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Jan 6, 2009

More on the Hoaxing of Keith Windschuttle

I had the lead story in  Crikey today, about a successful and clever hoax played on Keith Windschuttle and Quadrant magazine. Depending on how long the silly season is this

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I had the lead story in  Crikey today, about a successful and clever hoax played on Keith Windschuttle and Quadrant magazine.

Depending on how long the silly season is this year, I imagine this story might run for a while – and in the longer term become part of the minor academic tradition that sees books and Phd theses written on the swelling tradition of Australian literary hoaxes and frauds (Demidenko, Ern Malley, Norma Khouri). There is a nice point to be made about the difference between a hoax and a fraud, about which more later.

But in the meantime, I thought it would be as well to say a few words about how this story came to me.

Just in case anyone is wondering, I am not the hoaxer. Nor is it a member of my family. Nor is it anyone at Crikey. Apart from this, I do not intend to say anything about who the hoaxer is, or isn’t, since even ruling people out can inadvertently narrow the field, as others have discovered before me.

[UPDATE: I have just seen that Windschuttle is strongly suggesting that I am the hoaxer. I repeat, I am not the hoaxer.)

The identity of the hoaxer  is known to only a very small circle. It is the hoaxer’s intention to remain anonymous. He does not want notoriety. (I’m going to refer to the hoaxer as “him” and “he”, but no conclusions as to gender should be drawn from that). He did want to make a point.

And I should also say here that the editorial team at Crikey don’t know who the hoaxer is, either.

I have not been a party to the hoaxing of Windschuttle. I first heard that this was in process three weeks ago – after Windschuttle had accepted the article in question. Nevertheless I agreed to accept the material Crikey has published today on the condition that I kept the identity of the hoaxer a secret, and on condition I did not publish until the relevant issue of Quadrant was out.

I know that most people who are interested will be taking this as rich cultural entertainment, but at the risk of being unbearably po-faced, I thought it would be fitting to say a bit about why I have done as I have done. Given that I write about media, and criticise journalists, I am aware of glass castles and stone throwers. Best get my oar in first. Forgive the mixed metaphor.

Besides, sad though it may be, I find this kind of thing interesting – the ethics of it – and it is as well to discuss such things openly. Those can’t quite believe how pathetic that is had better stop reading now.

I know that even the hoaxer is feeling some sympathy for Windschuttle today, and I can certainly understand that. The heat and kitchens principle (as in, if you don’t like it, stay out) is a rough and imprecise mechanism for judging what it is fair to do to public figures. Keith Windschuttle is certainly in the kitchen. He has been a leading participant in the “culture wars”. He has accused eminent historians of fabrication, and sloppy research, among other things. He is a public figure – a publisher, an ABC Board member and a controversial author. He is not known for his moderation in dealing with others. Nevertheless he has been deceived. He has been lied to, and by somone who wishes to remain anonymous.

Before going any further I should say that Windschuttle told me moments ago that he will publish a full response, covering both my conduct and that of the hoaxer, on the Quadrant website.  I urge people to read it.

Quadrant, ironically, has published before on the ethics of literary hoaxes. In this article last July. In it, Simon Caterson argued that hoaxes and frauds are not trivial, and not mere entertainment, and not a victimless crime but “like any breach of trust, injurious to culture and bad for business.” Caterson talked about a few of the hoaxes and frauds of recent times, but did not express an opinion on what is surely the mother of them all – the Ern Malley hoax perpetrated by Quadrant’s first editor, James McAuley, and still being chewed over and digested more than half a century later.

I think Caterson doesn’t adequately distinguish between hoax and fraud. A fraud is a deception carried out for personal gain – usually financial but not necessarily so. Some kinds of fraud are criminal offences.

A hoax is a deception carried out, as the online dictionary puts it, for the purposes of mockery or mischief. They can still damage, as Max Harris, the butt of the Ern Malley joke, could testify. They can still be serious, in the way that satire is both a joke and serious. Nevetheless, Malley was a hoax, not a fraud. And so is the “Sharon Gould” hoax that Crikey has made public today.

If it had been a fraud, carried out for personal gain, I think it would have been hard for me to justify receiving information in confidence. I don’t think I would have done so.

But in fact this is a good story, in journalistic terms. Not earth shattering, not life and death, but within intellectual Australia a significant and serious piece of mockery.

Quadrant is a significant part of our intellectual life, with several claims to an important history and present. Witness its place in the career of people such as McAuley, and more recently PP McGuiness, Robert Manne and now Windschuttle. Keith Windschuttle is a significant person and public figure.

The sting of this hoax as I undertand it is to establish that despite its attacks on post-modern slackness, and despite Windschuttle’s nitpicking of other people’s research, despite the fulminating against academic slackness from the right, it is possible for Quadrant and Windschuttle to publish pseudo-scientific nonsense, so long as it appears to fit in with their ideological view. In other words, that zealotry of all kinds has the potential to make people blind to evidence that doesn’t fit in with their preconceptions, and more liable to accept and privilege evidence that pleases them.

There is a second layer to the sting, to do with the dispute between those who say that all research is affected by its social and political context, and those who suggest that empirical research – and science – is beyond question, and should not be subjected to political and social critique.

Others will no doubt debate what this hoax has to say about these issues, and whether it is successful in making these points. I don’t intend to here.

But all of the above – Windschuttle’s position as a public figure, Quadrant’s place in our culture, and these serious intellectual arguments are what amounts to my public interest justification for making my own ethical decision – to agree to keep the identity of the hoaxer confidential.

I would not have made this decision if I thought the identify of the hoaxer was important to these issues.

Some more on the journalistic ethics.

The convention that journalists protect their sources in all circumstances is well recognised, but ill defined, as the controversy over the Costello Dinnergate affair showed last year – something on which I have written before.

In the wake of that affair, the ABC reviewed and rewrote its Editorial Policies on the question of treatment of sources. The resulting polices and accompanying guidelines can be read here.

They have been controversial. Gerard Henderson said in the most recent issue of the Sydney Institute Quarterly that an ABC journalists’ promise of confidentiality no longer meant very much, and that sources should be careful in talking to them. I am not sure I agree with every aspect of the ABC Editorial Policies myself, although at the time the review process began I welcomed it as the first attempt to bring clarity to a murky area of journalistic practice. Nevertheless, the ABC Guidelines remain the only clear guideline I am aware of on the issue of journalists and sources.

The ABC Guidelines have this to say about this kind of decision:

“Through agreements with media professionals, anonymous sources exercise the power of widespread disclosure of information without having to share responsibility for its reliability and for consequences of its disclosure. That responsibility lies solely with the media professionals and the outlet through which their work is disseminated. When the ABC carries unattributed information it is, in effect, vouching for the information to the audience. The ABC is asking its audience to take the information on trust and in that way the ABC is investing some of its own credibility in the material.”

If I was an ABC journalist, as I understand it, I would have had to refer upwards the decision to publish (though not to receive) information received in confidence. I am a freelance journalist, so I don’t really have any “upwards”. I took the decision myself. Crikey made its own decision to publish, without knowing the identity of the source, but I am sure that decision rested in part on an assessment of me and my credibility.

The ABC Guidelines go on to talk about the weighing up process in deciding to make confidentiality agreements. Would I be in the clear under the ABC Guidelines? I am not sure that I would. Perhaps not.

Nevertheless I have done what I have done.

Would I have remained silent these three weeks if this was fraud, rather than hoax? I don’t think so.  Would I have remained silent if speaking out would have altered matters of high political consequence? I don’t think so.

So, that’s it.

If anyone has read this far, let the debate begin.

Margaret Simons —

Margaret Simons

Journalist, author and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism

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31 comments

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31 thoughts on “More on the Hoaxing of Keith Windschuttle

  1. Margaret Simons

    More from John Craig:
    Further to my earlier email on ‘Fraud in Science’ and your response (see below), I have also reproduced here the discussion of the ‘hoaxing of Keith Windschuttle’ from your Crikey blog and would like to try to add value to your argument in terms of the nature and significance of public ‘truth’. I have also highlighted in it what seem to be your key points, namely that:
    a distinction is vital between a fraud and a hoax – in that the former involves personal gain while a hoax (such as that perpetrated on Windshuttle) is motivated by mockery or mischief;
    stings in the hoax were that: (a) those, such as Windschuttle, who have criticised post-modern / academic slackness could be deceived by pseudo-scientific nonsense that they find ideologically attractive; and the hoax impacts on the dispute between those who suggest that all research is affected by its social and political context, and others who suggest that science should be above this.

    However the distinction you suggest between an (acceptable) hoax and an (evil) fraud seems a bit arbitrary, as ‘Sharon’ would surely not have bothered trying to make a mockery of Windschuttle via a ‘hoax’ unless ‘she’ thought that ‘she’ would gain some sort of personal benefit by doing so.

    Moreover the biggest sting is that ‘Sharon’ (whether through a scientific hoax or a scientific fraud) has illustrated the very real philosophical problems which relate to post-modern theory and the credibility of science which, as I understand it, Windshuttle has been trying to highlight. ‘She’ has simply provided further evidence of a critical problem, which is presumably not at all what ‘she’ intended to do.

    The Credibility of Science

    My earlier email regarding your Crikey article (which is reproduced below) referred to the damage scientific fraud does to the credibility of science – and I can’t see that scientific ‘hoaxes’ are less damaging.

    Science is important to our ability to cope with humanity’s current challenges – through providing evidence-based understanding of the natural world that is critical (for example) in developing technologies that might provide alternative energy sources or prevent epidemics caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria.

    However the process of science is imperfect. One of the failings long recognised in the philosophy of science is the ‘theory dependence of observations’ – in other words people usually see only what conforms with their preconceptions. ‘Sharon’ has provided a practical illustration of this through a hoax that trivialized the problem of preconceptions presumably without recognising that it has real-world importance. An example of its importance is that anthropogenic preconceptions have apparently dominated the IPCC in seeking to explain climate change – and thus left a dangerous uncertainty about whether current political proposals regarding greenhouse gas emissions are a ‘storm in a teacup’ or a grossly inadequate reaction to pending disaster.

    The inability of human beings to see past their preconceptions is not the only structural difficulty in the progress of science (eg see others mentioned in ‘Competing Civilizations’).

    The Politicisation of Knowledge

    Furthermore it is not only in science’s attempt to understand the world that people have trouble with knowledge. Limits to rationality are recognised: in management theories; by economists in justifying the creation of a market economy; and by students of public administration observing the counter-intuitive responses of complex social systems to ‘rational’ public policy. Moreover some knowledge is simply arbitrary (eg whether it is correct to drive on the left or right hand side of the road). And though faith in knowledge has been critical to the organisation and success of Western societies (through trusting individual rationality), quite different assumptions have prevailed in societies that lack the West’s classical Greek heritage (eg in East Asia).

    Given the limitations of human knowledge, some have ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’ and declared, in effect, that all knowledge is arbitrary – a product of social circumstances and what political elites perceive to be advantageous to themselves. Such ‘post-modern’ assumptions, which Windshuttle has apparently been seeking to criticise and ‘Sharon’ was apparently trying to justify by showing that Windschuttle could be fooled by ‘make-believe’ knowledge, have very damaging consequences.

    Examples of post-modern-sourced damage to societies like Australia’s are suggested in Competing Civilizations. These include: devaluation and erosion of the practical knowledge and experience required for effective government; eroding the foundations of individual liberty – namely the confidence that authorities have had in the socially-constructive behaviour of individuals; and undermining the notion of public truth which is critical to meaningful political debate – and thus to democracy.

    ‘Make-believe’ advanced knowledge is now not only being used in Australia to fool Keith Windschuttle. It is being used by populists to fool community opinion-leaders as the basis for gaining political power (eg see An Alternative to Market Fundamentalism?) in much the same way that highly-educated non-democratic elites have traditionally maintained control in East Asia.

    As noted above, ‘Sharon’ has merely illustrated and trivialized a problem that requires much more serious attention.

    I have no objection if you wish to reproduce the above on your blog.

    Regards

    John Craig

    Centre for Policy and Development Systems
    CPDS supports leaders developing enterprise, economic, community and governance systems

  2. Julie Posetti

    Interesting investigation, Margaret, with significant historical-political implications. Several adages, homilies, proverbs etc come to mind vis a vis Keith…logs in eyes, people in glass houses and all that. What’s Henry Reynolds’ response to this been?

    Equally interesting is the debate around the ethics of subterfuge, entrapment, revelation and anonymous sources – thanks for detailing your own thought processes and dilemmas on some of these issues here & on your blog. Very instructive.

    I loathe Windschuttle’s politics; think his appointment to the ABC Board highly inappropriate and believe his role in the Culture Wars makes him culpable. I also think his professional conduct in this case was questionable and probably ideologically driven. But I can’t bring myself to celebrate his humiliation 1) because I often wonder how many academic publishers/peer reviewers check authors’ credentials and all references thoroughly (I have a hard enough time subjecting 120 journalism students’ work to such scrutiny!) and 2) As delicious and ironic an expose as this is, I suspect publications on the Left would be equally susceptible to such a hoax.

    All that said – it’s a ripper of a yarn and a wake up call to researchers/publishers & peer reviewers – a lesson most journalists learn very early on the job: verify your sources; check and cross-check your facts. If reporters were derelict in those duties with such spectacular effect, they’d be exposed and condemned by journalism and media studies scholars from coast to coast…some academics seem to think they’re beyond such scrutiny but they actually need to be even more accountable.

    I look forward to Keith Windschuttle’s detailed response.

  3. Stilgherrian

    I find Windschuttle’s response interesting for two reasons:

    1. Nowhere does he even come close to admitting that he, personally, has made any kind of mistake whatsoever. Instead, he’s trying to re-frame the event from “hoax” to “fraud” by re-defining “hoax” more narrowly than the usage I’m familiar with, so that he can then portray himself as an innocent victim of fraud rather than a gullible victim of a hoax. He also seems very keen on “playing the man and not the ball”, spraying as much criticism at others’ quite unrelated activities as he can. Like ink from a squid. Hilarious.

    2. Quadrant of course has no mechanism for comment or discussion. I daresay Windschuttle sees this as advantage. In the short term maybe it is, as he’ll be able to make His Pronouncements without contradiction. He’ll feel (falsely) secure in his old-media sense of “control”. However what will actually happen is that the discussion will still happen — just elsewhere, he’ll actually have less control and involvement.

    Both these factors are clear indicators that his arguments are weak.

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