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The Windschuttle Hoax

The last edition of Quadrant arrived on the newsstands in a hot flush of publicity over a “hoax” played on editor Keith Windschuttle. Anti-GM campaigner Katherine Wilson had submitted an article under the pseudonym “Sharon Gould”. After Quadrant had gone to press, she gleefully confessed that she had made up some elements of her story and lied to the editor about her identity.

In the midst of the summer news drought the word hoax was greeted by the Australian media as a refreshing distraction. Crikey’s Margaret Simons broke the story on the morning of January 6 and it was picked up by the papers. In a great belch of anti-intellectualism, old opinions about Windschuttle’s views on other matters were dusted off and a race to “out” the trickster provided a day’s amusement for a torrent of bloggers and comment posters.

I dived in early to the argy-bargy and posted on the day the story broke that I thought that lying to an editor was more dodgy than witty. Not having an unresolved grudge against Windschuttle, I didn’t feel the schadenfreude expressed by many comment posters. It irked me that the trick evoked joy because of its target rather than its substance, and on this note I think it’s very curious that the last discussions on the matter on Simons’ Content Makers blog focus on the importance of “playing the issue and not the person” in public debate.

Broadly speaking, the articles, blog posts and online comments around the Sharon Gould affair can be sorted into two types: comments by people who had read the Gould piece and comments from people who hadn’t.

The amusement value of the lie boils down to this line of logic: Windschuttle once said something about footnotes and now he has been found to have run something with dodgy footnotes ha-ha-ha. It’s a cheap and sloppy shot because it conflates a range of different roles within the production process.

As Graham Young noted on On Line Opinion on January 12:

“Instead of being effective, it shows many of Windschuttle’s critics to be more interested in playing group politics, than dealing with real intellectual issues.

“Sure, Windschuttle published a piece that contained errors, but he did this not knowing that they were errors. When this was pointed out he immediately accepted the truth, and all this was done as editor and publisher, not author.

“The historians who Windschuttle exposed were the authors of their own work, and in a position to know that what they were writing was wrong. When confronted, they defended the indefensible, and their peers came in and supported their defence.

“There are two issues here - whether you knowingly author an error, and how you react once the error has been exposed. As editor Windschuttle couldn’t be guilty of the first, and acted correctly with respect to the second. As authors, historians like Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan did neither.”

Young wasn’t alone in noting this problem with the joke. Three days earlier the Age published an edited version of this letter from Dr Philip Shehan (posted whole on January 12 on the Content Makers blog):

“Those who think that the fraud (as it would be called if published in a scientific journal) perpetrated on Keith Windschuttle discredits his critique of sloppy scholarship are wrong. If anything, this episode vindicates his argument, that editors and publishers depend on the professional diligence and integrity of their authors, a trust that is not always warranted. Even prestigious scientific journals have been caught out by fraud. There is nothing particularly clever about “Dr Sharon Gould” putting one over an editor of a non-scientific publication. The Age of 7/1 notes: “the projects cited are not implausible, and similar technologies are in development”. I have refereed scientific manuscripts prior to publication, and checking cited references is not a routine part of the process, unless there is a reason to smell a rat, and the Quadrant article was not a rigorous technical piece submitted to a scientific journal.

“Windschuttle demonstrated in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History that in a number of texts, professional historians had made claims that were not supported by the references they cited as original sources. Windschuttle did not criticise the publishers of these texts. He criticised the authors, who bear the prime responsibility for ensuring their scholarship is up to scratch and free of fact-tinkering for ideological purposes. Windschuttle is not a scientist and did not write the Quadrant article. Windschuttle is only guilty of falling victim to the problem he alerted publishers, editors, scholars and the public to - some authors will lie.”

Young and Shehan were both reacting to the fact that most of the footnote-focused commentary failed to recognise the difference between writing, subediting, editing and peer-reviewing. While the differences between these roles are well known to media producers, the volume of comments claiming a relationship between Windschuttle’s critique of historians and Wilson’s lie show that these distinctions are not well understood by many media consumers.

It is disappointing that it fell to people like Young and Shehan to point out that in the process of media production the burden of responsibility for fact checking lies with journalists. The media itself was oddly quiet on this topic.

Adopting a Wilson-esque conspiratorial tone, one could wonder whose self-interest was being served by this silence. A discussion about how easily sloppy journalism can turn into published copy is probably not in the best interests of media owners intent on culling senior journalists and subeditors from their payrolls. It was also a scary topic for individual journalists or editors to broach in the midst of the laughter and derision, for fear of being tarred with the same brush.

Media academic Julie Posetti hinted at the topic, writing:

“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 ... and 2) As ... I suspect publications on the Left would be equally susceptible to such a hoax.”

The few other editors who spoke out about it included Andrew Norton, editor of Policy magazine, who said that readers should take into account that editors of opinion magazines have lower standards for fact checking than editors of scientific journals, and Overland editor Jeff Sparrow, who admitted that his publication “can’t afford fact checkers, and the refereeing process depends on academics freely giving their time to study a manuscript”. Margaret Simons quoted the editor of the Monthly, Sally Warhaft, setting herself up for a fall by saying: “It takes a lot of time and resources, but you just have to do it. I am astonished and gobsmacked that Windschuttle thinks otherwise. There is no excuse.”

As an exercise in mischievous pedantry proving the point that news editors don’t routinely check scientific references it’s interesting to look at an article by Katherine Wilson published in Crikey on July 21, 2008, called “CSIRO scientist’s GM letter campaign ‘backfires’”. In it she accused CSIRO Plant Industry Deputy Chief T.J. Higgins of promotion of GM food and described him as “CSIRO’s co-inventor of the GM Field Pea, abandoned because toxicologists found it caused immune problems and lung damage in mice”. She hyperlinked her word abandoned to a New Scientist article from 2005 that in turn linked to the study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry (also in 2005) that found a problem with the pea. Wilson later referred to “Professor Paul Foster, who led the Australian National University team that found immune problems in rats fed Higgins’ GM Field Pea”. and she mentioned “toxicologist Dr Aprad Pusztai”, who she claimed “co-authored a study on Higgins’ GM Pea”.

If editors really did check academic references someone would have clicked through from her story to New Scientist and then to the journal article and found that the list of authors reads: “Vanessa E. Prescott, Peter M. Campbell, Andrew Moore, Joerg Mattes, Marc E. Rothenberg, Paul S. Foster, T.J.V. Higgins, and Simon P. Hogan”. Which means Higgins, far from being a mad scientist reined in by bold toxicologists, was a co-author of the study that brought down the pea; Foster wasn’t the lead author; and Pusztai was nowhere to be seen - leaving the provenance of his authority dangling in the wind. It’s also fun to note that she conflated rats and mice.

But this wasn’t a hoax on Crikey. This was Wilson in serious mode (seriously!) and while the story was followed by comments describing it as “a lot of noise signifying nothing”; “tripe”; and “confused/confusing” there was none of the hoohah over editorial sloppiness and the publication of a fallacious story that the Quadrant piece has attracted.

The media missed an opportunitiy to discuss the process of editing and the responsibility of journalists (as authors) for the quality of their own work. But there was also a missed opportunity to argue for transparency in media production processes and better resourcing of research (including peer-review and reference checking) as a journalistic task, as part of the debate over the future funding of the profession.

The other criticism of Windschuttle in the early days of the story centred on the idea that he should have done more research into the true identity of Sharon Gould. For example Kate Jackson*, commenting on Crikey on January 7, wrote: “You would think the preliminary queries of an editor reviewing articles for publication would be: who is the author, what other works have they produced and what are the credentials.”

Again other editors could have piped up and said, “No, we don’t usually do that.” But again they didn’t, and not because it’s common practice to independently verify the identity of freelance writers. To use Gould as an example of why not, consider firstly, that she was claiming to be a scientific researcher so there was no reason to suspect she might have had other commentariat pieces published, and that if she had that they would be online and sufficiently search-engine-optimised that they would be easily identifiable from work by the scores of other S. Goulds in existence. As for finding her phone number in order to prove she exists, you have to wonder whether an unlisted number disproves existence.

To suggest that Windschuttle should have seen the hoax coming is to forget that this was a deliberate act of “culture jamming”, and by that definition it was not predictable. To say it was is akin to suggesting that Windschuttle, and every other editor in Australia, should regularly google their own names just in case someone is plotting against them - ridiculous, and yet this is what it has come to. The January 9 comment by Kapitano on Wilson’s blog says: “Hey, you know what would really drive the nail in? Fooling Quadrant all over again! Just wait a few months, choose a new nom-de-hoax, and make sure the new article mentions Sharon Gould.”

The frustrating irony about this “take down Quadrant approach” is that it is supported by people who claim to believe in freedom of the press, but who contrarily also want to silence or drive out of existence a publication that seeks to broaden public debate by publishing views and arguments that the mainstream shies away from.

The more serious question that the threat of more “culture jamming” freelance frauds raises is: What work will editors not do while they are neurotically looking over their shoulders? Newsrooms are short-staffed enough already. If errors crept through it was because the workload exceeded the time available. In staying silent on this issue, is the mainstream media suggesting that a simple girding of the loins is all that is needed to eliminate the chance of errors or lies being published? If it is then it is admitting to being lazy (because everybody runs some errors). If it isn’t, and it simply didn’t think it through, then it has missed a chance to talk about what editors do and why it’s important to provide them with subs and senior journalists so they don’t end up doing everything themselves on a ludicrous deadline. This is a pertinent issue in a year tipped to see record numbers of journalistic job losses.

Nom de plumes are an old invention cherished by newspaper culture - just ask Chanticleer of the Financial Review, or MiningNews’ DryBlower. On the other hand, “sock puppets” are fake names (sometimes other people’s) used online and are seen as trolls and reviled. (As an aside, a case of suspected sock-puppeting occurred on Simons’ blog in the comments on her Gould articles. Someone calling himself Mark Latham made a few offhand comments, prompting Simons to comment later that, as far as she knew, it was not the real Mark Latham writing on her blog. If it wasn’t, then had the sock-puppeteer perpetrated a hoax?)

The contradictory views on pseudonyms and sock puppets make sense when you consider what they write (and why). It is not uncommon for writers seriously developing an argument to want their work to be considered on its merits. Sometimes attaching a name to it distracts readers and evokes prejudices that cloud the way the work is seen.

Sock puppets on the other hand bark insults, pushing the boundaries of embarrassment and defamation for both blog hosts and the people who own the names the puppets commandeer. More disturbingly, according to the Boston Globe, some sock puppets are paid PR agents pretending to be grass-roots political commentators full of praise for particular candidates. This should ring alarm bells to anyone concerned about the impact of spin on political reporting, as blog commenting is emerging as a source of content.

Returning to the hoax/trick/lie, the name “Sharon Gould” could be called a sock puppet on account of the culture-jamming rhetoric and clear reference to left-right politics in Wilson’s blog. But the article in the last issue of Quadrant was also a unit of logic that divorced from the name of its author still has reasonable logical integrity, whether or not one agrees with the writer’s conclusions and whether or not every brick in its foundations is authentic. This ability of the piece to be judged as a unit of logic on its own merit makes the “real” identity of its author irrelevant.

In publishing a byline with the piece, Quadrant’s editor divorced the views of the writer from his own and from those of the publication as a whole and gave the author (as an entity distinct from himself) ownership of the good and bad elements of the piece, including the tricky fallacies and the few unsupported leaps of logic it contained. While journalists like bylines because they help build a portfolio, this distancing in print, which most editors employ (particularly with opinion pieces), is the logic behind the use of bylines from an editor’s perspective. It is also what undermines the heart of the hoax - which was Gould’s claim that the story ran because Windschuttle liked its conclusions. In putting her name on it he stated that the opinions were hers, not his.

It’s time now to turn to the issues Gould/Wilson raised in the piece. At this point I should declare some of my own history. I spent eight months in 2006 working as the editor of BioTechnology News.net and in that time I met many incredible Australian scientists and many equally amazing biotech analysts (working with financial firms like Intersuisse and Pattersons). In that time I wrote 629 short articles, mostly about Australian biotech and, supported as I was by experts I could call on for background, context and quick explanations of biological mechanisms, I despaired about the quality of much of the science journalism being run in Australian media. I also found that I wasn’t alone in this concern and that there were people, like Niall Byrne from Melbourne-based ScienceInPublic, so disgruntled about standards and passionate about the idea that no one’s work is too complex to be discussed in public that he runs science communication training courses.

I left the biotech publication to take up work as a lecturer in journalism at Edith Cowan University. Inspired by the concern about science journalism, I started incorporating more of it into my teaching. This culminated in the first running of a fully-fledged Science Journalism unit as a module in our journalism major in semester two, 2008. In preparing the content I searched for a textbook, and found that no one has written a book of handy hints to help journalists new to the field find their way through Australia’s labyrinth of science administration infrastructure, explaining peer review, clinical trials or common pitfalls. These books exist with regards to media law and political reporting but the closest I could find for science was a European book published by Oxford University Press and a 2002 CSIRO-published book that was really pitched at scientists, not journalists. My offer to write such a book for OUP (in Melbourne) and a few other big publishers was knocked back on the grounds of an insufficient market. The publishers asked around and told me that Edith Cowan was the only university in Australia teaching science journalism.

Feedback from the students was encouraging though, and Edith Cowan has no plans to turn back. I have offered this background to describe the position from which I read (and liked much of) Gould’s article. What follows is an annotated summary highlighting the valid issues she raised.

In her first 350 words she called for more debate about the standards of logic, truth and intellectual enquiry in scientific debate in Australia. The key problem she pointed to was “that any science innovation is very difficult to unpack in a newspaper dial-a-quote or radio sound bite - and outside a handful of publications, Australia doesn’t publish science essays longer than 5000 words”. Hearty agreement - and I skimmed over her pompous asides such as “journalists and their publics, like small children reaching for the medicine cabinet, do not always understand what is best”.

She said that if Kevin Rudd tries to stick fast to his promise that GM licence applications will be based on standards that satisfy the consumer community, then GM progress will be stymied because the community is sufficiently spooked about GM that it will set standards impossibly high. (I agree with this point because the existence of Katherine Wilson proves it to be true, in an absolute sense.)

Gould then wrote at length about why illogical beliefs (urban myths) often persist and spread. She wrote this section in a way that I don’t need to re-iterate, but I will add that if you found it interesting you may enjoy Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick, which analyses this phenomenon in more detail.

She then opened the subject of newsworthiness and readers’ (and consequently editors’) penchants for media reports that startle them. She moved on to an unsupported (but not implausible) claim that there is “a new trend in how science journalism sees its role - not as a promoter of greater public understanding of science, but as a filter through which science must be scrutinised using fourth-estate principles”. Personally, I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.

Banging on about the fourth estate, she then said: “This ostensibly noble ideal can simply not be applied to scrutinising science.” This last line is silly because it is too definite to apply to all the possible kinds of science reporting that might occur, but in saying it Gould succeeds in raising questions about whether science journalism is or isn’t fourth-estate reporting; whether it should be; whether it is becoming more so; and, if it is in a state of flux, then what else was it?

The Canadian-based Science Journalism Research Group is exploring what science journalism is trying to achieve. One of its early studies canvassed hundreds of science journalists and found that they saw themselves concurrently as educators, translators, entertainers and fourth-estate reporters. The group’s current projects include a study of misinformation, advocacy, science communication and journalism related to the public communication of controversial science, with a focus on genomics and gene therapy. This kind of research embraces the notion that collectively science journalism is more than straight reportage of discovery milestones and that it involves concurrent streams of information from contradictory sources that are synthesised by readers in ways that are not immediately obvious to individual media producers.

It also raises issues about the ways that reporting, journalism and editing can foster philosophical and ethical thinking in the community by providing background information, poignant and inspiring images and forums for debates about ethics.

It was interesting to note in teaching science journalism last semester how little my class of bright tertiary students knew at the outset about the history of medical and research ethics - from experimental surgery in eighteenth-century Europe, through the Nuremberg Trials to the Declaration of Helsinki and how those agreements now play out in universities and research bodies around the world. This kind of understanding about the ethics processes within science ties in with a point Gould makes later about scientists being both experts and publics. They love their children too, and this normalises them out of the mad-scientist stereotype so handy for beating up a drab story.

Gould then launched into an example starting out with a startling (headline friendly) statement about human genes and wheat (she’s right that the headline would be: shock horror, the mad scientists must be stopped). The details of the CSIRO science she made up/used to pad out this section are irrelevant to the flow of logic which runs thus: Given the more broadly accepted fact that human DNA is 95 per cent the same as chimpanzee DNA and the same in differing proportions to fruit flies, fungus and yeast, if a gene that is identical to a fruit-fly gene is extracted from a human has some “human-ness” been extracted? This is a great question. I’ve added it to my list of great questions for tutorial debates and it’s a shame that it wasn’t picked up and bandied about by the commentariat.

Gould next moved on to a trickier part of genetics that Wilson admitted to fudging. She approached the issue of gene expression and the switches that turn genes on and off and didn’t make it very clear - although I’ve seen worse attempts at explaining this. Rather than letting this sink her story though (as a real hoaxer would have) she excused herself by referring to her possibly inadequate communication skills. Despite her fuzzy science/translation, in this section she did a good job of explaining that there’s more to genetic engineering than just chopping and changing genes like spare parts going from one car to another, because as well as being 95 per cent the same as chimps our DNA is also unique enough to be used as crime scene evidence. In raising this point she tweaks another ethical nipple by asking what it is about human genes that we are squeamish about. Is it human-ness in general being incorporated into our food or the idea of it being a particular person’s identity (as represented by their DNA) that we shy away from?

Gould in her article states that she would be comfortable with the inclusion of human genes in some food crops. Her statement prompts the readers to consider their own stance. Next she draws her discussion back to the media, asking how the government and public can give these matters proper consideration when adequate explanations of the science are not newsworthy, brief or sensational enough to get a run in a newspaper. She has a point, but seems to be forgetting magazines, radio and documentaries that all have the potential for longer-form journalism perhaps more suited to science ethics issues.

Gould calls for less emphasis on who will make money from scientific developments. While Wilson may have thought this was a backhanded jibe about capitalist fatcats hiding their stacks of money, I saw it differently because, on average, biotech investment in Australia has not of late been an incredibly lucrative activity. Intersuisse’s biotech index (of 106 companies) fell 48.3 per cent in 2008, worse than the 43 per cent fall of the All Ordinaries. Sure, some profits were made but it’s a high risk game and, given that much of the small-scale investment in the sector is emotionally driven and linked with people wanting to help find cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s and fatal burns, it is important not to mislead people about the prospects of a scientific innovation making it from the benchtop to the bedside. To do this you have to talk about money, where it is coming from and where it is going.

In closing, Gould calls for three things. First, for more emphasis on who may benefit from new science. I agree with this but see it as a fourth-estate question, as science with no possible benefit to anyone is undeserving of government or private funding. Second, for debate about health, social and ethical questions. I agree that this is needed to close the divides about sciences such as GM that are emerging. And third, for the facts to be laid out accurately. Again, I agree.

Her last line stating that the media, the public and policy makers “very often err” in applying their ethical calculus to complex scientific questions brings home the point that consensus about the progress of scientific ethics between expert and lay publics is a difficult battle not yet won.

It is sadly ironic that the screeds of media generated by this article missed the point that at its heart, it is not a critique of Keith Windschuttle or genetic technologies but of the process of science journalism as it is currently practised in Australia.

* Note: Some of these names may be “sock puppets”. I have not personally examined the birth certificates of these blog and comment posters.

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