Diary of a hoax: how Keith Windschuttle was tricked

The Australian
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 the respected right-wing journal Quadrant.

An 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 -- publishsed 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 had 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 ``fradulent 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 from an unknown author, and 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 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 even check 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 Gould refers to in the Quadrant article is in the opening paragraph, which refers to the Sokal hoax perpetrated by New York University physics professor Alan Sokal against a 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 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 not allergenic 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 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,'' Dr Peacock 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.

Simons yesterday denied being responsible for the scam, and said the identity of the hoaxer was beside the point.

She conceded she knew about the hoax before Quadrant published the article, but agreed to stay silent.

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