I SUBSCRIBE to a magazine called Quadrant. It comes out every couple of months and often includes interesting articles by well-known Australian conservatives, libertarians and mavericks on a range of topics from dinning in New York to global warming and it is the only magazine I read that includes pages of poetry.
When I first took out my subscription to the magazine it was edited by a fellow called Paddy McGuinness – a Veteran Sydney journalist who apparently once worked for a Russian bank in London and for many years was editor of the Australian Financial Review. In an interview before his death last year, Paddy said that he had been able “to ‘re-establish’ Quadrant as a ‘sceptical and non-ideological’ journal in the conservative spirit of Samuel Johnson, the literary colossus of 18th century England.”
In 2004, Mr McGuiness published a piece I wrote about The Australian newspapers’ Save the Murray campaign (Quadrant Magazine, December 2004 – Volume XLVIII Number 12). I sent it to Quadrant on the basis he was probably the only editor in Australia brave enough to defy that newspaper. Indeed at least one Australian think tank feared that if it published my piece this important national newspaper may never again publish articles by its staff.
The new editor of Quadrant is a fellow called Keith Windschuttle. He is also controversial and disliked by many for the disparaging comments on the recorded history of aboriginal- European relationships in his book ‘The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847’ (2002).
Mr Windschuttle has a reputation for complaining about the sloppiness of research in his area of expertise, Australian history, and in particular his criticism of authors not carefully checking the authenticity of sources of information.
Now Mr Windschuttle, as the new editor of Quadrant, is accused of not checking the authenticity of information published in the January- February issue of Quadrant as journalist and anti-GM activist Katherine Wilson has duped him into publishing an article on GM which is claimed to be a hoax. The article is a hoax in so much as Ms Wilson falsely claimed to be a Dr Sharon Gould, with a PhD in biotechnology, fabricated some of her sources of information and apparently deliberately misquoted the work of CSIRO scientists.
Ms Wilson’s aim was to expose Mr Windschuttle as gullible and those who support biotechnology as naive. Perhaps Mr Windschuttle was gullible, but it needs to be remembered that Quadrant is not an academic journal and he was clearly publishing opinion. Indeed if an editor was expected to make sure every footnote and claim in opinion pieces was carefully checked for accuracy and authenticity then the business of publishing would probably grind to a near-halt.
Editors reasonably assume that writers making submissions to their publications have good intentions and that the contributor is ultimately responsible for the accuracy of citations and footnotes. Indeed this is explicitly stated in the note to would-be contributors of some peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The late author Michael Crichton wrote, “The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.”
Dr Crichton was referring to the barrage of misinformation on a range of scientific issues. It is everywhere in the popular press, and when I routinely do footnote checks on the writing of Australian academics in the environmental area I am often dismayed by the mismatch between claims in journals, books and reports and evidence presented in the listed citations. When I discussed this issue a few years ago with a member of the much acclaimed and influential Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, the Professor suggested that I not concern myself too much with detail because the document of most concern to me at that time was, in his opinion, about policy and “progressing an agenda” despite its scientific appearance. I left the meeting more concerned than ever about the problem of misinformation – the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda as Dr Crichton described it.
Dr Crichton’s article on this issue continued, “We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we’re told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems. Every one of us has a sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part given to us by what other people and society tell us; in part generated by our emotional state, which we project outward; and in part by our genuine perceptions of reality. In short, our struggle to determine what is true is the struggle to decide which of our perceptions are genuine, and which are false because they are handed down, or sold to us, or generated by our own hopes and fears.”
I would suggest that this job is not made any easier by activist-journalists who deliberately set out to deceive like Ms Wilson and her recent attack on Quadrant and Mr Windschuttle. It is remarkable that this hoax has made it onto the front page of The Australian and The Age newspapers without explicit condemnation and incredible that online news service Crikey has actually promoted the hoax as of public service.
This hoax is by a known activist peddling misinformation against a new technology under the guise of science to discredit a reputable magazine and in particular its new editor. The hoax is really just more misinformation from those who distrust science and is illustrative of the increasing blurring of the line between advocacy and science journalism.
I suggest revenge by way of support for Quadrant. Do your bit, follow this link and subscribe to the magazine: https://www.quadrant.org.au/subscribe