Fair-ish and Balanced-ish
Friday, June 06, 2003
A House of Cards
Blowing off my responsibilities I went to Lyndall Ryan's talk today. As I came late and didn't take notes, this review is probably going to full of errors - all of which can be attributed to me. The talk was especially interesting as it hit hard at Keith Windschuttle. Rather than trying to summarise Windschuttle's allegations, I'll refer the reader to this page of his. It's also important to note that because of time constraints, Lyndall confined herself solely to the issue of fabricated footnotes, of which she selected a couple of examples, and examined them in detail.
Lyndall started the lecture by related about how she first found out about the allegations when she was rung by journalist. Then all hell broke loose, and she found herself in the middle of a media witchhunt. She defined the word "fabrication" as meaning a deliberate invention of a myth, and pointed out, that minor accidental errors would not met the definition of "fabrication". Her argument rests on this point, if she can demonstrate that the errors in her footnotes were minor accidental errors, Windschuttle's thesis falls apart.
She then carried it on by laying out the history behind her book "Aboriginal Tasmanians". The bulk of work was done as a PhD thesis, which was then converted into the book in 1981. A second edition was published in 1997, which contained additional work on more recent history.
Now Lyndall moved on to the practice of footnoting. She mentioned that her thesis had over 1000 footnotes and endnotes (I forget the exact number), and that her first book has a bit over 800. With these sorts of numbers, ensuring that all footnotes are correct is impossible (I view which I can sympathise with - I work with far smaller numbers and programs such as endnote to assist, and I still find it hard). She then related what is normally done when checking footnotes on other peoples work (she had this job as a postgrad). One should read the footnote and the relevant passage and see if they correlate. If not, read the surrounding footnotes (during the editing process, large amounts of text are often moved around, and all to often the notes don't go with it). If a correlating footnote still can't be found (sadly this is quite common), one should go through the original source material to find it. An important point to make her, is that someone who checks footnotes should be familiar with the primary literature. Another point (this one is my own), is that, it is generally polite to ask the author for help if you have trouble tracking down the relevant footnote.
She then proceeded to describe her impressions of Windschuttle. As I don't consider it that relevant to her defense, I'll going to leave this part out, except to note, that Lyndall doesn't consider him to be a good archival historian.
Now, with the background behind her, she started into the real guts of her defense. She started by quoting a passage from her book about clashes between bushmen and Aborigines. The quote goes along the lines of "probably about 100 Aborigines and 20 Europeans were killed...". Windschuttle lays into this claim, as it supported by only one footnote. The reference was to a dairy by Robert Knopwood, and he only listed 4 Aborigines dead. Lyndall however pointed out that in her PhD thesis (which Windschuttle had access to), there are two footnotes. The second one is from a report by John Oxley. She read some sections of the report out, and it was chilling. Aboriginal women taken as sex slaves while their protectors were murdered - that sort of stuff. Now Windschuttle appears to have changed his tack. Because the Oxley report doesn't mention numbers of deaths, he attacks Lyndall for making them up. This is weak, and "historian uses primary sources to infer death toll", doesn't sound as good as "historian fabricates history".
She now moves on to a second passage which relates to a stockmen shooting several Aborigines, retaliatory spearings of stockmen, the formation of vigilante groups and the burning down of a settlers house. Windschuttle then claims that none of her references mention any of these events. And about here, the difference between minor errors and a complete fabrication comes apart. The burning down of the house is a mistake. Rather a settlers hut was burned down. A minor mistake, which Lyndall acknowledges. A newspaper article which was cited doesn't exist. However, it does exist in the other Tasmanian newspaper of the time. A reference to May, 1937 does exist, and doesn't mention the above events. However, the soldier May wrote two reports in 1937. The other was collected and placed into a large collection (approx. 800 page) of reports from the colonial office. Lyndall refers to this report, Windschuttle refers to the other. A date is wrong on one of reference to the same collection of reports, which causes Windschuttle to miss it. There are more examples of this, but my memory is sketchy, and I've probably already made more than enough errors.
Now Lyndall proceeded to wrap up her talk, by mentioning the difficulties in making sure that all of your footnotes are accurate. This was especially true as the archives were considerable less user friendly back then (as an example, the collection of papers I referred to earlier, was at the time, a large collection of unbound papers - now it is bound and on microfiche). She then went on about how Windschuttle could have made his errors. She is quite polite (far more than what Windschuttle is) and suggests that the problems occurred because Windschuttle has no prior experience as an archival historian, and isn't that familiar with the Tasmanian archives (he appears to have done his work by looking at other peoples references, rather than reading through the archives to get a good overview).
There was one disappointing aspect to her talk. She appears to be reluctant to take the fight into the public arena. We were asked not to tape the event, and she declined to answer a question on what she plans to do to further combat Windschuttle's attacks. This is disappointing, for as long as she lets Windschuttle set the debate in his own terms in public, her reputation will be in tatters. However, I can understand why she has done this. It must be incredibly humiliating to be publicly accused of fabricating history, while my instinct is to fight back, other people have to make their own choices. Perhaps a suitable comprise would be to publish her lecture notes, and let other people fight it out.