Fabrication of scientific theory: the Windschuttle hoax

Australian, The (Australia) -
Author: Justine Ferrari, Samantha Maiden
7th January, 2009

THE man who accused fellow historians of fabricating accounts of colonial settlers massacring indigenous Australians has unwittingly published scientific nonsense in therespected right-wing journal Quadrant.

Unrepentant Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle, a leading antagonist against the cultural Left and black armband brigade in the history wars , yesterday admitted being ``tricked'' into publishing an article on biotechnology scares.

A blog titled ``Diary of a Hoax'', with entries dating back to November 2007, details a plan to target Windschuttle with a pseudoscience article that agreed with his ideological views.

The mystery hoaxer -- published under the fictional author's name of Sharon Gould -- was revealed in the internet newsletter Crikey, which has been a merciless Windschuttle critic. Crikey admits it has been aware of the plot for the past three weeks but agreed to stay silent until Quadrant went to print.

Windschuttle yesterday said the Sharon Gould article in Quadrant was not a ``genuine hoax'' but an example of ``fraudulent journalism submitted under false pretences''.

``There's only a very small number of untruths in it,'' he said. ``The great majority of what the article says, 85 per cent of what it says, is perfectly legitimate points based on real footnotes, real sources and factual information.''

But Mr Windschuttle admitted the article was unsolicited and from an unknown author, and that he had failed to even Google the author's name or check easily validated facts, such as the claim that the paper was first presented at the 19th International Conference on Genome Informatics in Brisbane last year.

A check of the program on the internet by The Australian yesterday revealed there was no such paper or author listed.

Windschuttle said his practices were the same as any editor of a publication and that checking every fact and quotation in an article was impractical.

``I guess I could have done more to investigate the author but the content was something I did investigate because I was interested in some of the sources,'' he said.

The latest entry on the hoax blog says: ``So neatly did my essay conform with reactionary ideology that Quadrant, it seems, didn't evencheck 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.

``I'm almost embarrassed for you, Windschuttle. Just look at you above, a pea in a pod alongside those other culture warriors.''

The clues in the Quadrant article to which Gould refers are in the first paragraph, which refers to the Sokal hoax perpetrated by New York University physics professor Alan Sokal against postmodernist cultural studies magazine Social Text to reveal the absurdity of postmodernist views on science.

Professor Sokal said he wanted to see if a journal in that field would ``publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions''.

The Quadrant article, entitled ``Scare Campaigns and Science Reporting'', says the CSIRO had been experimenting with engineering human genes in wheat crops to fight cancer, modify dairy cattle to produce milk suited to lactose-intolerant babies and modify malaria mosquitoes to carry genes that produced human antibodies to render their bite less dangerous.

Former chief scientist Jim Peacock, who was unknowingly quoted in the article, said yesterday it was possible, albeit difficult, to transfer human genes into plants but he was unaware of any research to do so. He described the modified cows and mosquitoes referred to as ``absolute nonsense'' and said the hoax was ``despicable''. ``It's very difficult for a non-scientist to acquire the balanced information you really need to assess a particular topic,'' he said.

In revealing the fraud, Crikey's Margaret Simons refers to one of the great hoaxes in Australian history, the Ern Malley affair in 1945, in which a fictitious poet and body of work was created. One of the people behind the hoax was one of the founders of Quadrant, James McAuley. The victim was Max Harris, avant-garde poet and editor of the modernist magazine Angry Penguins.

Simons yesterday denied she was responsible for the scam, and said the identity of the hoaxer was beside the point. She conceded she knew of the hoax before Quadrant published the article, but agreed to stay silent.

``They approached me about three weeks ago, after Keith Windschuttle had accepted the article,'' Simons said.

``In other words, the hoax had already achieved its aim in the sense it had been accepted.

``It was before Quadrant was published.

``It's a good story. The condition on which I accepted the information was that I wouldn't publish the information until Quadrant was out.''

Crikey editor Jonathan Green defended the newsletter's role in the story and the writer's decision not to warn Quadrant. ``It was a good story and it's not my job to save Keith Windschuttle from himself,'' he said.

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