Australia’s foremost conservative journal Quadrant has been provoking debate with contentious articles since the 1960s. So when it put a story on the cover of its January issue extolling the possibilities for genetically engineering plants and animals with the ability to fight human diseases like cancer and malaria, the journal’s editor, Keith Windshuttle, looked forward to sparking some spirited debate.
The story, written by a self-described “Brisbane-based New York biotechnologist” with the byline Sharon Gould, featured heavily footnoted scientific references, and, by touting GMO’s potential benefits, was aimed at environmentalists who have made genetically modified food a hotly debated topic in Austrailia. Until recently, the government had a moratorium on importing any genetically modified organisms into the country, and the disputes over its safety and whether to permit its spread into Australian agriculture continues to be a hot topic.
Windshuttle, the editor, certainly got a debate, one that went far beyond his intended audience. Sharon Gould’s assertions—that scientists had imbedded wheat with cancer-fighting genes and mosquitoes with anti-malarial antibodies—were a hoax. “Gould” turned out to be Katherine Wilson, an activist and former editor who kept a running blog of the entire incident.
Her motive was apparently to puncture the scientific pretensions behind many of Quadrant‘s more controversial positions. The publication has a history of skepticism on some of Australia’s biggest debates. While populists leapt aboard Al Gore’s Prius bandwagon to decry manmade climate change, Quadrant questioned the science behind global warming. As Australia began to tangle with its own grim historical treatment of aborigines, Windshuttle’s Quadrant was on the frontlines disputing allegations that indigenous and mixed-race children had been removed from their families and “adopted” by white settlers or shipped to religious orphanages.
Windschuttle is famous for combing academic footnotes for errors, a proponent of the kind of unsentimental skepticism and empirical rigor that he promoted to bolster Quadrant‘s credibility. The magazine was one of former Prime Minister John Howard’s favorites.
Preferring to call her experiment “culture jamming” rather than a hoax, Wilson’s premise was that Windschuttle would not be so vigorous in his fact-checking if the article suited his ideology. The footnotes she included were false, though the publications she cited were real.
In her own words, the sting was to “employ some of Quadrant‘s sleight-of-hand reasoning devices to argue something ludicrous.”
After the hoax was revealed Windschuttle posted on the Quadrant website that “Gould” had “tricked” Quadrant into publishing the article. But even after the hoax was irrefutable, Windschuttle stood by the article. He told the Sydney Morning Herald that he had investigated the piece and satisfied himself that it was “only 10 to 15 percent invented. When I discovered that my gloom and embarrassment changed completely.”
Many, including Wilson herself, drew parallels with Australia’s biggest literary hoax. In the 1940s two young men invented a poet, “Ern Malley,” to undermine the modernist literary journal Angry Penguins. Malley became a sensation among the avant-garde until it was revealed that his creators, the young poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart, developed his oeuvre in a single afternoon. It was the stuff of hoax legend, and just the kind of perversely elaborate irreverence Australians love to mythologize. The Australian writer Peter Carey drew upon the story for his 2005 novel, My Life as a Fake.
The Quadrant affair became yet another ideological battleground for Australia’s bloggers and commentators. Was it a cheap pissing contest for intellectuals or a legitimate revelation of hypocrisy? After all, most publications of Quadrant‘s size have little to no fact-checking budget; but then it seems Windschuttle didn’t so much as Google his new contributor. Ultimately, Wilson succeeded in undermining Windschuttle’s puffery and raised debate about the nature of science reporting. She can also take credit for prompting a nationwide spike in Quadrant‘s newsstand sales.
It was a clamor to make fake poet “Ern Malley” proud. And there is no small irony in the fact that after he “created” the erstwhile poet, James McAuley went on to found a literary and political journal in the early 1960s—called Quadrant.
Clare Fletcher is a former intern at CIR and currently an assistant editor at the bi-monthly Australian media publication, The Walkley Magazine: Inside the Australian Media.