Thursday, May 10, 2012

Editor of "The Skeptic": summary response to AR Editor questions.

This email conversation was supplied on condition it be published with this preamble:
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: to avoid issues of copyright on the words written by the Editor of "The Skeptic", only small snippets will be quoted verbatim where the form of words is important, the rest is summarised.]

Subject: Your article
Date: Thu, 13 Apr 2000 11:15:11 +1000
From: Barry Williams <>

To: Ian Robinson

Dear Barry

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:

Dear Ian

He hasn't seen the article, doesn't ask for a copy, can't comment "in detail". Describes the questions as 'a precis', which they aren't, insists the comments aren't factual and suggests publishing would pose "serious risk".

[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" of publishing]
[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.]

Williams states the association operates "within the legal requirements" of the NSW Acts and Regulations. He notes there are 7 other associations and two informal groups - all independent with own rules etc. [So why do they grandly call themselves "Australian Skeptics Inc" if they don't broadly represent everyone?] Continues with all groups having "similar aims and objectives" and they co-operate. Says that they hold annual elections and presumes other groups do as well

He specifically has to say that, despite the name, "Australian Skeptics Inc" only represents NSW, is "the NSW body". He offers the suggestion that details of the other groups are available, although the piece is specifically about only the NSW Association and throws in a gratuitous insult about the author, whom he's published multiple times in "The Skeptic".

[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.]

[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".]

Williams makes a very particular distinction between members, subscribers and contributors - which is odd, given that Associations cannot carry on Commercial activities, ie. selling to the general public. He says: "we have a large number of subscribers and contributors" to the magazine they publish ("The Skeptic") and that another association [Australian Skeptics (Vic) Inc] publishes web site, and the informal group, Gold Coast Skeptics, publishes "No Answers in Genesis". He claims they have many other supporters as well, but there is this underlying confusion between the perceived group of "Australian Sceptics" and the very small NSW Association "Australian Skeptics Inc". Just who are these other people supporting when the two terms are conflated and overlain?

[Under the Associations Incorporation Act, what do you call a non-voting subscriber who is not a member? A member 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.]

He describes this structure as "all pretty standard stuff for associations" and many operate similarly - meaning the multiple association structure, not the undisclosed closed membership" model, of AS-Inc.
He goes on to make specious arguments unrelated to democratic issues of openness, transparency and representation. Ending with the reductio ad absurdum argument, are you telling us how to run our organisation?

[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:

Williams rejects the statement, but oddly as "this allegation is false". He denies evidence that their structure is undemocratic - a very peculiar statement. It is creating a very fine (legal) distinction between the facts and evidence for them, which seems completely unnecessary unless there is a lot more going on than we might be aware of. He launches into more abuse, insult and personal attack and makes the unsupported claim the author has "an axe to grind", finally declaring it to be a "foolish statement", without offering any contrary supporting statement, thought these are supposed to be trivial to find.

[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.

He claims this statement is "pure invention" and that despite a major grant to Ian Plimer ($200,000) most of the money remains. Curiously he claims this is all "well documented" though both the Trust and "Australian Skeptics Inc" do not report their financial statements in "The Skeptic", the website nor seemingly any public forum.

[Really? There is just one report from the ASSEF in the "The Skepic" circa 1996. Not "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.

He says some members, not just of AS-Inc get full or partial reimbursements, and this is normal practice and, surprisingly, one for which the Foundation vs AS-Inc was created. He goes on to discuss "members of the Skeptics bodies" putting in their own time, money and energy "in support of the cause", again a curious use of a word. How is being Sceptical of and questioning received wisdom a cause and not an activity, hobby or interest?

Williams then says that he's a (mere) employee, pulling a Uriah Heep by being 'ever so humble', that he gave up a much better paying job to work longer hours and that despite being the long-term President previously cannot be "the great dictator" (curiously a term he introduces and he alone uses), that the reports as "fantasies" and his is "the only member of the Skeptics who can legitimately be ordered around". Again conflating terms by not using ASI as he's done consistently to refer to "Australian Skeptics Inc", but introducing a new, undefined and somewhat vague term, "the Skeptics". Who does he mean by this term when he's been so very exact in his wording previously in drawing very fine distinctions? Can this be an oversight, a deliberate tactic of argument or a Freudian slip showing he believes "Australian Skeptics Inc", especially via their publication(s) and website, is perceived as representative of all Sceptics in Australia and that non-member subscribers believe they are represented by AS-Inc? That his previous statement that AS-Inc only represents NSW and its very small group of members is a fiction.

["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.]

(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.

He labels this claim absurd and ludicrous, claiming it trivially refuting. Interestingly his words include "worthy of retailing" rather than "retelling". Nothing is being sold by the questioner nor the article writer, only by Williams and AS-Inc: the magazine, the financial engine-room paying his full-time wage. He names some high-profile supporters and claims many more.

[snip lots of self-assessement]

He then goes onto to claim that AS-Inc (spelt in full, not using his previous contractions) and the other likeminded groups (identified as "sister bodies") to be the most recognised free-though group in Australia, by an unsubstantiated, unverifiable and undefinable "orders of magnitude". Sounds good, but it is meaningless. It is also irrelevant to the question: well-known is not credible. Ask a serial killer or notorious criminal.

[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.

He opens with: "By whose standards and lost credibility with whom?" and again labels the statement untrue, ludicrous and already dealt with. He then raises the magazines' high resubscription rate (85%), an internal metric of reader appeal and satisfaction, as evidence of the externalities of credibility and content standards - another irrelevancy. He closes with "Have you ever read the Skeptic?" and we can only guess what that's meant to convey: a rhetorical question or supporting a genuine belief in his handiwork of 13 years at the time. Williams as long-term, and now sole, editor and chief contributor to the magazine can hardly be unbiased about it, yet he doesn't acknowledge or seem to recognise that fact. Nor that internal measures (reader appeal) do not and cannot be used as proxies for external measures (credibility, standards)

[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.

Again, Williams opens with with an off-hand remark about invention, and discloses no facts. He does rightly say there is no evidence to support the supposition, because no figures are available on the public record: either in the magazine "The Skeptic" or form the rather scant figures for the returns 1996-1999 lodged all together and none at all for 2000-2002. He claims a 50-60% increase in subscribers over the previous 5 years, pointedly ignoring that this multi-part question is all about the impact of the Whalley bequest, the Foundation and Mr Williams becoming a full-time paid employee (Editor), not the President, Editor and chief contributor. Williams suggests the author of the piece hasn't been "involved" for 5 years, ignoring that a well researched article will include recent interviews with significant, knowledgeable actors, not rely on outdated knowledge or hearsay. The hosting in Sydney of the World Skeptics Convention is raised as having the potential to increase subscriber numbers - as if that is an achieved outcome and related to the question. Reading the published piece, this is a very pointed question: Internal records cited show Williams pitch to be a paid employee included many grand plans and specific, testable claims of performance, including doubling the subscriber base by 1998, 6 issues a year (not 4) and selling through newsagents - none of which was accomplished nor acknowledged in the answer here.

Williams then says something astounding: "The figures are by no means hard to come by; a simple phone call is all that it requires." and , citing privacy concerns, "we do not publish the details of our subscribers to just anyone", then throws a jibe at the AR Editor.

He continues in this vein claiming they are going from strength to strength and expect that to continue.

[Hasn't read the piece, yet he calls the authors claims '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 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?]

(3) The combining of the positions of President, Executive Officer and Editor has left too much power in two few hands.

Williams open his response with a Furphy and denigrating the author: "Your correspondent has always had this seeming obsession with "power", as any of the targets of his long winded harangues will attest" [snip. too many insults for me]

[This would now be called "A lack of oversight and a failing of Good Governance". And the response: "this other guy wants my job".]

(4) There is no ACCOUNTABILITY of the Skeptics to anyone, not even the free thought community in general, and this has led to excesses.

Williams responds in kind with multiple ALLCAPS shouting, reiterating they obey the relevant laws. He strangely volunteers "The Skeptics" (again, who does this mean?) are accountable to members, as you'd expect, but also to non-voting subscribers who have no standing within an Association. He doesn't offer a reason or mechanism for this oddity. He calls AS-Inc a "responsible organisation" and that they as far as practical (my term) "publish the truth". Finishing up with another attempt at a jibe towards the AR Editor and his group. Williams seems to not understand the principles of Accountability or, if he does, to be deliberately misdirecting the argument.

[snip more insults]

He then suggests that the AR Editor has not verified any of the authors claims [remember Williams claims he hasn't seen the piece and isn't aware of its contents. Is he trying to infer the contents from the questions or does he know the contents?] The closing is another threat along the lines of 'get your facts straight' or you'll be in trouble.

[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.

Williams responds: "As I have shown, not only are they not current, they are palpably rubbish."

[Shown?!?! No, 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.

Williams responds with a threat, another 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.

Williams responds that the AR Editor hasn't, or even tried to, check the allegations in the piece [that he's not read, nor knows the contents of] and that some of the allegations, unspecified, are highly defamatory towards "Australian Skeptics" (again, an undefined term, not the full name nor the ASI contraction) and some unnamed individuals. These are vague, generic claims where a specific, detailed response is called for (he's shown he's happy to get very specific, naming names, dates and volunteering exact figures when it suits). Williams then uses the phrase "allegations of corruption against others", a term not mentioned by anybody else here nor in the published piece except for in writ served by Williams on the Chair of the Trust, his long-term friend and collaborator.

[snip threats, "free character assessments", abuse, insults, etc]

[But that's the thing. They 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 allows Williams and AS-Inc to give their side of the story. Actual "Fair and Balanced Reporting". So why the outlandish, persistent attack strewn with threats?]

Williams says: "Let me make it perfectly clear. I DO NOT give you permission to publish my comments as a response to any article ...". He goes on to say the piece is defamatory and can be demonstrated to be untrue, that (again) it contains allegations of corruption, financial mis-dealings and other things. He closes with a very specific threat of action against all parties: the author, the editor and the "publication" (not possible. presumably he meant the organisation publishing it. Another lapse.)

[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 blow it? 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.]

[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 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.]

Williams continues with his abuse: "Regarding your condescendingly gratuitous advice, might I suggest that you leave pontificating to the Pope" yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. His accuses the AR Editor of having a "cavalier approach" (by doing what?? as shown by ???) and it is the AR Editor who's "let the side down", not him.

[These irrelevant closing insults underline two things: We know that he didn't make good on any of his threats to litigate but he's actively pursuing his strategy of FUD [Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt] to the end. Is this mere projection? Is this actually a very good description of exactly his own behaviour and statements? It seems so to me, but others will have their own opinion.]

I look forward to hearing from you.

Ian Robinson
Australian Rationalist

As do I from you.

Barry Williams
the Skeptic

[Still punching, right to the end... Gotta love it.]

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