Monday, May 21, 2012

In Their Own Words: What the website says.

Subscribers are still not Members after 15 years.

Short form:
  • The "Who we are" page is internally inconsistent:
    • the term "Australian Skeptics" is used in contradictory and exclusionary ways, without being clarified, to mean both "the collective of Sceptics in Australia" and only the members of Y0133609.
  • There are 1000-1500 potential members in NSW who have been denied membership, which prime face suggests an investigation is warranted, or must be treated as the General Public purchasing the magazine, which might constitute carrying on a Commercial Activity, contrary to the Objects of the Act.
  • The confusion can be quickly and trivially fixed in multiple ways, but after ~15 years the confusion remains.
  • The Office Bearers, Committee and Editors/Executive Officers of Y0133609 have collectively and knowingly allowed this confusion to remain for ~15 years. I can't see any any legitimate purpose this might serve. Claiming they were ignorant of the confusion or they've been indolent, negligent, careless or worse is to claim they were derelict in their duties.

Long form:

Adam Joseph, prior to 2000, made a very important point: Members are not subscribers.

I checked with a friend who is a long-time "Skeptic", and he still claims that "to become a member, subscribe to the magazine". Later I discovered he'd been an early Secretary of the NSW Association and he gave me some reasons they "did not have open membership".

The Association returns for Y0133609  lodged in 2010 and 2011 declare 15 and 16 members respectively. Somewhat at odds with the "4,000" members, not subscribers, claimed on the public website and the 25-35% you'd expect to be members of the New South Wales Association.

The central technique relied upon by Barry Williams as President and Editor for 20+ years, and the Committee of Y0133609, is maintaining the confusion of meaning between the terms:
  • "Australian Skeptics", either the collection of people in Australia who self-identify as Skeptics, or the Unincorporated Entity which is the "loose confederation of groups" and might once have been headed by "The National Committee", and
  • "Australian Skeptics Inc", NSW registered Association Y0133609.
Nomenclature: I will use "AS" to mean the Unincorporated Entity or collection of people in Australia, and "AS-Inc" to mean the NSW Association.
The confusion remans and appears very deliberate and intentional, my reasons follow.

That the confusion could be very quickly & easily resolved, and that those in NSW know, is shown by their use of the (bogus) Association name: "NSW Skeptics Inc" in 1996 and twice in 2009.

There are two obvious benefits arising from maintaining this on-going confusion:
  • Control of the NSW Association, which owns the cash-generating Magazine, website and associated Intellectual Property, which resides with the current small group to do with as they please, and
  • Control of the ~$1.5M Whalley bequest at the heart of the ASSEF, "THE AUSTRALIAN SKEPTICS SCIENCE AND EDUCATION FOUNDATION LIMITED" ACN: 088 875 772, a Company Limited by Guarantee [that started out as a Trust].
Following advertisements, at least in "the Skeptic", addition bequests were made to the ASSEF, as noted by the Editoral (pg 5) of "the Skeptic" 2007, Issue #3. The total value of the fund is unknown.
Stephen Robjohns lived near Adelaide and Stephen Rasmussen lived in Melbourne; both had been subscribers for more than 15 years, and neither had ever attended any of our functions.
Sadly, both of them died within the past year and both of them left substantial bequests to the Australian Skeptics Science and Education Foundation in their wills.
The only financial report for the ASSEF I could find in "the Skeptic" was 1996 Issue #4, pg 63, authored by Harry Edwards. That these reports disappeared seems odd, given that Whalley was a Queenslander and the bequest was intended to the "Australian Skeptics", not solely a very small, unrepresentative NSW Association.

Barry Williams for his ~20 years as President/Editor then paid Editor/Executive Officer studiously referred to people as "subscribers", not members - as seen above when referring to the two new bequests. He, and the other small group of members of Y0133609 have never clarified this situation.

The Australian Computer Society, to whom Office Bearers and Committee members belong, provides a good model for the information a multi-tiered National+State Body should present for reasonable Openness and Transparency:
  • Accurate and complete lists of Office Bearers of all Bodies, National and (State) Branches.
  • A clear picture of the structure and interrelationships of the Bodies and responsibilities/reporting obligations of each office bearer.
  • Single, clear membership association [one fee, plus 'what branch do I belong to?'] and public entrance requirements and a common assessment process. 
  • Public and transparent AGM's, Financial reporting, Office Bearer Elections and prompt, public publishing of results. "One Vote, One Value".
  • Reporting of membership numbers in Total and by Branch, circulation numbers of publications.

Does the current website perpetuate this fiction?

How would an Ordinary Reasonable Reader interpret the "How to Join" page?:
How to Join
To join Australian Skeptics, subscribe to our quarterly magazine the Skeptic or contact one of the many active Skeptics groups and activities around the country.
My friend still suggests this means "subscribers are members", which I think is exactly the how an "ordinary reasonable reader" (ORR) would interpret this and how, I contend, it is meant to be read.

The term "Australian Skeptics", especially with the payment of a subscription fee, would be taken to mean by the ORR that they've joined the group who run the website, publish the magazine and organise national events, like the conference and "TAM". The group that self-identifies in common parlance as "Australian Skeptics", not the precise, registered name of Y0133609, "Australian Skeptics Inc".

Which of the two meanings applies in the "How to Join" page, AS or AS-Inc?
  • A generous interpretation is just the Collection of people was meant and that AS-Inc was not meant or implied.
  • A harsh interpretation is the "Inc" was deliberately left off to perpetuate the current illusion and keep people from realising they may not be members of any Association if they did not actively and separately join.
    • Since 2000 when Adam Joseph went public with his claim, the Committee of Y0133609 and Barry Williams as Editor/Executive Officer, have known there was a confusion of terms and that ordinary subscribers were unaware they were not members of AS-Inc.
    • The 2009 publication of "NSW Skeptics Inc" signals that both the Editor and Committee are very aware that a different name could be used.
    • More of the intent of the NSW Committee is revealed in the 2nd link, the "Contact" page.
There is a very big question relating to intent that arises about the wording, given that the Committee of Y0133609 have provably known for a decade or more that there is widespread, perhaps universal confusion amongst subscribers, that "subscribers are members".

Why haven't they brought confusion this to the attention of subscribers in either the "How to Join" or "Contacts" page?
  • Is the lack of a sentence to that effect evidence of negligence, oversight, sloppiness or carelessness, or
  • Is this a deliberate action? 
Neither set of choices, given the extent of the misunderstanding and the time that's passed since it was made public, is acceptable performance.

The website "Contact Page" reads:
... Australian Skeptics also have very active groups across the country. The groups are affiliated but independent. ...

New South WalesThe NSW group is known as Australian Skeptics, Inc. Australian Skeptics, Inc publishes this website and a quarterly magazine, the Skeptic. … Group details »
This very clearly tells us three things:
  • The website owners/creators (the Committee of Y0133609) can be very precise in their use of language (AS-Inc not AS)
  • they understand the distinction between AS and AS-Inc and when they want or need, can and will distinguish between them.
  • they explicitly link the website and publication of the magazine to the Y0133609, not anyone/anything else.
Following the clear instructions on the "How to Join" page would lead an "ordinary reasonable reader" who lives in Sydney, NSW, to believe they only need to subscribe to become a member of Y0133609. Would they also realise they need to explicitly apply to become a member and use the details on the contacts page, which on the face of it, is identical in form and content to all the other groups' pages?

Yet the NSW Association "Contacts" page does not contain a caveat or notice that membership is not open. If the Committee of Y0133609 has known for 10+ years of this confusion [subscribers are not members] why have they not added the few words needed on the "How to Join" and "Contacts" page?

We know from the Association Returns that Y0133609 maintains a very small membership (15-16).

We know from Adam Joseph's 2000 piece that he and others attempted to become members, and were refused. There is no published process on becoming a member, not a mere magazine subscriber, of Y0133609  There are announcements of "Honorary Life Members" made in "the Skeptic'. A collected list is included at the end of the 2012 update.

There was only one amendment to the Model Association Rules by the NSW Association in 1987, to allow more than 3 ordinary members to be co-opted to the Committee without election.

But the Model Rules from 1987 and the current Model Constitution only have one class of membership: there are no provisions for "Life Members". If Life Members can be appointed, how does this happen and if they can ever be expelled are undefined. Does this ambiguity or omission mean they are not members of good standing?

In spite of this lack and the on-going confusion, "subscribers are not members", nothing is written in this relevant place to alert potential members of the impediments if they wish to become members.

Over the last decade, it is inconceivable to me that nobody has attempted to gain formal membership of the NSW Association. The people that self-identify as Sceptics, are detailed oriented and self-describe as "Critical Thinkers" who question everything.

Again the question, how the can this be interpreted and can anything be deduced about the intents of the authors?
  • Is there a generous interpretation that isn't negligence or worse? or
  • Are we very close to only have a harsh interpretation?
    • That the omissions are deliberate and intentionally misleading and/or deceptive?
Finally the "Who we Are" page. The term "Australian Skeptics" or its contraction, "Skeptics", appears 9 times. The page is edited for clarity to highlight their use and numbered for disambiguation:
  1. Australian Skeptics is a loose confederation of groups across Australia that ...
  2. If you’ve never heard of the Australian Skeptics before then you should also take time to read our aims.
  3. There are Skeptics groups across Australia. See the contact page for more information.
  4. The Australian Skeptics are supported by donations and subscriptions from more than 4000 members, consisting of people drawn from a vast variety of age groups, cultures and professions.
  5. Many state and regional groups of the Australian Skeptics have their own local newsletters and often ... and other recreational activities.
  6. You’ll occasionally find the Skeptics in newspapers, on television, or on the radio analysing or debunking some mysterious claim.
  7. If you’re interested in joining the Australian Skeptics or just contacting us for any reason, please see our How To Join page or the contact page.
  8. The Australian Skeptics publish a quarterly magazine named the Skeptic. Since 1981, the Skeptic has reported and reviewed issues  ...
  9. The Skeptics host an annual national convention which ...
The meaning of items 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 are either unequivocally "the collection of people" or without distinction between AS/AS-Inc.

Terms 4 and 7 have critically different meanings depending the two terms, AS and AS-Inc.

Term 8 is unequivocally AS-Inc, both to those "in the know" and as very precisely stated on "Contacts" page, AS-Inc and only AS-Inc (Y0133609)  publishes the magazine.

Term 9, the running of a national convention, hasn't been disambiguated elsewhere in the site. Y0133609  make no claims about ownership of this event, so the general AS interpretation is reasonable.

Do the authors intend a single meaning of "Australian Skeptic" within the page, or do they swap meanings of the term, without indication, through the page?:
  • The conflict between the two terms where the meanings are unequivocal, Term 1 and Term 8, says that the page was either negligently, even accidentally, constructed to be confusing, or was deliberately designed that way.
  • The direction in Term 7 to the other pages, "How to Join" and "Contacts" says the three sets of pages are constructed as a set. That is, all three pages should be read together, either by an "ordinary reasonable reader" or a forensic reader.
  • Term 7 can reasonably be read as "any of the Skeptic groups" and while AS-Inc would be extremely misleading, examining it doesn't progress this line of argument [7 now ignored].
  • Term 4, the claim of "4,000 members" can be construed as "the collection of people" not AS-Inc, but that throws the focus onto "members" not the very carefully chosen "subscribers" used consistently throughout all issues of the magazine, "the Skeptic".
This leads to another task, interpreting the meaning in Term 4 of "members", is it closer to "subscribers" or the technically precise "registered member of a group or Association"?

A simplification is to just consider people from New South Wales. Whilst this doesn't capture the people from other states who believe the "How to Join" page that subscribing leads to membership, it does identify a meaningful group.

In the main, Y0133609 is Sydney based, with two much smaller localities: Hunter Region and "Victoria Borderline". Elsewhere I've estimated 25-35% the 4,000 subscriber-members (1,000-1,500) claimed in Term 4 will be from New South Wales. But with the closed membership of Y0133609, there is no local group or Association for them to join, should they wish to do so.

The question for the Regulators is: what status do the orphaned 1,000-1,500 NSW subscriber non-members have?
  • They clearly self-identify as (Australian) "Sceptics".
  • They have a reasonable expectation from the "How to join" page, that their subscription and fee grants them membership to something.
  • In a real sense, as subscribers they are members of the "collection of Sceptics within Australia", but so are a rather larger set of non-subscribers.
  • They are not members, de facto or formal, of any group or Association, nor can they all become members of Y0133609. It has 15 or 16 formal members. Whither the remaining ~1,000?
Are these orphaned subscriber-members merely members of the General Public? They certainly have no standing with the registered Association, nor even as an informal group.

The NSW Associations Incorporation Act has as in its objects:
to establish a scheme for the registration of associations that are constituted for the purpose of engaging in small-scale, non-profit and non-commercial activities ...
Selling at least 1,000 subscriptions to members of the General Public, even those who self-identify as sympathisers, at $40,000+/year seems to me to be a Commercial activity, not minor or incidental activity.

In light of this, selling Magazine subscriptions appears to me to be one of, if not the, prime activities of "Australian Skeptics Inc". This is borne out by the proportion of its operations revenue derived from the  Magazine and that its sole paid employee and largest single expense, is the Editor/Executive Officer.

Taking this as the motivation and business model of  Y0133609, then questions of intent and the various meanings of the term "Australian Skeptic" spread across the website are clear:
  • the confusion of the two names, "Australian Skeptic" and "Australian Skeptic Inc" is deliberate and intentional, it doesn't alert subscribers they are not members.
  • it is necessary to preserve the Status Quo of the last 25 years with Office Bearers and the Committee being elected by a small, well-know group of formal members,
  • the "subscribers are not members" meme must be preserved and kept secret for the current 16 members to maintain control of Y0133609, and
  • keeping up the appearance of "subscribers are members" avoids the embarrassment and legal inconveniences of being declared a Commercial undertaking.
Without reconciling the Magazine subscriber list with membership records of all of the "loosely confederated groups", it is impossible to ascertain the exact proportion of non-member subscribers.
As this would require co-operation of the regulators across many jurisdictions, it is very likely to ever happen.

BUT, the General Public subscriber non-members of NSW are easy to identify and its trivial to remove the 15/16 members of AS-Inc. This can be ordered by a single Regulator, the NSW Registrar of Associations.

If the NSW Association was a legitimate non-commercial operation, the steps needed to clean-up the current confused state are simple and obvious:
  • Rename the NSW Association to "NSW Skeptics Inc" (as they've already used)
  • Take all existing NSW subscribers as the initial Association membership,
  • hold a Special General Meeting of the new membership to elect new Office Bearers, and
  • across the three linked pages on the website, replace all relevant instances of "Australian Skeptics" with "NSW Skeptics Inc".
and creates a nightmare for physical assembly, as required by AGM's.

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