At the end of 1999, the Australian Rationalist received a draft of an article by Victorian Skeptic Adam Joseph, raising some issues regarding the operations of the national body, the Australian Skeptics. Around about the same time former AS committee member Steve Roberts posted a set of criticisms of the Skeptics on the internet. The AR Editor, Ian Robinson, worked with Joseph to produce a final version of the article in April, 2000. Before publishing the article, Robinson emailed Skeptics CEO Barry Williams itemizing the criticisms and invited his response. Williams provided a detailed response to the criticisms. Subsequently, the Australian Rationalist Editorial Board decided not to publish the Adam Joseph article in the journal. Williams’ reply to Robinson’s email is reproduced below, together with the points in Robinson's email that he was replying to, without which his comments are meaningless . The green-coloured text is Robinson’s email, quoted in full and the blue text is Williams reply or a synopsis of it, interspersed at the appropriate points.
[Commentary in italics.]
[This piece published with the permission of the recipient. As the sender had a very precise knowledge of the applicable law and actively chose to not restrict distribution and use of the communication, it was deemed that he had a reasonable expectation that it would not be kept confidential. ]
[Copyright permission of the sender was not sought. Annotations and editing intended to comply with the "fair-dealing" provisions of the copyright act.]
Subject: Your article
Date: Thu, 13 Apr 2000 11:15:11 +1000
From: Barry Williams <skeptics@....com.au>
To: Ian Robinson
I postponed Adam's article till the next edition of the AR and have therefore only just got around to working on it, which is why the delay in getting back to you. With Adam's OK, it is now more chronological in structure, more factual in approach, and less combatative in tone. But I still believe the Skeptics have a serious case to answer so I am publishing Adam's piece in the next issue, together with a precis of Steve Roberts set of criticisms, which were published on the internet, as a "Sidebar". The main thrust of the criticism leveled at the current Skeptics is as follows:
As you have not done me the courtesy of showing me the article I cannot comment on it in detail. However, if the precis below is even slightly accurate, then you are gravely in error in stating that it is "more factual in approach" and you would be running serious risks if you decided to publish it.
[Right here, an "ordinary reasonable reader" would expect the email to end with: "I can't meaningfully comment without reading the article, would you please send me a "without prejudice" copy at your earliest convenience?".]
[Did you notice the first threat? "serious risks if you decided to publish"]
[And the first conflation: "The precis below". No, this is a series of questions about perceived issues.]
[There's an interesting sub-text going on here: How can Mr Williams be so specific and detailed in responding to criticisms/questions he's never read (and you'd think, never been told). This either gives the lie to "I've not seen it" or he knows only too well just what they are doing that could be considered "suspect".]
(1) The organisation is not democratic - interested members of the public cannot simply join it, no elections are held, there is no clear criteria for membership, and for the past ten years or so control of the organisation and its finances has been in the hands of a small self-appointed and self-perpetuating group of Sydney based Skeptics led by yourself.
[This is a wonderful response: it doesn't answer the question and adds many distractions. The association deliberately does not have "an open membership", notionally to protect against hostile takeovers, and the committee had figured out how to obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit by controlling the member admission process.]
Australian Skeptics Inc (ASI) is an incorporated association which operates within the legal requirements of our state regulations covering associations. There are seven other, fully autonomous, state or territory based bodies and two semi-autonomous bodies, all operating within the laws pertaining in their states or territories and all with their own internal rules. All of these organisations have similar aims and objectives and we act in cooperation to carry them out. As far as I am aware, all of these bodies hold elections annually for office bearers, and certainly this is the case with ASI, the NSW body. It is not difficult to find out about the other bodies, but as they are not answerable either to me, nor to ASI, I don't have details at hand. So much for your correspondent's investigatory skills.
[The 2010 & 2011 Returns state AS-Inc has 15 and 16 members respectively, whilst the website claims "4000 members" (ie. non-voting subscribers). Office Bearers, elections and AGM's are not routinely reported in "The Skeptic", nor are the Associations financial reports published there.]
[Did you notice WIlliams hasn't defined "Democratic" nor addressed "openness and transparency", two of the key principles underlying Democratic organisations, along with "equal representation".]
In addition to the members, we have a large number of subscribers and contributors to our journal, the Skeptic (a publication of ASI), and users of and contributors to the Skeptics web sites www.skeptics.com.au (a publication of Australian Skeptics (Vic) Inc) and No Answers in Genesis (a publication of the Gold Coast Skeptics) and many supporters in many fields.
[Under the Associations Incorporation Act, what do you call a non-voting subscriber who is not a member? As they aren't mentioned in the Act, they are members of the General Public. Selling the vast majority (99.5%) of magazine subscriptions, the primary source of income for AS-Inc, to the General Public should fail the "non-Commercial activity" test for Incorporation.]
This is all pretty standard stuff for associations, and we would be one of very many that operate in a similar way. Are you suggestion that it is improper for a group of like-minded individuals to set up an association, with its own rules, that comply with all the relevant laws? Are you suggesting there is something improper in like-minded groups acting cooperatively to achieve common ends? Are you presuming to tell bodies with which you have no connection how they should run their affairs?
[Not since the Federal Corporations Act in the early 1990's (administered by ASIC), introduced "Companies limited by Guarantee", it isn't. This is exactly the structure used for the ASSEF when re-incarnated in 1999. It's not that they, AS-Inc, don't know about it, they are very happy with things just as they are.]
(2) Even if an argument for the above non-democratic structure could be sustained, it seems clear that the organisation has performed poorly in the following ways:
As there is no evidence of any of the structures being undemocratic, this allegation is false. Far from being clear, the claim that we have performed poorly is simply the ill-informed opinion of one individual with an axe to grind. It can easily be demonstrated to be a foolish statement.
[Allegation? No evidence of being undemocratic? what??? Forget the presenting any factual response about AS-Inc's performance, just deny and attack with: "... to be a foolish statement". ]
(a) Its custodianship of the monies left to it has been irresponsible. Instead of investing the money and operating on the income, it has rapidly eaten into the capital and now has less than half of the original amount.
This is pure invention. [snip of details on spending] the residue of our bequest was invested and remains very near to the original sum. This is, of course, well documented.
[Really? There is just one report from the ASSEF in the "The Skepic" circa 1996. Doesn't qualify "well documented" in my estimation.]
Members of the committee/board or whatever it is now called have voted themselves money for overseas and interstate trips and you yourself have been paid a substantial annual sum for work you used to do voluntarily. By comparison the most anybody gets from the Rationalists by way of an honorarium is about $14,000 pa for virtually a full-time job.
Members of various of the Skeptics bodies have received full or partial compensation for unusual out-of-pocket expenses, including, but not confined to, some travel expenses, incurred while carrying out activities on behalf of the Skeptics movement. This is a perfectly normal arrangement for most organisations such as ours and it is one of the activities for which the Foundation was specifically authorised to make payments. Nonetheless, members of the Skeptics bodies also expend considerable time, energy and money in support of the cause without any compensation, again a perfectly normal practice in a voluntary association.
In my case, I am a full-time employee of ASI, appointed to the position after all proper procedures were carried out, and am paid a salary (not an honorarium), just like any other employee. I might add that I gave up a considerably higher paying job to take this one, and I certainly now work much longer hours. Far from being the great dictator of your correspondent's fantasies, I am in fact the only member of the Skeptics who can legitimately be ordered around. I'm not complaining.
["All proper procedures...". The 5 or 10 members of AS-Inc presumably said, "sure, whatever you want. We'll vote you 60-80% of the Association's Gross Profit as a wage." And that "higher paying job"? If you scan all issue of "The Skeptic", you never learn what it was. One of the main criticisms in the article was the failure of the new Executive Officer to meet his publicly made commitments. Evidence of which turns up clearly in the subsequent Financial Reports.]
(b) The Skeptics have lost credibility as a rigourous organisation applying a scientific standard to claims of the paranormal. You have failed to attracted many leading scientists and researchers to your cause (as CSICOP has in the US) and have not been doing a good job in promoting the cause of scepticism in Australia. Very few substantial scientific investigations have been carried out.
This claim is so patently ludicrous and so easily dispelled that I'm astonished that you would consider it worthy of retailing. [snip names] These and many other prominent people in many fields are publicly identified supporters of the Skeptics in Australia. I could go on at length with further names, but I think these are sufficient to nail that absurd claim.
[snip many lines of self-assessement]
It would not be an idle boast to say that Australian Skeptics Inc and its sister bodies are, by orders of magnitude, the most widely recognised "free thought" group in the country and also among the best known associations of any kind.
[That "ordinary reasonable reader" might be asking at this time: Why didn't he just say, "we feel we we're quite credible. Can you give us examples of other, more credible, 'sceptical' groups or what benchmarks you'd like to compare us against?"]
(c) The Australian Skeptic magazine has lost credibility as a high standard critical magazine, and has published a lot of low standard and even irrelevant material.
By whose standards and lost credibility with whom? This claim is equally ludicrous and plainly untrue (see above). The regular resubscription rate of better than 85% that we have maintained over the years would seem to support my thesis that our subscribers are also happy with what we do. Have you ever read the Skeptic?
[At last our "ordinary reasonable reader" hears a good question asked. But without knowing what is being said in the piece, why does he continue past the first sentence?]
[Williams also misses, or conflates, the essential nature of credibility versus "appeal" (entertainment value): other people, not you and your avid readers, grant an opinion. Got a great resubscribe rate? That's nothing to do with credibility, but reader appeal. This is very well known to tabloid papers, glossy magazines and Larry Flint/Hugh Hefner. Does Williams think he's presented a convincing fact here, in which case he's very confused, or is he simply disingenuous?]
(d) Despite the influx of money, membership has not risen substantially and may have fallen - figures are hard to come by - and nor has the profile of the organisation risen.
Another pure invention, and unsupportable by any evidence. Subscriptions have risen by between 50% and 60% in the five years since your correspondent was involved. This is documented, naturally. Further, we confidently expect a larger than normal increase this year given the publicity associated with our hosting the World Skeptics Convention in November and in fact we are already seeing evidence of this in a considerably increased number of new subscribers already this year.
The figures are by no means hard to come by; a simple phone call is all that it requires. Naturally, in protection of their privacy, we do not publish the details of our subscribers to just anyone. Does the Australian Rationalist?
As shown in the previous answers, and in contradistinction to Mr Joseph's vapid assertions, the profile of our organisation has risen considerably in recent years, and we have every reason to suppose it will continue to do so.
[Hasn't read the piece, yet he calls it 'vapid'. As a minimum, that's a gratuitous insult, or does it show he knows exactly what he's responding to, and that it really riled him?]
[Numbers are still hard to come by. The set of 4 returns lodged in 1999 do not expose any financial information that allows estimation of subscriber numbers or the Executive Officer wage and other benefits. There were never any returns lodged for 2000, 2001, 2002. The 1994 & 1995 returns and those from 2003 on, whilst not consistently presented, do provide enough information to allow some analysis.]
["This (subscriber numbers) is documented". Really? Not in any publicly lodged document, not in the "The Skeptic" and not in the 1996-1999 Association returns, lodged as a group in 1999, they contain the barest of information.]
[Saying "call us and we'll give you all the data you want" isn't credible. With the aggressive, combative, unhelpful stance shown here, why would he tell the Rationalists anything? What is "not just anybody"? What is their test or policy on releasing confidential financial data? Today, these statements would comprehensively fail the tests/requirements of the Privacy Act.]
(3) The combining of the positions of President, Executive Officer and Editor has left too much power in two few hands.
Your correspondent has always had this seeming obsession with "power", as any of the targets of his long winded harangues will attest. [snip what appear to be gratuitous insults]
[This would now be called "A lack of oversight and a failing of Good Governance". And the response: "this other guy wants my job", a possibly unfounded, but definitely unsupported assertion.]
(4) There is no ACCOUNTABILITY of the Skeptics to anyone, not even the free thought community in general, and this has led to excesses.
The Skeptics are ACCOUNTABLE to their members, their subscribers, and to the laws of the land - just like any other responsible organisation. To precisely whom else do you think we should be ACCOUNTABLE? We also have a RESPONSIBILITY, wherever possible, to publish the truth as far as it can reasonably be ascertained. I would have thought, hitherto, that the Australian Rationalist shared this commitment, but I'm now having some serious doubts.
[snip what appear to be insults]
It seems to me that as you have taken no steps to verify any of his claims, you have no basis on which to make that statement. Might I suggest that, in your own interests, you should do so?
[Well, the Office Bearers of AS-Inc weren't accountable to the 99.5% of subscribers who weren't allowed a vote nor all those loosely associated other groups.]
[Love the way he SHOUTS, insults and attacks, doesn't rationally debate nor offer facts. It's almost like he's had a raw nerve hit.]
In fact the problems with the Skeptics as listed above seem to be very current indeed.
As I have shown, not only are they not current, they are palpably rubbish.
[Shown?!?! No, I'd say, asserted and harangued.]
I guess there are two possible courses of action for you:
(i) You could wait until the article comes out, then reply in the next issue.
(ii) You could write a response to the above points which I could print alongside Adam's article.
I can think of a very obvious third alternative.
(iii) We could wait until you have published this series of allegations, and then we could test the truth of the matters raised in the courts.
[Now we start on the serious threats. In 2002, the piece was published in full, with another 1,500 wds preamble. Despite Mr Williams being aware of, and responding to it, neither he nor AS-Inc ever initiated Defamation proceedings. He can't launch a complaint now, even the longest window under current legislation, 3 years, has expired.]
[Why do I call these statements about potential litigation "Threats", nothing more? Because they were never acted upon when the article was published in full. If Mr Williams wasn't full of bluster and mere puffery here, and had been convinced of the outcome, why didn't he engage one of the lawyer or barrister members, not mere subscribers, to pursue the matter? As well, by this time AS-Inc members controlled the ASSEF and had used it to fund part of Ian Plimer legal fees. AS-Inc had no financial concerns about pursuing a defamation suit. Which leads to the central question: Why did all the apparent outrage and implied intent-to-forcefully-pursue the matter lead to nothing?]
I don't like criticising a fellow freethought organisation, as we are basically all on the same side, but I feel in this case you guys have been letting the side down, and need to pull up your socks.
Equally, I don't like having to say this to a fellow editor, but as far as I can ascertain you have made no attempt to check the accuracy of Mr Joseph's allegations, despite the fact that several of them are highly defamatory not only of Australian Skeptics but also of individuals. I would have thought that, as a responsible editor, your first duty to your organisation would be to carry out some sort of investigation into allegations of corruption against others (as some of the above clearly are) before committing them to print.
[snip threats, "free character assessments", insults, etc]
[But that's the thing. AR and the author did check the facts, quote source documents, interview participants, look for confirmation and avoid speculation - and this whole conversation shows that they were willing to allow Williams and AS-Inc to give their side of the story. Your actual "Fair and Balanced Reporting". So why the outlandish, persistent attack strewn with threats?]
Let me make it perfectly clear. I DO NOT give you permission to publish my comments as a response to any article by Mr Joseph. If you decide to go ahead and publish his defamatory (and demonstrably untrue) allegations against us of corruption, financial impropriety or any other actionable matters, then you will leave us no alternative but to seek legal redress against you, your publication, and the author.
[Why not construct the response so that it could be published in response to the so-called defamatory piece? That was the whole point of the approach from the Rationalists, why throw it away? Perhaps Mr Williams predicted that his "debating style" would only pass muster within his own (adoring?) community and outsiders would not be impressed. What he was thinking? That's unknowable and not useful to this discussion.]
[Yeah, yeah. More empty threats you never followed up on. Remind us again why that didn't happen? Oh, right, you were having more internecine wars leading to the sudden expulsion of the Public Officer/Treasurer at the end of 2003 and held the regulators and governing legislation in such scant regard that no returns or accounts were lodged until 16 months after you departed (26-Mar-2010), and only then because AS-Inc had its registration cancelled summarily on 25-May-2009. Which story was never mentioned to "subscribers" by the new crew or yourself.]
[What permission does Mr Williams deny or allow? This annotated set is not forbidden, Mr Williams comments aren't being published as a response to the article. They are being examined in their own right.]
Regarding your condescendingly gratuitous advice, might I suggest that you leave pontificating to the Pope; that's what he gets paid to do, and it sounds more than a little strange coming from a Rationalist. In light of your rather cavalier approach to seeking the truth of any of these matters, might I further suggest that if "letting down the side" is under consideration, then the sock is very clearly on the other foot.
[I left these irrelevant closing insults intact to underline two things: We know that he didn't make good on any of his threats to litigate but still actively pursued his FUD (Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt] strategy to the end. Is this mere projection? Or is this actually a very good description of exactly his own behaviour and statements? That seems so to me, but how could I look inside his mind?]
I look forward to hearing from you.
As do I from you.
[Still punching, right to the end... Gotta love it, an entirely consistent world-view, forcefully presented.]