Wednesday, 7 January 2009


Not quite 'Sokal'; but damning none the less...

The Australian reports that Keith Windschuttle has been fooled by a hoax essay; accepting it for publication in the January-February 2009 edition of Quadrant. The hoax was announced on Crikey by freelance journalist Margaret Simons. Simons states that the author of the hoax essay, who remains anonymous, wanted to show that '...[Windschuttle] will print outrageous propositions.'

Simons refers to the 'Ern Malley' hoax and given Quadrant co-founder James McAuley's involvement in that incident there is a touch of irony there. But the author of the Quadrant hoax, while certainly aware of 'Ern Malley', had their eye on another hoax: the 'Sokal Affair'. Simons provides a lengthy quote from the anonymous author of the hoax where they draw comparisons between their hoax and the 'Sokal Affair'. They even gave Windschuttle a clue by referring to the 'Sokal Affair' in the opening paragraph of the article in question.

In 1996 Alan Sokal, dismayed by what he saw as the lack of academic rigour in post modernist and deconstructionist writing on science, submitted a hoax essay - under his own name - to  Social Text. His essay purported to show how quantum gravity theory would lead the way to a 'more progressive' science. Sokal filled the essay with bad science and meaningless quotes from the literature he was targeting. Despite the article's many failings it was accepted and published in the Spring/Summer 1996 edition of Social Text, a special 'Science Wars' edition. Sokal revealed his hoax in an article published in Lingua Franca.

While Sokal was primarily interested in how science was being treated, his hoax set off heated debates about the academic rigour of post modernist and deconstructionist thought in general. The credibility of those movements suffered. Adherents of those movements still revile Sokal to this day.

There are some important differences between the 'Sokal Affair' and the Quadrant hoax. Sokal submitted his hoax essay under his own name, while the Quadrant hoax was submitted under a false name. Sokal's hoax essay contained no real science and even highlighted the pseudo-science of Rupert Sheldrake as a positive development, while the Quadrant hoax contained a mix of real and fictitious events. All the quotes and footnotes in Sokal's hoax essay were real, while the Quadrant hoax contained a mix of real and fake quotes and footnotes.

Sokal regarded his hoax essay as a parody. He used real sources from the field he was targeting to 'prove' ridiculous arguments. An important issue was highlighted when his hoax essay was accepted; the editors of Social Text could not tell the difference between a parody and a real essay. (Though to be fair the desire to include an essay by a 'real' scientist in their 'Science Wars' special edition must have been particularly strong.) Sokal, regarding himself as being of the left, was not targeting the ideological goals of Social Text - he states that he supports feminist and social justice issues - instead he was targeting what he saw as their flawed method.

The Quadrant hoax - with it's discussion of a mix of real and fictitious events - does not appear to be a parody; rather it seems to have been a designed to fool Windschuttle. Also it seems to have been aimed at Windschuttle's ideological viewpoint, rather than his (or Quadrant's) intellectual method.

It appears that Windschuttle let his guard down in accepting this article because it appealed to his ideological viewpoint. It seems that even basic checking of the Author's bona fides - an author who does not exist - would have revealed that something was amiss. Then to fail to fact check an essay - not to mention the footnotes - from an author about whom so little was known compounds the error further. This has been a serious lapse for Windschuttle.  Perhaps rather than trying to justify himself, he should be asking himself if he is capable enough to be the editor of a journal that claims to adhere to rigourous standards.

Sunday, 20 August 2006


Strange bedfellows...

For those tempted by simplistic explanations of Middle Eastern politics, try getting your head around this:

The reformists, known as the orange movement, for their adoption of the colours of Ukraine's reform movement, stretch from conservative Islamists such as Waleed Al Tabatabaei, who voted against women getting the vote, to secular liberals who want a more Westernised Kuwait.

It's from an article on the results of the recent Kuwaiti election.

Wednesday, 26 July 2006


The ongoing crisis...

The mainstream Western media is often accused of imbalance and bias. Whenever these accusations are made I tend to conduct a brief survey of my own to see if they are valid. I often find that such accusations have more to do with the accuser's own bias - unhappy that their ideological position has not been confirmed by the media coverage - rather than with manifestly unbalanced coverage. That is not to say that I have never detected bias. Alas unbalanced and poor journalism abounds. But so far I have not been convinced that there is any kind of 'conspiracy' behind it. I blame a complex mess of political, commercial and ideological factors for skewing coverage on various issues rather than an arcane cabal of back-room elites secretly controlling things for their own nefarious ends.

Perhaps the worst example of mainstream media imbalance (actually the blogosphere is guilty of this one as well) is the lack of coverage of conflict in Africa. Conflicts that kill thousands - northern Uganda for example - and tens of thousands - western Sudan for example - are lucky to get one or two column inches a week in the mainstream newspapers. As for television, you occasionally get a minute or two on the SBS World News.

People might be forgiven for thinking that these conflicts are currently on hold. Unfortunately the two examples I gave above are in full swing, claiming the lives of women and children every day. And while ceasefires and truces are holding in other parts of Africa, the social, economic and environmental impact of conflict still adversely affects the daily lives of millions in those places.

As a token effort to redress this imbalance, here is a brief recap and update on the the conflict in Darfur - western Sudan. It has killed 80,000 people, most of them civilians killed by the Sudanese People's Air Force which, until recently, had been supporting the pro Government militias against the various rebel groups. There are currently about 1.8 million displaced people living in poorly serviced camps in western Darfur and neighbouring Chad. About twenty percent of these people are beyond the reach of UN assistance. Though the presence of 7,000 poorly equipped African Union peace keepers and a peace deal signed between the Sudanese Government and the Sudanese Liberation Army, the main rebel group, has stopped the air raids, the pro Government militias are still sniping at the refugees. There is still fighting between pro Government militias and other rebel groups.

The only good news is that the Bush Administration has maintained its attention on the conflict and is pushing both sides to stick to the peace agreements and encouraging other groups to join the process (you know you're in trouble when anything involving the Bush Administration is good news). George Bush recently hosted Minni Minnawi, leader of the Sudanese Liberation Army, at the White House as a valuable show of support for the fledgling peace process.

Apologies to those who were looking for another blog on the Lebanon/Israel crisis. That crisis is currently being well covered by the mainstream media and other bloggers. For anyone interested, the best piece I have read to date is probably Israel's maximal option by Juan Cole at Cole identifies the key motivations and, unlike many on the left, does not demonise Israel. I would suggest that he is a little limited in his analysis of Israel's possible endgame options, but the outcomes he predicts seem inevitable in any case.

Saturday, 25 February 2006


Who destroyed the al-Askariya shrine?

Yet more extreme violence in Iraq. The al-Askariya shrine was destroyed last Wednesday. The shrine, an important Shiite holy site, is reputedly the burial site for two early and important Shia Imams and is famed for its prominent golden dome. The predominately Sunni town of Samarra has seen a great deal of unrest since the US lead invasion of Iraq and at various times has been under the control of insurgents.

So far no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Most 'experts' suspect an al Qaeda linked or inspired group.

Unsurprisingly Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has another theory. He has publicly blamed the 'defeated Zionists and occupiers'. By this he means, the US and Israel. He says they destroyed the shrine because they 'oppose God and justice'. Unfortunately the news items I've read have failed to describe his evidence. This might be because the media is a part of the 'international Zionist conspiracy'* and doesn't want us to know about it, or - more likely - it might be because he has none.

There are some on the left (and extreme right) who say that there is no real freedom of expression/media in the West. They point to issues like politco-corporate linkages, narrow ideological frameworks and the appeasement of commercial interests that prevent our media from 'telling it the way it is'. I accept that these factors and others mean that our media is far from perfect. But things like freedom of expression and freedom of the media are sliding scales. Does anyone really believe that a 'Western' leader would get away with such an untested claim as Ahmadinejad's? I know some will say, 'Bush got away with Iraq!' (or some version of this), but everyone - from late night comedians to mainstream Hollywood actors, from middle school kids to their grand parents - knows pretty much what Bush did and why he was wrong. Hell, even a few country music artists know. It isn't just hip young urbanites, finding the truth; despite the best efforts of the man to keep it from them. It is a real sign that, despite its flaws, our media can deliver.

Ahmadinejad does not have to face anything like the scrutiny Bush (or Howard or Blair) faces. He can make assertions and accusations with impunity because the state, which his political masters control, exercises strict supervision over the media. They don't do this through a secret cabal of back-room elites manipulating unwary journalists and opinion writers, but by closing media organisations - both temporarily and permanently, arresting journalists - sometimes with and sometimes without trial, and even occasionally disappearing journalists altogether. In this environment public expression of political dissent is understandably rare.

Without media scrutiny it is enough for Ahmadinejad to offer a vaguely plausible reason why the US and/or Israel might want to destroy the shrine as proof that they actually did.

What Ahmadinejad won't mention is the real possibility that Iran was behind the attack. It's no surprise that the religious conservatives who run Iran are nervous about developments in Iraq. Iraq has become only the second 'Islamic' country to be run by the Shiites. Disappointingly for Iran, Iraq's Shia have opted for democratic processes rather than theocracy and are not interested in falling in line behind Iran as part of an emerging Iranian lead 'Islamic' power-base. It gets worse for the religious conservatives; Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a widely respected Shia scholar, has backed the fledgling Iraqi democracy. Because of his reputation, this has implications in Iran. The Iranian people can see an alternative to clerical rule that is supported by a senior and respected cleric in practice. This can only strengthen Iranian dissent.

A full blown civil war in Iraq - a possible outcome of the shrine's destruction - could change things in Iran's favour. If the civil war became too bloody, the US led coalition would probably leave. Though they represent the majority, Iraq's Shia would not fair well in a full blown civil war. The real military power is held by the Kurds and they would act to protect their own interests first, leaving the Shia to face the brunt of Iraq's Arab Sunnis who would be well supported by neighbouring countries - counties led by their co-religious and eager to prevent the emergence of a Shia led Iraq. This would force Iraq's Shia to turn to Iran for support, setting them up for dominion by Iran.

Iran's involvement would go some way to explaining the odd method of attack. The attackers - dressed as police - took over the shrine, tied up its guards and set charges in the roof to destroy the dome. Reportedly no one was killed and the main part of the building was left largely intact by the resulting blast. Given the religious importance of the shrine to the Shia, it would be hard to imagine Iran's clerics ordering its total destruction. In fact the dome would be the ideal choice for an Iranian backed attack because it would pose the least threat to the tombs which are the religiously significant part of the shrine.

The US and/or Israel, not concerned with the religious significance of the shrine, would have had no qualms about destroying it completely. Al Qaeda would have used a massive blast to obliterate the building and kill as many Shia as they could. When you look at it that way, it appears that Iran must have been behind the attack.

Do I believe they were? No. Just finding a plausible explanation is not proof of anything. At this stage I agree with the 'experts' and believe an al Qaeda linked (or inspired) group was most likely behind the attack. One possible explanation for the odd method might be that it was carried out by a group of local Samarra Sunnis; inspired by al Qaeda, though reluctant to wreak total carnage upon their neighbours.

Some reports indicate that arrests were made, perhaps some real evidence of who was behind the attack might emerge there. Until then (if real evidence ever does emerge) Ahmadinejad's comments are yet another example of the importance of free expression/media.

*Ahmadinejad mistakenly believes this conspiracy is all about destroying Islam, when actually it is - as we in the 'West' know - really about maximising profits by keeping 'us' under their thumb. When will this stuff get old?

Saturday, 11 February 2006


Own goals...

The 'Danish cartoon' controversy has so far cost upwards of eleven lives in two countries and looks like continuing for a while at least. As I stated in a comment I left on Andrew Montin's blog, I am deeply suspicious of the motives behind the publication of those cartoons, but regard the over-reaction in some Islamic countries as part of an ongoing campaign against free speech.

I have followed with great interest a debate between Andrew and ultra-left blogger Mark. They are debating a technicality; the inherent racism of the cartoons themselves. (Andrew - denying inherent racism - seems to me to be winning that debate hands down.)

I want to look at another 'cartoon controversy' that hasn't quite arrived yet. A European Arab organisation briefly made headlines a few days ago with a campaign of their own.

The Arab-European League (AEL) states that they are against the publication of the 'Danish cartoons' because they demonise Arab and Muslim people. I am not unsympathetic to that view, however central to their thesis is that there is a double standard in Europe (or the West) that allows the unpleasant side of Islam to be openly discussed while other issues are off limits. I am not convinced that this is the case.

Anyway they launched a series of their own cartoons that they say redresses this imbalance. I'll look at four of them and explain why they are offensive and probably should not have been published. (I would have done the same for the Danish cartoons but am not brave enough to republish them.)

This is one of three cartoons, out of a series of six so far, that deals with the Holocaust. It invokes the memory of Anne Frank, a young Dutch victim of the Nazis, to suggest that 'the Jews' were 'in bed' with Hitler. This conspiracy theory, in wide circulation in the Islamic world (I heard it again just a few days ago, earnestly repeated by an otherwise reasonable acquaintance who would characterise himself as a mainstream Moslem), suggests that 'the Jews' collaborated with the Nazis in order to achieve their Zionist agenda. In my opinion it is the most offensive of the Holocaust cartoons. It perpetuates the pernicious 'crafty Jew' stereo type in the most hideous way. Not to mention the outright racism of depicting a Jewish child victim as a co-conspirator in such a monstrous fraud. All in all a very nasty piece of work.

This cartoon is labelled 'solving female circumcision complications'. It is an appalling reduction of the serious problem of female genital mutilation to one of - otherwise spoilt - women missing out on sexual pleasure; nothing a suitably large man couldn't fix. Clearly offensive to all victims of these practices and women in general.

A nasty, narrow-minded reaction to some recent improvements in Gay rights. The common gripe of religious conservatives of all creeds is that we're on a slippery slope towards total moral depravity. A terribly offensive piece of homophobic equivalency; homosexuality is just another kind of sexual perversion.

Actually this one's not terribly offensive. I only included it because I think that's John Howard on the left (hard to know because of the poor quality of the artwork) and I love to see Australia on the world stage. Incidentally, given the motives of the AEL campaign it's worth noting that similar cartoons appear in newspapers throughout 'the West' just about every day.

A couple of the 'Danish cartoons' left me baffled and may well be hugely offensive, but of those I understood, none comes even close to the first three in terms of offensiveness. The AEL have certainly explored the limits of free speech. They've clearly offered offence to Jews, homosexuals and women. (On second thoughts that's been going on for centuries.) I disagree with everything these cartoons suggest. Actually I find most of it disgusting. However I would not ban them, and I would certainly not kill anyone over them. All I'd do is what I've just done - point out that they're offensive and wrong and explain why they are offensive and wrong.

Given the muted reaction to these cartoons - they've been mentioned in short news items and lampooned by late night comedians - I'd say they might not have achieved all that the AEL wanted. In fact the reaction so far suggests that 'the West' does broadly accept free speech and that nothing is off limits.

Tuesday, 3 January 2006



A week or so ago I decided I wanted to read some 'pulp' sci-fi. I went into town to Galaxy Bookshop (just about my favourite bookshop) to buy something, but after half an hour there it became clear that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for. It wasn't Galaxy's fault; not much of the stuff gets published anymore. And what is published is either 'future wars' or 'alternative-history wars', neither a sub-genre to my taste. Overall sci-fi has improved its literary standards over the last twenty odd years. I don't have a problem with that, I love quality sci-fi (now often called speculative fiction) and it makes up around half the fiction I read. But on this day I wanted something more 'down market'. The problem is that the sci-fi market has contracted - partly overwhelmed by fantasy fiction and partly just because fiction reading generally has declined - and doesn't really support much of a 'down market' anymore.

Having failed to find the sci-fi variety of what I wanted, I decided to try crime fiction. Though I don't read much crime fiction these days I used to enjoy detective stories when I was younger. I left Galaxy and went to Abbey's Bookshop, a fine generalist bookshop with a pretty good crime selection. Crime, unlike sci-fi, has managed to preserve a pretty good 'down market' and within minutes I found what I was looking for.

Shark River (2002) by Randy Wayne White. Having never heard of the author, I based my choice on the cover; a legitimate method when pulp fiction is what you're looking for. I was not disappointed. Barely a mystery; it is more a series of encounters with women, beatings (both administered and received) and two cent philosophising. Being written in 2002 it was a little more socially conscious than the pulp 'classics' but it was all clumsy enough to remain thoroughly enjoyable. It was exactly what I was looking for.

These comments are not meant so much as an endorsement of Shark River specifically - though if you're looking for some pulp crime you could certainly do worse, but rather as a reminder of how much fun trashy genre fiction in general can be.

Friday, 16 December 2005


Fictional characters...

I have just added Tuco from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to my Biographical Dictionary of Fictional Characters [link removed]. That brings to five, the number of real entries. I'll try and add a few more characters from the film in the next couple of days.

UPDATE: I have taken down the Biographical Dictionary of Fictional Characters website due to lack of interest; both the wider community's and my own.

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