All’s Fair in the Battle of Ideas

On Tuesday, Crikey broke a story about conservative magazine Quadrant’s publication of an essay on scientific criticism by Sharon Gould. Gould is described as having a PhD in Applied Science (biotechnology) and being employed as a biotechnology informatics consultant.

But Gould is not a real person. Her essay, “Scare campaigns and science reporting,” was a hoax, as Quadrant editor and cultural warrior Keith Windshuttle discovered to his dismay when the journalist who broke the story, Margaret Simons, rang him for comment. According to Simons, the essay contained “false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes,” that Windshuttle should have spotted.

Some journalists have treated the story with glee, setting off like hounds after Gould’s real identity. Windshuttle’s nemesis, historian and former Quadrant editor Robert Manne, was no less restrained. He told The Age that he had “tears rolling down [his] cheeks” while reading the bogus essay.

I don’t think we need to know Gould’s true identity or to laugh at the elegance of the sting, which was designed to humiliate Windshuttle, and cast doubt on the integrity of the conservative ideology he espouses. I think we need to judge whether the hoax was fair. Or fair enough.

The use of shame and humiliation to discipline those who break the rules and flout the powerful has fallen out of fashion in recent years, but is central to hoaxes. The Ern Malley scam of the 1940s saw two traditional poets publish what they saw as slapdash pretentious rubbish in an avant-garde literary journal. More recently, American physics Professor Alan Sokal exposed the acceptance of a paper “liberally salted with nonsense” by editors of a cultural studies journal. Sokal claimed the publication of his article proved that some disciplines would accept anything as legitimate scholarship as long as it “sounded good” and “flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

While embarrassment of individuals is the vehicle by which hoaxes take effect, this is not always the primary objective. Often, the main game is the slaying, through ridicule, of intellectual interlopers. Those artists or scholars who dare to challenge existing orthodoxies and, by so doing, threaten the power of those who promulgate them. Both Malley and Sokal fall into this category.

But the latest hoax offers something new. Instead of orthodox practitioners (traditional poets, scientists) holding their nascent challengers (post-modernists, humanities academics) up for laughs, the Windshuttle affair sees the intellectual gatecrashers fighting back. As the hoaxer explains it, the Gould essay “derides” the “very constructivist arguments” used in the climate-change denial articles regularly published in Quadrant. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel that insofar as the cultural left evinces exuberance about Windshuttle’s downfall, this flows from relief that, for once, they are not the ones being played as fools.

But here lies the crux of the issue; the very problem the hoax sought to lay bare. Either what was done to Windshuttle was fair, or it was not. An article is either worthy of publication because it demonstrates adequate scholarship (logical precision, accuracy, evidential rigour), or it does not. If one is applying the standards of thought and judgment that is the hallmark of the university-educated-and one might rightly expect this of those who hold themselves out as guardians of academic standards-then the direction of an argument should be neither here nor there when its worth is assessed.

It is fair, I think, to hold Windshuttle to account for inconsistent application of his exacting standards of scholarship. In particular, for only checking the footnotes of those with whom he disagrees. Pillorying also seems justified for his failure to uphold even the most basic editorial standards before putting “Gould” into print. Like ensuring he could substantiate Gould’s claimed academic credentials by locating her on a university website, or finding a paper she’s written in any of the academic databases easily accessible on the web.

To the question of whether the exposure of such double standards was important enough to sacrifice Windshuttle’s reputation, I think the answer is, “yes.” Windshuttle is a public figure who made his name not just by challenging the accuracy of some footnotes in the work of historians like Henry Reynolds, but by suggesting their errors were part of a deliberate attempt to deceive Australians about the true facts of history. Such charges are extremely serious, going to the personal and professional integrity of these scholars. Scholars whose substantive views about Australia’s early history he did not like. To be hoisted on one’s own petard in such a case not only seems justified, but evidence of some sort of cosmic justice.

We value impartiality because there can be no fairness without it. We value reason because, when properly deployed, it should see all of us arrive at the same conclusions about the nature of a problem, and its potential solutions. We value evidence because it provides a firm foundation on which reason can proceed. We value these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard for us to achieve.

At the heart of the culture wars was a conflict over different ways of knowing. Against the university-educated “elites,” trained to use careful and critical discourse to make their point were those deploying more traditional ways of asserting authority: fear, force, ridicule, exclusion.

Whether this latest salvo provokes retaliation, or allows us to finally lay down arms and agree to respectfully disagree, remains an open question.

Publication history

All's Fair in the Battle of Ideas  The Age