Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Norton Scientific: Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » 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 Crikeyjournalist 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 readQuadrant would also have reservations about genetic modification.
And this makes it all the less likely that the second argument fits with the Quadrantideological 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. ButQuadrant 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.)

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