The strange Quadrant hoax

Crikey, in one of its rare (if minor) scoops, reports that Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle was hoaxed into publishing this piece on scare campaigns and science reporting by mythical biotechnologist Sharon Gould.

But what point is this hoax intended to make?

According to the Crikey article,

In a ruse designed to lampoon Windschuttle’s historical research, which began by checking the footnotes of leading historians, the article contains some false references.

Maybe there is a very small irony here, but there is not much of an analogy. Academic historians writing on their own subject should be held to high standards of accuracy. Editors of generalist magazines publishing tens of thousands of other people’s words a month on a wide variety of topics cannot be expected to check every claim and every reference.

From a reader’s perspective, it’s hard to see the difference between the hoax article and the error-ridden piece Crikey published on think-tanks a few weeks ago, except that “Sharon Gould” lied about his/her true identity, and Crikey‘s Andrew Crook used his real name (I assume; I had never heard of him prior to this). They are both non-credible pieces that ideally should not have been published, but in a world of limited editorial resources they both slipped through the net.

Nor is it at all clear that this hoax has the meaning attributed to it by Crikey journalist Margaret Simons on her blog:

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.

The trouble with this interpretation is that there is nothing much in this article that particularly fits with the Quadrant worldview.

As I read the article, it has two main arguments. The first is that the views of the public are often ill-informed on science due to the way scientific findings are reported, and are given too much weight relative to the views of scientists. It would be hard to dispute that most members of the public are not scientific experts, and I doubt there are many experts on any subject who believe that the public’s less-informed opinions should prevail over their own. Such views could be found from people of almost any political perspective except populism.

The only hint that there could be some ideological angle here is the chosen example of genetically modified food. Some right-wingers have criticised what they regard as Green superstitions on this subject. But many conservatives of the type who read Quadrant would also have reservations about genetic modification.

And this makes it all the less likely that the second argument fits with the Quadrant ideological worldview. This is that human genes be used to modify food. I’d be surprised if most conservatives did not oppose that.

For the hoax idea to work along these lines, it needed to be a climate change denialist piece – the one area in which Quadrant has been involved in a scientific debate that has acquired distinctive left-right ideological connotations. But Quadrant is generally attacked on this for rejecting the scientific consensus, when on the logic of Simons’ ‘understanding’ the Quadrant orthodoxy would need to be an uncritical embrace of whatever scientists say.

If I had to guess why Windschuttle was attracted to this piece (which isn’t well written) it is that he thought it might be provocative, rather than because he thought his readers would be nodding in agreement. But he clearly didn’t think it was that noteworthy, as it appears on page 70 of the print version of the magazine. (His response to the hoax is here.)

The Windschuttle haters will enjoy this. But as a hoax it is little better than the science that appears in “Sharon Gould”‘s article.

46 Responses to “The strange Quadrant hoax

  • 1
    Chris Berg
    January 6th, 2009 21:22

    It really is a poorly thought through hoax – the article is oddly serious and the references (in text and in footnotes) are for the most part based in fact. The hoaxer even set up a fake authors website. The difference between a hoax and just plain trickery is vague at the best of times. This one leans uncomfortably towards the latter.

    So apart from “discovering” that Quadrant is not peer-reviewed, or that Keith Windshuttle is an editor, and not a professional geneticist, I couldn’t agree more Andrew – it is really hard to see the point. But there are certainly high fives all round at a dinner party somewhere tonight.

  • 2
    Tim Lambert
    January 7th, 2009 01:39

    I think you misunderstood Harry Clark’s criticism. He criticised Quadrant for publishing stuff that was full of errors and refusing to allow any correction.

    The latest issue has an article by Tim Curtin who attributes all of the increase in food production in the past 30 years to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  • 3
    hc
    January 7th, 2009 04:35

    Andrew,

    It is important to avoid publishing pure rubbish and this is what Windschuttle is doing on climate change and in this stupid piece. You cannot excuse this by the volume of submissions to Quadrant or the fact that Quadrant is a generalist magazine which publishes ‘opinions’.

    If you don’t understand the science get a referee who does. Don’t just publish material on the grounds that it vaguely seems to be consistent with your conservative priors.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    January 7th, 2009 06:09

    Tim – Yes, that’s what I thought Harry was saying, which he confirms. The hoax appears to be satirising an uncritical belief that scientists’ views should prevail, when as Harry points out (as you do) Quadrant gives too little weight to scientific views.

    Harry – As an editor myself, I would not publish quite a bit of what appears in Quadrant. Indeed, some articles I have rejected Quadrant has subsequently published. But the standards for an opinion magazine are lower than for a journal like Policy or indeed even a daily newspaper, which has some role in trying to establish facts in its news pages. Readers should take this into account.

    In the climate change case, the general hysteria surrounding this issue creates a real problem in the speech system in that quality material not consistent with the consensus may not get a run anywhere. Unfortunately, the willingness of Quadrant to publish almost anything means that even quality non-consensus material is not likely to be taken seriously.

  • 5
    Jeremy
    January 7th, 2009 07:58

    The ‘hoax’ reminds me of a scene from The Young Ones.

    The boys turn up at the BBC for ‘University Challenge’. A security guard (played by Mel Smith) asks Vyvyan why he is carrying a pig, to which Vyv responds that ‘Bacon Sandwich’ is not a pig, it’s a ferret. Taking Vyv at his word, the security guard comments that ‘Bacon Sandwich’ is a funny name for a ferret, at which Vyv says ‘It’s not a ferret, it’s a pig!’

    The boys triumph at their ‘victory’ over authority – Rik asks ‘Have you had enough, Nazi, or do you want some more?’ and gives the guard the two-fingered salute.

    The Simons ‘hoax’ seems similar: say something both stupid and deliberately false, abuse the other person’s taking what you say on trust, reveal the ‘joke’, stick your fingers up at them for being gullible, and parade around as though you’ve scored a big victory, while your audience is left wondering ‘What was that all about?’

    History makes me suspect that we’ll be hearing about this for a while. Andrew Wilkie was a star of the mainstream media and hero of the left for years, for doing nothing more than resigning from his job because he disagreed with government policy.

    Hopefully Quadrant will respond by tightening up its quality assurance. The magazine has, I think, plenty of well-qualified friends who I suspect would be happy to offer their time doing fact checking, etc.

    I wonder what’s got into Harry. He seems to be overdosing on the angry pills these days! I can’t in the least see how an article discussing community suspicions of scientific advances plays to ‘conservative priors’.

    Maybe if Simons had presented a hoax purporting to show that an atrocity actually committed against Aborigines hadn’t happened, and Windschuttle had accepted it for publication – that would have been genuinely newsworthy and embarrassing. But I don’t think she has the capacity.

  • 6
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 7th, 2009 08:03

    Harry – how do you know these articles are ‘pure rubbish’? Some of the authors have better scientific credentials than you do and you are not necessarily qualified to referee them yourself (and neither is Tim). To argue that they are error-ridden is also problematic – Club Troppo has a ‘thread of doom’ running at the moment where highly respectable individuals are debating (some of) the facts of climate change – and that thread was initiated by Nick Gruen. So if even Nick is wondering about the facts, so too can everyone else.

    So at best all you can say is that the Quadrant pieces are not to your taste and do not conform with mainstream thinking. But it is not clear that the peer-review system exists to enforce mainstream thinking. If you think it should simply enforce conformity you really do need to say so.

  • 7
    Martin
    January 7th, 2009 10:05

    Jeremy: spot on.

  • 8
    Rafe Champion
    January 7th, 2009 10:42

    This is good for a laugh but it is really a huge beat-up.
    What Andrew and Jeremy said.
    The thing is to apply the same standards to all parties and not favour your own friends and fellow-travellers.
    If half-decent editorial standards applied on the left, virtually none of the criticism of economic rationalism would have been published. Same applies to many other topics.

  • 9
    John Greenfield
    January 7th, 2009 10:51

    Wasn’t the point of KW’s analysis of Lyndall Ryan and fellow “genocide/terra nullius” commies that they wrote the stuff themselves? KW did not write this article, so what’s the big deal?

  • 10
    John Greenfield
    January 7th, 2009 10:54

    hc

    “It is important to avoid publishing pure rubbish”

    Why?

  • 11
    John Greenfield
    January 7th, 2009 10:55

    Surely that is what Letters to the Editor pages are for?

  • 12
    Ken Miles
    January 7th, 2009 12:04

    Having just read the hoax article, The Australian’s coverage and some blogs, I don’t think that it is particularly significant. Sure KW could have been more careful, but it’s no big deal.

    What I would be more worried about is that a deliberate hoax is of a higher quality than the pseudoscientific drek on climate change that Quadrant publishes.

  • 13
    jc
    January 7th, 2009 12:22

    Ken Miles

    How qualified are you to determine was is and isn’t’ rubbish about AGW? Honestly, although read you’re a scientist of some sort and more probably a specialist researcher the only things I ever read coming from you are angry opinions that everyone else is wrong and you’re right.

    Aren’t you being more than a little religious , Ken?

    Keith was right. This wasn’t a hoax, it’s a fraud.

  • 14
    Ken Miles
    January 7th, 2009 12:53

    JC, that’s a bit rich coming from you. I’m not an expert, but I probably know more than most. I have studied climate change at a university level, I possess a PhD in chemistry (which gives me a good background in the basic theory) and I regularly read the peer reviewed scientific literature (and have done for almost a decade).

  • 15
    jc
    January 7th, 2009 12:58

    Ken

    How exactly do you study “climate change” at university level? I would have thought you would study climate physics etc. not “climate change” per se. This sounds awfully like women’s studies in an arts degree.

  • 16
    jc
    January 7th, 2009 13:01

    Ken:

    One other thing what would give you pause to ever admit you’re wrong in your hysterics. In other words if global temps haven’t risen for x years at what point will you pull the pin on your religious experience and admit that you’re wrong?

    Just curious that’s all.

  • 17
    conrad
    January 7th, 2009 13:21

    HC: “It is important to avoid publishing pure rubbish and this is what Windschuttle is doing on climate change”
    SD: “how do you know these articles are ‘pure rubbish’?”
    .
    I guess an alternative way to look at this is why Quadrant allows submissions on anything at all when it clearly doesn’t have the capacity to screen articles on anything at all (excluding the rather obvious observation for some of the articles that if you did have good evidence for some things that are claimed, then you would be putting it in Nature where people might actually read and care about your findings). Why not just stick to things which they can vet properly? If you want to publish a scientific paper on climate change etc. surely there are better places to put it unless what you are suggesting is so woeful that even the average journals in that area won’t take it.

  • 18
    Andrew Norton
    January 7th, 2009 13:24

    jc, ken – please, no more climate change. It was done to death last month.

  • 19
    Jeremy
    January 7th, 2009 13:24

    Ken, the supposed ‘hoax’ isn’t significant in itself. However what it does is give non-thinkers a negative point to raise every time Keith Windschuttle’s or Quadrant’s name is raised in public discussion.

    The ‘hoax’ itself is weak as water and will be an embarrassment for Simons. But the stigma of being ‘hoaxed’ and gullible, however unfair and undeserved, will likely stick to Windschuttle for a while yet.

    I foresee Phillip Adams et al gloating about it for years!

  • 20
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 7th, 2009 13:31

    Conrad – Quadrant does not publish articles that report scientific results. So it is not, and never could be, a substitute for Nature. It publishes articles about science, history, politics etc. not articles that do science.

  • 21
    Jason Soon
    January 7th, 2009 13:53

    I am far more amused by the luvvies’ attempts to draw a comparison between this and the Sokal hoax which discredited an entire intellectual fraud subsidised by universities around the world.

  • 22
    Ken Miles
    January 7th, 2009 13:58

    Andrew – no worries.

    Jeremy – you are probably right. I have a strong dislike of KW because of the poor scholarship behind his work on Australian history and the quality of articles on a certain subject that he accepts for publication, but the hoax isn’t (or rather shouldn’t be) a big deal. Unfortunately, this hoax will stick to him for a long long time, when there are much better stuff (as in high quality, not easily reduced to sound-bites) to criticise him about.

  • 23
    jc
    January 7th, 2009 14:16

    Did you read any of his publications, Ken or are you relying on the old gang to discredit keith.

    He did a great service which was to expose the phoniness and poor scholarship masquerading as history that turned out to be little more than advocacy for a lefty cause.

    there goes your strong “dislike” again, ken.

    So tell us which part did you disagree with and why.

  • 24
    Ken Nielsen
    January 7th, 2009 16:10

    KW slipped up. He should have at least checked the writer’s existence and credentials.
    This will provide lots of fun for those who dislike KW, which is not very important. But for others, it will reduce the credibility of Quadrant somewhat. That is a pity.
    KW should tighten his editorial practices a bit, but not at the cost of making Quadrant cautious and unadventurous. Perhaps he should say, as a policy, that technical articles are not peer reviewed or checked beyond confirmation that the author exists and has some qualification to write about the subject.
    Personally, I would like to see Quadrant open itself to a wider range of opinions. We are not getting high quality debate and discussion in the press (some blogs, perhaps) and we need it.

  • 25
    conrad
    January 7th, 2009 16:31

    “Quadrant does not publish articles that report scientific results. So it is not, and never could be, a substitute for Nature. It publishes articles about science, history, politics etc. not articles that do science.”
    .
    They don’t publish novel results, but they certainly publish claims that you would need decent scientific reviewers for to evaluate fairly. For example, in the current issue, there is yet another global warming piece, which starts off as a history, but turns into an evaluation.

    Now whether you happen to like computer models or not (and there are certainly scientists that are not thrilled by them, so you could get a fair review in many journals), one has to wonder whether this was sent to someone who could evaluate the evaluation? If it wasn’t, then they are always going to be in the position of people sending them hoax type stuff. If they just limited themselves to opinion or political evaluation, then they wouldn’t have this problem, and people with real objections to the science could argue it out with people that might actually be able to fairly assess them.

  • 26
    jc
    January 7th, 2009 17:15

    From David Marr’s piece:

    The hoaxer reported on his or her blog: “So neatly did my essay conform with reactionary ideology that Quadrant, it seems, didn’t even check the putative author’s credentials.”

    Reactionary? the mind boggles.

    Well the other side can play that game too, so I can only guess that it won’t be too long before a well known left leaning publication gets punked too.

    here’s an open offer for the next 6 months.. I’ll offer anyone $3,000 to get a hoax op-ed in The Age, the SMH or the Fin Review on AGW or any subject the left holds dear. It has to be a hoax and the person out’s themselves after it is published.

    if Marr thinks it’s funny lets see what he says when his own firm gets punked.

    Please feel free to offer a matching reward to mine. Andrew has my details.

  • 27
    Jason Soon
    January 7th, 2009 17:18

    Funny, to me a reactionary is someone who is on the same side as the Pope on GM.

  • 28
    Andrew Norton
    January 7th, 2009 17:29

    On the hoaxer’s blog, he/she says (in reference to Quadrant getting some Australia Council funding):

    “Geez, you freemarket warriors must practise a fair deal of cognitive dissonance.”

    I think there is a pattern here, which explains why the hoax doesn’t work. The hoaxer, like most left-wingers, doesn’t actually know very much about what right-wingers think, and pretty clearly not enough to distinguish between conservative culture warriors like Windschuttle and free-marketeers who object to anti-scientific views on GM foods or government subsidies for the arts. There is hardly any economics in Quadrant, and I would not classify it as ‘free market’.

    Except for the footnote issue, the hoaxer has hoaxed the wrong person.

  • 29
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 7th, 2009 17:46

    Conrad – I haven’t read the GW piece. Will do so and let you know.

  • 30
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 7th, 2009 18:36

    For example, in the current issue, there is yet another global warming piece, which starts off as a history, but turns into an evaluation.

    This’ll teach me to click on the links. I went off and read the Tim Curtin piece in the latest issue (Jan-Feb 2009). In short, it isn’t a piece that I’d expect to read in a peer-reviewed journal. It is a compilation of already known information that it made up into an opinion piece. That’s not to say that I agree with everything he says (e.g. he uses pre-tax nominal discount rates whereas I’d prefer to see after-tax real rates) and there is a lot of difficult to follow jargon and incomplete explanations (the writer assumes too much knowledge on the part of the reader – an assumption that can be made in academic journals but not generalist journals), but should it be peer reviewed? No. Should the editor have insisted on more clarity? Yes.

  • 31
    James
    January 7th, 2009 21:32

    Andrew, you suggest:

    “it’s hard to see the difference between the hoax article and the error-ridden piece Crikey published on think-tanks a few weeks ago”

    Is this some sort of moral equivalence fallacy – “It’s okay because Crikey was just as bad”? How lame is that!

  • 32
    feral sparrowhawk
    January 7th, 2009 23:07

    I note that Jeremy repeatedly suggest Simons was responsible for the hoax, rather than just reporting it. Do you have any evidence for this, given that she firmly denies it?

  • 33
    Tim Lambert
    January 8th, 2009 02:22

    One of the pieces of, to quote Sinclair, “already known information” in Curtin’s piece is the claim that all of the increase in agricultural production in the past thirty years is due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (and hence if we reduce that concentration, stravation will result). Curtin’s proof is that he did a regression and found a high correlation between the two quantities.

  • 34
    Andrew Norton
    January 8th, 2009 06:11

    James – If you read the whole paragraph (or indeed post), my point is that Sharon Gould’s deception does not work in the way intended, but does highlight the limited nature of Quadrant’s quality control. I regard this as regrettable, but having experience of a wide variety of media I know it is common (Crikey given as an example), not given anywhere near the profile of this case, and largely due to limited editorial resources rather than ideological bias. The system relies heavily on the competence and integrity of authors.

    If everyone engaged in New Yorker style fact checking we could have far more confidence in what we read, but we would also have far, far less to read and many fewer people would get a say.

    Of the two scenarios, the current one of more publications and more authors is the better one.

    I should add that overall I think the rise of the web (while of course full of dubious stuff itself) has meant more after-publication fact-checking, especially from bloggers. While few blogs have more than small readerships, authors google themselves and so fear of exposure is a useful discipline on them.

  • 35
    Ken Nielsen
    January 8th, 2009 06:26

    Good observations, Andrew.
    Tho the web allows much rubbish to be published it does have fairly effective correction mechanisms.
    I suppose that Sharon G, Margaret S and the Crikey crowd had fun out of this (no bad thing) but I still find it amazing that someone went to all that trouble for such a small dividend.
    I can think of ways of hoaxing Quadrant that, if they worked, would make a stronger political point.
    Now, if only all that energy could be put to some useful purpose….

  • 36
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 8th, 2009 06:38

    I’m in semi-agreement with Tim. An R2 of 0.98 is very dubious – but then Tim Lambert himself once ran a regression with 9 observations and subsequently confused the constant and slope terms. But it is not clear from the article who did the regression (and it does raise another point that did annoy me – I really don’t want to have to log on to the web to read the main tables to a paper and get important information). The important point though is that the AGW crowd want to pursue policies that lead to increases in food prices (and declines in economic prosperity). This we have seen already over the past year.

    Indeed, there is so much I could say about their motivations but that would likely violate Andrew’s good behaviour rules. But think, “destroy democracy”, “destroy capitalism”, “clear and present danger to civilisation” and “greenist feudalism”, apart from that I’m sure they are wonderful people with the best intentions. :)

  • 37
    charles
    January 8th, 2009 06:47

    The Quadrant hoax fails because the quality of the magazine is so poor, as an example the hoax piece is more rational than the article written by Tim Curtin. With such drivel being published on climate change my imagination finds it difficult to see how a climate change hoax cold be constructed ( as you suggested on Larvatus).

    On an unrelated topic, it would seem my conversation with the teenagers and there lack of interest in going to Melbourne Uni had some merit. If the trend continues I suspect this spells serious trouble for Melbourne Uni.

    21% first preferences Monash
    16% first preferences Melbourne

    Big difference.

  • 38
    Jeremy
    January 8th, 2009 07:40

    Feral Sparrowhawk,

    No, but I’m willing to bet on it.

  • 39
    skepticlawyer
    January 8th, 2009 08:57

    Katherine Wilson’s ‘hoax diary’ is now password protected, although you can still reach a truncated version of it through Andrew’s links in his post.

  • 40
    derrida derider
    January 8th, 2009 09:36

    “… the standards for an opinion magazine are lower than for a journal like Policy or indeed even a daily newspaper, which has some role in trying to establish facts in its news pages.”

    IMO a bit of a cop-out. We are all entitled to our own opinion – we are not entitled to our own facts. Publishing things as facts that are in fact not facts is something that a decent opinion magazine should go to some lengths to avoid.

    And as others have pointed out, its not that the aricle was a pack of lies and got published that’s the point – its that the lies were mainly in footnotes and it was published by someone who has made great play of sloppy footnoting elsewhere.

    Though I do agree that the hoax would have been far more effective if it had been an anti-AGW article. It’s a lost opportunity.

  • 41
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 8th, 2009 09:50

    Kettle meet DD. KW is not claiming facts; Dr “Gould” is claiming facts. I should also say that KW did not make a great play of sloppy footnoting, he made a great play about fabrication of evidence in academic publishing. While I have seen a lot of people attacking KW’s motives etc. I have yet to see anyone demonstrate that he was wrong.

  • 42
    Jeremy
    January 8th, 2009 13:16

    Oops, better withdraw my offer of a bet.

  • 43
    HC
    January 12th, 2009 00:45

    JC, can I claim the prize retrospectively? I hoaxed “Nation Review” years ago with a story about West Australian farmers fighting as mercenaries for the Indonesians in Timor against Fretillin, going into battle singing old Warren Zeevon numbers. “Nation Review” published it on Page 1. I was going to spin it out with some further dispateches but NR folded.

  • 44
    Julius
    January 14th, 2009 11:14

    Don’t tell anyone. I wouldn’t say this to Crikey or the general run of innumerate, economically and scientifically illiterate lefties, but the Tim Curtin piece contra Garnaut in Quadrant seems to me muddled to the point where I couldn’t be bothered to finish it after a couple of scientist friends confirmed my doubts about the particular point I raised. However, I do regard the pieces on AGW as quite a good start for one’s own researches, reading the published literature and asking experts for detailed explanations and reasons. And it is important for Australians to remain interested in the degree to which the Summaries for Policy Makers in IPCC reports reflects the underlying material and how far the underlying material should be relied on because there are a lot of major scientific uncertainties, problems with the models and important points to be made about the possible range of outcomes and their timing. And all that is made much much more important by the collective fantasy that Australians fell for in 2007 which suggested Australia should not only do and say useless and expensive things about climate and CO2 but should actually lead the world without any suggestion of benefit resulting. I am left in such doubt about the scientific underpinnings of the AGW question that I have put off my investment in a Siberian beach resort (thank god for the GFC to confirm my decision) and decided to search for an IPCC approved model which would tell me why the Nile dried up enough to destroy the Egyptian Old Kingdom and why the Great Lakes were almost dry 6900 years ago…

  • 45
    Sinclair Davidson
    January 14th, 2009 11:56

    Julius – we’re all in agreement that it needed a strong edit for clarity. We should not have to refer to a website for important aspects of the argument (copius footnotes are one thing but tables and additional argument quite another), and the economic stuff should have been brought forward.

  • 46
    Vivien Johnson
    January 17th, 2009 00:40

    As someone who has a recent degree in Genetics I read the article in Quadrant with interest, noting that there were a few factual errors and claims made for research which are ahead of current acceptance. This did not seem to be a great problem and the genetic mechanisms described were fairly well explained- something we sorely need in this controversial field which is regrettably beyond common understanding. Then I foud out it was a hoax!? . Really? why? Dear Ms Hoaxer, you will have to do better than this! Quadrant isn’t a Science magazine, as many have already noted, and Keith Windshuttle is not a Scientist. No doubt this clumsy effort was dreamed up by those who have been unable to fault his History.