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January 06th 2009 print

Keith Windschuttle

Margaret Simons and an apparent hoax on Quadrant

An author calling herself ‘Sharon Gould’ has tricked Quadrant into publishing in its January-February edition an article about popular scares on biotechnology issues. ‘Gould’ now claims her article is a hoax. However, there is something funny going on here which readers should be aware of.

A genuine hoax, like that of Alan Sokal and Ern Malley, would not have relied upon real issues, real people and real publications for most of its content, as ‘Gould’s’ article does. None of the principal subjects, personnel or publications discussed by ‘Gould’ in Quadrant are bogus. The biotechnology controversies she discusses genuinely occurred. The authors she quotes do hold the positions she says and they did write the works she cites. The institutions she says were involved in the biotechnology products she discusses are real institutions and are well known for funding projects of this kind. In particular:

  • There was an MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine scare in Britain.
  • Ben Goldacre is the author of Bad Science.
  • Andrew Wakefield did publish a paper about the MMR scare.
  • Richard Hindmarsh did write a book called Edging Towards BioUtopia.
  • The chief plant scientist of the CSIRO until 2003 was Jim Peacock.
  • There is a journal called the Plant Biotechnology Journal.
  • There is a genetically-modified product called Golden Rice.
  • The following institutions she cites are all real: the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the European Community Biotech Program and the Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science.

At most, all that ‘Gould’ has done is misrepresent the contents of the works she cites, some of them footnotes. Rather than a hoax, her article is simply a piece of fraudulent journalism submitted to Quadrant under false pretences.

The journalist Margaret Simons from the Crikey website telephoned Quadrant this morning (January 6) to announce, triumphantly, that we had been ‘hoaxed’. Simons told us the ‘hoax’ had been revealed on a blogsite, which had since been removed from the web. Simons said she knew who the author was, that her name was not Sharon Gould, but said she would not reveal her identity.

In her discussion with me, Simons revealed a detailed knowledge of the article’s content. She said she knew that all the authors, publications, institutions and controversies discussed were genuine, but that the content was not. When I pointed out that some of the content was actually true, such as the reference to Andrew Wakefield’s paper on the MMR scare, she admitted that while some of the content was true, other aspects of it were untrue. When I asked her how much was true and how much was false, she said she would tally up a list and email it to me this morning. I found it surprising that Simons, if she was simply a journalist reporting what someone else had done, could offer to produce such a detailed analysis in such a short time. But perhaps it is not so surprising after all. Although not a scientist herself, Simons is a free-lance journalist and sometime lecturer at Swinburne Institute of Technology. She is the author of a book on the Hindmarsh Island Affair which argued, against the evidence of a Royal Commission into the issue, that there really was ‘secret women’s business’ among the local Aborigines. She obviously knows how to produce apparently credible scholarly citations, and has a vivid imagination.

So who is ‘Sharon Gould’? Margaret Simons seems to be the only one who knows.

UPDATE: Crikey has now put Simons’s article online. Crikey editor Jonathan Green should be aware that his publication’s involvement in the manufacture of this story is unethical. Any printed or online publication that accepts freelance contributions, as both Quadrant and Crikey do, is vulnerable to the same tactic. All such publications have an obligation to their readers to do a basic job of fact-checking, which Quadrant did in this case. The incidents, authors, publications and institutions in the article in question all checked out accurately. However, there is a point beyond which such sub-editing practices cannot go, especially when dealing with an author’s discussion of the detailed content of several books and their footnotes. There comes a point at which all publishers have to take their authors on trust. I would have thought that Green might understand this. At this point, all editors are equally vulnerable. Green should counsel his writers on the meaning of the term beat-up and inform them that when a publication gets a reputation for such practices, it loses its readers in droves. 

NEW UPDATE: At 3pm January 6, Margaret Simons provided me with the following list showing which of the original footnotes are genuine and which are not. In other words, 11 of the 18 footnotes provided with the original article were genuine.

Keith,

You asked for information on which of the references in the “Sharon Gould” article are genuine, and which are not.

Footnotes 1-7 are Genuine.

Number 8. The book exists. The hoaxer tells me Gilovich did not attend the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Number 9   See 8

Number 10 is a genuine reference

Number 11 see 8..

Number 12 is party genuine (Hindmarsh) but the op cit to Salleh does not appear in earlier footnotes.

Number 13 is a genuine footnote, but the claim about what the article says is distorted.

Number 14 is a genuine article, but has no bearing on what is asserted.

Number 15 is bogus – the annual reports do not contain the material asserted.

Number 16 is bogus

Number 17 is a real article, but it bears no relation to what is claimed

Number 18 is genuine.

The “Gould” article was not presented at the International Conference, as claimed.

Yours, Margaret Simons