He is one of the leading voices of the Australian Right, a revisionist historian who also challenges scientific orthodoxy on global warming. But now Keith Windschuttle, editor of Quadrant magazine, the bible of Australian conservatives, has been hoist by his own petard.
Mr Windschuttle, who uses the monthly journal to fire broadsides at his opponents in the “culture wars”, frequently accuses liberal academics of slapdash research and political bias. This week he was forced to admit that he had been fooled into publishing a hoax article by a non-existent scientist whose credentials he had not bothered to check.
“Sharon Gould”, supposedly a Brisbane-based biotechnologist, submitted a piece claiming that government scientists had been studying the genetic engineering of wheat, cows and mosquitoes, using human genes. Dr Gould wrote that plans to commercialise the schemes had been dropped because of “perceived ethical issues in the public and media understanding”.
Mr Windschuttle liked the article and published it in the January edition of his influential journal. Trouble is, Gould's identity was fabricated, and so was the research she described. The hoax was revealed by a satirical news website, Crikey, which described the piece as “studded with false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes”.
While Mr Windschuttle condemned the article as “a piece of fraudulent journalism submitted ... under false pretences”, there was no mistaking the glee across the political divide. David Marr, a left-wing writer, and one of Mr Windschuttle's favourite targets, declared in the Sydney Morning Herald: “It was a good hoax. But had he checked its key claims, the whole article would have unravelled.”
A former academic, Mr Windschuttle has written books claiming that accounts of Aboriginal massacres by colonial settlers were greatly exaggerated, and accusing historians of inventing and distorting the evidence for political reasons. He is also a doughty fighter against political correctness, multiculturalism and “radical environmentalism”, among other things.
Australia has a long tradition of literary hoaxes, dating back to 1944, when two youthful poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, persuaded a magazine, Angry Penguins, to publish a parody of modernist poetry they had penned. They claimed it was by a young writer, Ern Malley, who had died. Malley was fictitious. McAuley, coincidentally, later co-founded Quadrant.
The hoaxer was this week outed as Katherine Wilson, a freelance journalist and environmental activist, who, in a blog diary of her exploits, wrote that her aim was to “employ some of Quadrant's sleight-of-hand reasoning devices to argue something ludicrous”. She added: “So neatly did my essay conform with reactionary ideology that Quadrant, it seems, didn't even check the putative author's credentials.”
Her article claimed that scientists had been experimenting with human genes in an effort to engineer wheat crops with cancer-fighting qualities, dairy cattle that produced milk for lactose-intolerant babies, and malarial mosquitoes that carried human antibodies.