Media

The Hoax Down Under

January 12, 2009

Multiple Pages

Say what you like against us Australians, there is one activity where we excel, and that is, in producing artistic hoaxers. The nonexistent modernist poetic genius “Ern Malley” in the 1940s; a subsequent platoon of “Aboriginal” creators (“B. Wongar”, “Wanda Koolmatrie”, “Eddie Burrup”) who invariably turned out to be about as “Aboriginal” as Nicole Kidman; a nonexistent Ukrainian novelist named “Helen Demidenko” (also known as, less exotically, Helen Darville and latterly Helen Dale); Norma Khouri, a fraudulent chronicler of honor killing in Jordan (who at least used her real name): all these, and others, indicate that on a per capita basis, Aussies could well be the most proficient artistic hoaxers in the world. It’s only a few days into 2009, but already we have another entrant in the Aussie hoaxer pantheon. Step forward “Sharon Gould”, alias Katherine Wilson, a blogger and activist who has done more damage to the 53-year-old Sydney-based, taxpayer-funded monthly magazine Quadrant than an army of Soviet dropkicks during the Cold War ever succeeded in effecting.

“Sharon Gould”—“not without malice prepense,” as Russell Kirk used to say in another context—submitted an article in praise of genetically modified food to Quadrant’s editor Keith Windschuttle, titled “Scare Campaigns and Science Reporting.” (In the interests of full disclosure, I might as well reveal that I was one of Windschuttle’s unsuccessful rivals for the editorial post when Quadrant’s board members publicly advertised it.) What “Gould” took elaborate care to conceal from Windschuttle was the fact that her article was—in Damon Runyon’s immortal words about Alice in Wonderland—“a pack of lies, though very interesting in spots.” She had made her “science” up, much as Alan Sokal (to whom she referred) had made his “science” up in 1996.  As she herself put it on her website:

The essay is rife with outrageously stupid arguments. For example, it accurately reports that GM Golden Rice is bound in 70 patents and it’s natural for those companies to expect returns — yet it also argues (parroting biotech industry spin) that Golden Rice was developed for altruistic reasons, to solve third world malnutrition problems.

Considering Windschuttle’s fixation with academics’ footnotes (and the 98 media articles this fixation reportedly spawned), I thought I’d include some bogus ones of my own, and see if he bothers scrutinizing those. 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.

Lastly, I make some claims which are laughable. For example, the made-up stuff about epigenes.  I’m no scientist (didn’t even do Year 11 science), but I don’t imagine epigenes do the stuff I said they do. Even if they did, the essay totally ignores hazards like horizontal gene transfer, unpredictable novel proteins, etc. But hey, if you say you’re a scientist, you can get away with saying anything. Scientists, see, are a one-size-fits-all authority.


Did Windschuttle smell even the smallest rat? No. On the contrary, he expressed great pleasure at the submission:

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… we would be very pleased to publish the article in our January [2009] edition.

Not only did it never occur to him to check the bona fides of “Sharon Gould”’s references. It never occurred to him to confirm that “Sharon Gould” actually existed, although five minutes’ Googling would have settled the latter issue. Almost unbelievably, Windschuttle is the second Quadrant editor in a row to have been publicly embarrassed by an apparent inability to use Google. Readers familiar with The American Conservative’s back-numbers may recall that it was just such a failure that, four years ago, prompted the late P. P. McGuinness to publish in Quadrant’s pages a convicted neo-Nazi, in sublime and almost touching ignorance regarding the latter’s protracted record of mayhem.

On Tuesday, January 6, just after Quadrant’s January issue (with the “Sharon Gould” effusion included) had reached subscribers and the newsstands, the gaff was blown. Author Margaret Simons announced in Crikey, an online magazine of predominant semi-literacy but occasional usefulness, that Windschuttle “ha[d] been taken in by a hoax intended to show that he will print outrageous propositions.” At this stage the true identity of “Sharon Gould” remained unconfirmed, though the blogosphere bubbled with conjecture on the subject. In less than two days’ time, Miss Simons proclaimed, again through Crikey, that “Sharon Gould” and the heavily pregnant Katherine Wilson were one and the same person.

For reasons best known to himself, Windschuttle—who now seems to have abandoned the serious historiography he used to carry out—appears to have been convinced that he possessed a twofold mission as Quadrant editor: first, to turn the magazine as far as possible into a monthly newsletter for the John Howard Government-in-Exile; second, to establish it (despite his own lack of scientific training) as a scientific authority, which it had never been and had never attempted to be. My own dealings with him were always polite enough. Yet little in his Quadrant editorship can be explained except as a pronounced case of self-destructiveness.  Consider:

(a) In Quadrant’s May 2008 issue he defended—wait for it—plagiarism, insisting: “There are very few cases where plagiarism should be a sacking offence for a university teacher.”

(b)   Notwithstanding cautions as to the inadvisability of this procedure, Quadrant continued to publish articles that, strictly speaking, were not Quadrant’s to publish. These articles emanated from one Hal Colebatch, who repeatedly peddled pieces to the periodical that had already appeared in other periodicals. Naturally Colebatch disdained to inform Quadrant that he was repeatedly offering it secondhand goods. This was not actually illegal behavior on Colebatch’s part, but it was indubitably unethical, and—like Windschuttle’s efforts to minimize plagiarism’s malice—it would have resulted in the instant dismissal of any executive editor foolhardy enough to sanction it at an American magazine.

(c) Quadrant’s resentment of Howard’s Prime Ministerial successor and opponent Kevin Rudd has become so obsessive that it is almost as if Windschuttle has been begging the Rudd Government to cut off Quadrant’s tax funds. Without such tax funds, of course, Quadrant would fold tomorrow. (In 1989, I publicly urged Quadrant to justify its free-market convictions by rejecting its welfare handouts and appointing a full-time classified advertising manager. My plea was, not surprisingly, treated with noisy contempt.)

Often enough Quadrant has been hated, but the “Sharon Gould” hoax represents the first time that Quadrant has been openly despised. All the leading national newspapers have carried front-page stories about the hoax and about Windschuttle’s gullibility.  Even now, Windschuttle would seem unable to comprehend why anyone would question his abject failure to perform the smallest background checking.

Whether Quadrant can survive this latest furor, or whether a Federal Arts Ministry already impatient with it will simply pull the plug and thereby kill it off, is uncertain. Over the years there have been—in fact there still are—good and highly talented people associated with Quadrant. Remembrance of their devotion should stifle any tendencies toward Schadenfreude. From now on, new and unfamiliar writers in Australia who submit work to “little magazines” will be regarded as guilty of fraud until proven innocent. It is by no means patently clear that any “little magazine” can cope with that level of distrust.

Quadrant’s comprehensive humiliation over recent days ought to elicit sustained, disinterested debate about whether any sort of independent, contributor-paying, generalist treezine can survive, during the Internet era, in a country with Australia’s small, scattered, and largely anti-intellectual population. Alas, this debate is, barring a miracle, precisely what will not happen.

P.S.: A former Quadrant staffer of high intellectual acumen and moral probity assured me last year that the existing annual salary for the magazine’s editor was ... zero. What part of the phrase “Pay peanuts, get monkeys” is hard to understand?

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