yesterday, she wrote “If one is going to hoax, one should hoax in good spirit. This is something I failed to do, at least as time went on. Instead of following the Ern Malley hoaxers, or Leon Carmen (the Wanda Koolmatrie hoaxer) and outing myself, I waited for the press to find me. This was a bad idea, and led to a great deal of bitterness, some of it ongoing.”

However, Margaret Simons is unimpressed by Dale’s intervention saying “you couldn’t make it up”. However Simons does not address any of the issues raised by Dale. And the ease by which a publication could be duped is noted by science writer Tim Lambert at Deltoid who notes “the hoax article seems almost reasonable, though the proposal to use genetically modified mosquitoes to deliver drugs seems a bit of a give away.” Meanwhile, the discussion about the hoax on Larvatus Prodeo (LP) also raised a mixed bag of responses varying from glee about the embarrassment of one of “the greatest puffed-shirts of them all” (Windschuttle) to accusing the hoaxer of cowardice. In the end analysis, the affair will do Windschuttle and his magazine no harm at all. In fact, as one commenter on LP notes, “Quadrant will probably see a lift in sales because of this hoax.”

1 comment:

Derek Barry said...

Margaret Simons has confirmed the identity of "Sharon Gould" as Katherine Wilson.