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A minor sensation arose in January 2009 over a hoax perpetrated against the editor of Quadrant (Keith Windschuttle).
On 6 January, Margaret Simons revealed that Quadrant had been fooled into publishing an article by a mythical 'Dr Sharon Gould' that contained some scientific nonsense ('How Windschuttle swallowed a hoax to publish a fake story in Quadrant').
Ms Simons also published an account of how the hoax was perpetrated and comments on its ethics on her Crikey blog (More on the Hoaxing of Keith Windschuttle). Key points in her argument were that:
It will be suggested below that:
'Sharon' has merely illustrated and trivialized philosophically-complex problems in the responsible use of knowledge that are a serious threat to the viability of societies like Australia's, and require much more serious attention.
The Significance of Intellectual Fraud
The purpose of this document is to try to add value to Ms Simon's rationalization of the hoax perpetrated against Keith Windschuttle in terms of the nature and significance of public 'truth'. Her key points seemed to be that:
However the distinction suggested between an (acceptable) hoax and an (unacceptable) fraud seems a bit arbitrary, as 'Sharon' (later identified as a Katherine Wilson) would surely not have bothered trying to make a mockery of Windschuttle unless 'she' thought that 'she' would gain some sort of personal benefit by doing so.
Moreover the biggest sting is that 'Sharon' (whether through a scientific hoax or a scientific fraud) has illustrated very important philosophical problems, related to both the credibility of science and post-modern theory. 'She' has simply provided further evidence of problems that Windschuttle seems to have been trying to highlight, which is presumably not at all what 'she' intended to do.
The Credibility of Science
Fraud does a great deal of damage to the credibility of science - and scientific 'hoaxes' are unlikely to be any less damaging. Because of these consequences, it seems irresponsible to imply that there is virtue in any dishonesty in science no matter what its motives.
Science is important (some suggest vital) to humanity's ability to cope with its current challenges - eg through providing evidence-based understanding of the natural world that is needed (for example) in developing technologies that might: provide alternative energy sources; or prevent epidemics caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Fraud in science seems to be a significant problem. See for example:
Moreover the process of science is imperfect. One of the failings long recognised by the philosophy of science is the 'theory dependence of observations' - in other words people usually see only what conforms with their preconceptions. 'Sharon' has provided a practical illustration of this through a hoax that trivialized the problem of preconceptions presumably without recognising its real-world importance.
The inability of human beings to see past their preconceptions is not the only structural difficulty in the progress of science for reasons mentioned in Competing Civilizations. Those obstacle require serious work, not stupid tricks.
The Politicisation of Knowledge
Furthermore it is not only in science's attempt to understand the world that people have trouble with advanced knowledge. Limits to rationality are recognised: in management theories; by economists in justifying the creation of a market economy; and by students of public administration observing the counter-intuitive responses of complex social systems to 'rational' public policy. Moreover some knowledge is simply arbitrary (eg whether it is correct to drive on the left or right hand side of the road). And the global financial crisis appears to have a relationship with another previously unrecognised limit to human rationality (ie the traditional use of money as a means of exchange and store of value creates a simplified 'economic' space in which individual rationality works moderately well - but building a complex financial system can prevent individuals understanding the consequences of their decisions).
Given the limitations of human knowledge, some have 'thrown the baby out with the bathwater' and declared, in effect, that all knowledge is arbitrary - a product of social circumstances and what political elites perceive to be advantageous to themselves. Such 'post-modern' assumptions, which Windschuttle has apparently been seeking to criticise and 'Sharon' was apparently trying to justify by showing that Windschuttle could be fooled by 'make-believe' knowledge, have very damaging consequences.
Examples of post-modern-sourced damage to societies like Australia's are suggested in Competing Civilizations. These include:
'Make-believe' advanced knowledge is now not only being used in Australia to fool Keith Windschuttle. It is being used by populists to influence community opinion-leaders as the basis for gaining political power (eg see An Alternative to Market Fundamentalism?). Also real advanced knowledge is creating havoc in public administration because of an inability to reconcile it across disciplines and with practical considerations.
Though faith in knowledge has been critical to the organisation and success of Western societies (through trusting individual rationality), quite different assumptions have prevailed in societies that lack the West's classical Greek heritage and there is a long tradition whereby highly-educated non-democratic social elites have maintained political control through manipulating advanced knowledge - though without 'analysing' or attempting to understand it (see East Asia).
'Sharon' has merely illustrated and trivialized a problem that requires much more serious attention.
While con men may be heroes in movies like The Sting, in real life (while their victims suffer embarrassment) con men who are caught are usually sent to jail. And very few people knowingly admire regimes that use deceptive propaganda to mislead their subjects.
Telling the simple truth has been a traditional Western virtue (eg see Matthew 5:37), and this tradition would seem well worth maintaining.