What to think about the Quadrant Hoax/Fraud/Prank

According to media ethical commentators, it is just another one of those irregular verbs: I set up a hoax, you are the victim of a fraud, everyone has a good laugh.

But I feel profoundly uncomfortable about the story revealed with a gleeful “Gotcha!” on the front cover of yesterday’s edition of The Age.

Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, defined the eighth commandment like this:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

What does this mean?

We must fear and love God, so that we will not deceive by lying, betraying, slandering or ruining our neighbor’s reputation, but will defend him, say good things about him, and see the best side of everything he does.

By those standards, I think that the hoax/fraud/prank (whatever you call it) was certainly a transgression against this commandment.

Today there was a related story about an artistic toddler. Again, someone was deceived – and yet the “deception” seems innocent enough – just parents with an over exaggerated idea of their child’s abilities.

Perhaps in this case, though, it was the art dealer who actually deceived himself by his own expectations that the artist was an adult? Certainly there was a smidgeon or more of that in the former case too, where the Quadrant editor should have done his editorial homework.

So: what do you think about these two stories? What’s your ethical judgement of the cases?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “What to think about the Quadrant Hoax/Fraud/Prank

  1. Clara

    David,
    I think this is a case of Windschuttle failing to do his editorial homework.

    He was the instigator of the ‘History wars” accusing other historians of fabrication and sloppiness in their research. I have heard Lyndall Ryan, one of the historians attacked by Windschuttle, explain the shortcomings in her own work and the manner in which she was hounded by the media to defend herself against Windschuttle on 24 hours notice without seeing his about-to-be-published text. She maintains that despite her unintentional footnoting errors, her thesis about the mistreatment of aborigines in Tasmania is still valid.

    Windschuttle was unrelenting in his attacks on shoddy scholarship – and by implication inferior to his own – thus leaving himself open to being set up.

  2. Schütz

    Yes, I know this, and grant that he was setting himself up for a fall in exactly this way – and I don’t for a moment suggest that he might not have completely deserved to be taken down a notch or two in this regard.

    What I question was the method. It was, purely and simply, dishonest. And intentionally so. With the intention of ruining the reputation of another human being (not with standing the fact that there may have been a bad reputation there to start with). If one disagrees with Windshuttle, an honest method would be to write a scholarly rebuttal of his views.

    I actually feel more sorry for the Quandrant and its other contributors. I think both the hoaxster and the editor have let them down. To have an essay published in the Quadrant will, from this point on, be tainted with suspicion and ridicule.

    We all remember the fact that Kevin Rudd, now gloriously reigning as Prime Minister, was praised for publishing a paper on Bonhoeffer before his election. That was in the Quadrant. What company he keeps!

  3. matthias

    Rudd writing about Bonhoffer is now a long way away. I have approached the said Prime Bureaurcrat re the persecution of Christians in india and sent him the same report on persecution that i sent you Schutz. Guess what -Silence is deafening.Not a single response from him.

  4. R J Stove

    Surely the Prime Ministerial piece on Bonhoeffer was published in The Monthly, not in Quadrant? If I’m wrong I’m open to correction on this score, but as far as I know Kevin Rudd has never appeared in Quadrant‘s pages even once.

  5. Clara

    I don’t disagree that the methods might be unethical but how does this differ from the Angry Penguins hoax perpetrated by Quadrant founding editor James McAuley and Harold Stewart?

    They set out to show that modern poetry was bunk and their submission by the fictitious Ern Malley. Their method for writing the modern poetry was very clever, but a deliberate hoax. That this event still rattles the left is evidenced by the fact that some literary critics have tried to suggest that Ern Malley’s poetry had literary merit! (This is an interesting parallel to the artwork by the toddler also referred to in your piece).

    That Windschuttle is editor of Quadrant makes it even more of a coup for the left-liberal intelligensia. Quadrant/Windschuttle should have seen it coming.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid fan of McAuley’s poetry and hymns.

  6. Louise

    I think modern “art” is a big pile of the proverbial and I think The Age is juvenile. “Gotcha” indeed.

    And yes, anyone who sets out to deceive is wrong.

    Isn’t that one of the reasons it’s wrong to engage in “entrapment”?

  7. Son of Trypho

    I think there is a slight difference though between his (W’s) failings as an editor (on a topic that he is most likely unqualified to discuss in a scholarly manner) and the “mistakes” (footnotes,material etc) made by professional historians in their works.

    The criticisms he made against these individuals were particularly valid because their work comes from a specialised basis (they do know their material and present themselves as experts in it ) and the errors/misinformation etc they presented are inexecusable. I don’t believe this provides an excuse for doing this sort of stunt to attack him – the honest and sensible approach would be to criticise his works openly.

    These forms of hoaxes are dishonest and also particularly troubling – they waste time and effort and are malicious in intent – it was written to personally damage W.

    It also is a classic example of the total decline of intellectual rigour in academia today whereby ego is all and sensible discussion and discourse cannot be held between opposing views.

  8. matthias

    Read THE AGE front cover today and there is a profile on the ‘hoaxer”. I agree with Louise that modern art is rubbish,and THE AGE is carrying on like a fawning reprobate over this issue.

  9. Clara

    Son of Trypho, I am not going to suggest that Windschuttle is guilty of the sins of his founding editor, but the Ern Malley hoax very deeply unsettled the modernist/leftist intelligensia and there has been very deep seated animosity ever since.

    If you followed the ‘History Wars’ you would know that Windschuttle’s targets were not always honestly attacked and that much of the vitriol was concerned with ideological point-scoring. Both sides had an ideological stance and facts were not going to get in the way.

    This is precisely what the current hoax attempted to show – that Quadrant was very interested in publishing an article that supported its already established ideology and facts were secondary. I think this servitude to ideology, unwillingness to enter into genuine dialogue, and absence of common ethical principles exists on both sides of the debate(s). Just watch the sh-t continue to fly.

    Of course, ancient animosities do not justify unethical behaviour. I would hope that this will lead to a departure from blinkered ideological views to a genuine search for truth. Perhaps we need some of David’s ecumenical and interfaith dialogue skills to sort it out!

  10. Salvatore

    As I know nothing of “Windshuttles” and the History Wars in which they fought I can’t really comment on the first story except to say that I am left wondering why it is that an ‘artistic’ hoax (like the Ern Malley affair) strikes one as rich & satisfying whilst a hoax concerning mere scientific fact is just rather squalid. Perhaps it’s just me.

    The second story of the toddler-artiste seems to me not so much a hoax as a stunt; one really wonders how long it was before the age of the artist was made known to the gallery proprietor. If there is a hoax at all it’s the attribution of the works to the toddler. The graphic impact of the works derives (it seems to me) from the contrast between the solid-coloured background and the random marks in the foreground. This is an adult conception. An adult also did much of the work: preparing the canvas & paints, choosing the colours, painting the background and (presumably) deciding when the painting was ‘finished’ (an infant will go on slathering on the paint all afternoon if allowed). The child was simply used as an aleatoric device for providing appropriately random foreground marks. Given that we have child labour laws in this country one assumes that the Social Services have not been ‘round and impounded the offending infant. 🙂

  11. Schütz

    R.J.,

    My apologies – you are quite right. It was The Monthly, not The Quadrant, in which Kevin’s piece on Bonhoeffer was published.

    I wish I could say I was the victim of a hoax on this one, but the mistake was all mine!

  12. Schütz

    Salvatore,

    You are getting closer to what I was thinking than the rest of this discussion when you say that

    I am left wondering why it is that an ‘artistic’ hoax (like the Ern Malley affair) strikes one as rich & satisfying whilst a hoax concerning mere scientific fact is just rather squalid.

    What, after all, is a “fake poem”? Excellent poetry can be created simply by typing nonsense into your computer and using the spell checker to substitute words.

    What is “fake art”? Well, I guess we have a lot of “fakes” in the artworld today, but the point is it is something purporting to be what it is not, ie. it has to do with falsifying the identity of the artist. (Which isn’t the same thing as using a pseudonymn, but is about the intention to deceive – although was “George Elliot” fake literature because the author deceived regarding her name? What, after all, was the Helen Helen Demidenko affair really all about?).

    We judge art and literature differently depending on the circumstances of the author.

    This is where the question of child art comes in. My daughter Maddy recently published a poem on these pages. Readers of SCE generally applauded her poem because they knew it was written by a 10 year old child. I think it would have been very dishonest if I had published a poem that I had written and said that it was written by her.

    Heck, in the world of art, you could go on for ages discussing these questions.

    But the world of science is another matter indeed. Art relies on non-empirical values. Science is coldly empirical. The identity of the author doesn’t matter. A scientific theory produced by a three year old is not judged differently from a scientific theory produced by a thirty year old. In so far as History is a science, the same goes for this. It matters not whether the historian is an indigeneous male or an anglo-saxon female, their historical theories will both be judged upon the factual evidence.

    And thus, Salvatore, I do think there is a difference between an “artistic hoax” and “scientific hoax”. Even if both are done with the intent to deceive or entrap, the latter still remains more serious, for it strikes at the very fundamentals of what the scientific method is all about: empirical fact.

    And in that line, I think I will blog about something I find very funny: Why Cats Paint.

  13. Son of Trypho

    Clara

    I am not suggesting that W is guilty of the sins of anyone but his own – his editorial failing was his own. He did not check the article that was submitted correctly. In this I am sure we are in agreement.

    As to the “History Wars” themselves, I am aware of the ideological issues but in terms of criticism of footnoting/sourcing/use of material – this can be quantified clearly and shown to be right/wrong. Interpretation is a different matter of course.

    Professional historians, especially those being paid as such, should be getting the fundamentals right (noting that W made mistakes himself) and should be criticised if they are not. Similarly, deeply ingrained ideological bias should be exposed in academia – often the ideologues deny that they are biased. If they were honest about it, I wouldn’t be so fussed as their students would know this, rather than imbibing the bias with knowing.

    As to hoaxes, as I said earlier, it depends on the intent of the person conducting it. If it is general in intent (eg. the poetry thing) then it is probably ok, but to specifically target is uncharitable, especially for personal gain.