Intellectual Fraud: Endangering Societies that depend on Intellectual Honesty (2009)

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Introduction +

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').

Other Comments on the Hoax include: Bahnisch M., Windschuttle Sokaled, Larvatus Prodeo, 6/1/09; Cannold L., 'All's fair in battle of ideas', The Age, 8/1/09; Clarke H., 'Windy gets hoaxed', 6/1/08; Cooke D., 'Conservative bible falls for furphy', The Age, 7/1/09; Lambert T., 'Windschuttle Hoaxed', Deltoid, 6/1/09; Maiden S., 'Keith Windschuttle admits Quadrant 'hoax'', Australian, 6/1/09; Marr D., 'Quadrant falls victim to its own reasoning', SMH, 7/1/09; Norton A., 'The strange Quadrant hoax', 6/1/09; Saunders B., "The Sokol affair redux: Ideology trumps editorial control at Quadrant magazine',, 6/1/09; Sparrow J., 'Windschuttle's 'gotcha' game will haunt him', Crikey, 7/1/09; Windschuttle K., 'This Hoax is a dud cheque', Quadrant, 7/1/09

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:

  • what was done was an (acceptable) hoax, rather than a fraud; and
  • the stings in the hoax were: Windschuttle's past criticism of post-modern / academic slackness in using source material; and the relevance of the hoax to debates about post-modern theory (ie that research results mainly reflect their social and political context) and whether science is above this.

It will be suggested below that:

  • scientific frauds / hoaxes are major problems to a process that is important to meeting difficult challenges currently facing humanity - and thus seem irresponsible no matter what their motivation;
  • the philosophy of science has long recognised that observers' preconceptions limit progress, and all that 'Sharon' has done by deceiving Windschuttle is provide a farcical  illustration of an issue that has serious current implications for mainstream science;
  • there are difficulties with the use of knowledge that have caused post-modern theorists to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater' - and doing so is undermining the basis on which Western societies have been organised and successful;
  • 'make believe' advanced knowledge is apparently being used in Australia not only to mislead Keith Windschuttle but to mislead community opinion leaders as the basis for gaining political power - a practice that has parallels with traditional methods of wielding power in East Asia.

'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:

  • a distinction is vital between a fraud and a hoax - in that the former involves personal gain while a hoax (such as that perpetrated on Windschuttle) is motivated by mockery or mischief;
  • stings in the hoax were that: (a) those, such as Windschuttle, who have criticised post-modern / academic slackness could be deceived by pseudo-scientific nonsense that they find ideologically attractive; and the hoax impacts on the dispute between those who suggest that all research is affected by its social and political context, and others who suggest that science should be above this.

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.

An example of this phenomenon is that, because of the way the IPCC originated, anthropogenic preconceptions have apparently dominated the International Panel on Climate Change in seeking to explain climate change (ie there has been a bias towards relating changes to human actions). Thus there seems to have been a lack of adequate research into non-anthropogenic alternatives  - and this imbalance has now left a dangerous uncertainty about whether current political proposals regarding greenhouse gas emissions are a 'storm in a teacup' or a grossly inadequate reaction to pending disaster.

Similarly preconceptions affecting research in the humanities appears to be a major obstacle to overcoming the disadvantages that some societies experience and to contribute to violent conflicts. Cultural assumptions are a major determinant of societies' ability to achieve material progress (eg by affecting the way in which problems are solved). Yet there seems to be a widespread (post-modern) preconception that cultural assumptions are merely merely a matter of a people's preference and have no practical consequences. This makes it impossible to overcome the disadvantages that some peoples face as a result of dysfunctional  cultural assumptions (eg see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement) or to defuse the conflicts that can arise when extremists assume (in the absence of any better explanation) that their disadvantage must be the result of 'oppression' (see Cultural Ignorance as a Source of Conflict in Competing Civilizations)

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:

  • devaluation and erosion of the practical knowledge and experience required for effective government;
  • eroding the foundations of individual liberty - namely the confidence that authorities have had in the socially-constructive behaviour of individuals; and
  • undermining the notion of public truth which is critical to meaningful political debate - and thus to democracy.

'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.

Towards Good Government in Queensland outlines the process whereby those who had advanced theoretical knowledge about public administration were politically empowered to reform government. The problem was that they knew everything about their subject - except what it required in practice and that there were advances in other disciples that also needed to be considered. Power was abused in enforcing the implementation of over-simplified trendy theories and this created an ongoing organisational nightmare (see Queensland's Worst Government).

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.

Intellectual Honesty

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.