Another Science Hoax

Keith Windschuttle, editor of Australian Right magazine Quadrant, and prominent culture warrior, has been hoaxed — publishing an article arguing essentially that genetic scientists should be allowed to do anything they want without the scrutiny of the public or media, because scientists know best.

The hoaxer outed themselves to another online magaine, Crikey, and has chronicled their misdeed in the blog ‘Diary of a Hoax.’ This is delicious. Windschuttle was something of an ‘official historian’ for Australia’s previous Howard Government, presenting their preferred version of Aboriginal history (that there was no stolen generation, that reports of massacres were overblown) by picking at the footnotes of academic historians such as Henry Reynolds, of the University of Tasmania.

Windschuttle positioned himself as the voice of reason against the tyranny of postmodernism in history research. That’s what makes this so sweet. As Crikey’s Margaret Simons writes:

The Gould hoax is designed to be a companion and a counter to the famous Sokal hoax, in which the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to a postmodern cultural studies journal to show that post modernists would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

Windschuttle’s positioning of himself on the side of realism, and his opponents on the side of sophistry, is undone by this hoax — which, as distinct from the Sokal hoax, was not even perpetrated by a known and respected scientist (which at least had lent a certain credence to Sokal’s article in the minds of Social Text‘s editors).

Anyway, enough Schadenfreude. I do think it’s interesting, though, to ponder what it is that a hoax demonstrates, especially when performed across the science/humanities border: in order to destabilise ideeology. Any thoughts, anyone?


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5 thoughts on “Another Science Hoax

  1. Is parody still possible? What is left in calling something a hoax? I ask this because the highly esteemed neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, makes a comparable claim in his book The Ethical Brain. His idea is that the engaged scientists are the best ones to decide what is and is not permissible genetic engineering.

    Not that one agrees with Gazzaniga, but in fact, the assertion on the part of authors that they were just kidding doesn’t necessarily impugn their claims. I think this is something that witnesses at trials can find when they recant their testimony.

    However worthy the target, outright lying may not be such a great weapon.

  2. PS: JF, I did so like your reflections on Shelley Tremain’s last comment. I hope you won’t mind if they show up on feminist philosophers – with due citation, of course.

  3. Yes, I agree, it’s a very subtle hoax, given that it’s such a ‘plausible’ position for a genetic scientist to hold. I almost felt sorry for Windschuttle, but not quite, because that was his comeuppance (as a seasoned history troll). Also, as it turns out, Windschuttle has simply decided to deny the article’s status as a hoax altogether (see http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/quadrant-falls-victim-to-hoax/2009/01/06/1231004021054.html), in an interesting manouver that throws up for grabs the very definition of hoax (if the hoaxed refuses to acknowledge the hoax, then what?)

    I think what the anonymous author was able to demonstrate, nonetheless, was that the editor of that famously (in Australia) ideologically driven magazine let his (famously) analytical standards drop when it came to checking the facts (and footnotes) of a paper whose position he had sympathy with: and thus, the extent to which political alliance can obscure reasoning. Reading the hoaxers blog, it definitely seems to be directed personally toward Windschuttle.

    But there’s more at stake: namely the relation of science to the public in a democracy. The hoax unsettles, even if it doesn’t completely upturn, the view that it ironically peddles.

    But on the other hand, maybe it just makes everyone bit cross, bothered, and confused, and communicates very little (?)

    Thanks for your reflections, jj. And yes, feel free to cite my previous comment. It’s out there now.

  4. Pingback: The Gould affair (strikes back at Sokal) – mutually occluded

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