Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reasons to be Skeptical: IN THE BEGINNING

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In 1980, businessman Dick Smith, broadcaster Phillip Adams, and journalist Richard Carleton sponsored a visit to Australia by the American magician James "The Amazing" Randi, and put up a $50,000 prize for anyone who could prove psychic phenomena under Randi’s watchful eye. Over a hundred people came forward to be tested for water divining, spoon-bending, ESP, psychic photography and psychic metal detection. All failed to prove their claims before independent observers and the money remained in the pockets of the grinning sceptics.

Shortly after, interested individuals decided to set up the Australian Skeptics as the Australian section of CSICOP, which James Randi co-founded.

The objectives of the Australian Skeptics were:
  • To investigate claims of pseudoscientific, paranormal phenomena from a scientific point of view,
  • To publicise the results of such investigations,
  • To encourage Australians and the media to adopt a critical attitude towards paranormal claims, and
  • To stimulate inquiry and the quest for truth.
These aims will be pursued by
  • establishing a network of people interested in critically examining claims,
  • publishing a periodical,
  • publishing articles and books that examine the paranormal,
  • maintaining a library,
  • encouraging and commissioning research by objective and impartial inquirers,
  • conducting meetings and conferences, and
  • acting as a public information resource.
A 'national committee' was established in Melbourne led by solicitor Mark Plummer and branches sprang up in other states. Interestingly, neither Smith, Adams nor Carleton chose to be officially involved other than as kindly patrons. The first 2-page tabloid-sized newsletter went out in mid-1981 to a small number of $2 per year subscribers and to selected media.

It contained a 'Skeptics test a psychic surgeon' story and other items written mainly by Plummer or sourced from CSICOP in the US.

By 1985 the magazine The Skeptic had grown to 36 pages and the first national convention was held in Sydney with speakers elaborating on the scientific method and its relevance to paranormal medicine, creationism and the techniques of physics. They had by then introduced their famous Bent Spoon Award, given to the person or group who came out with the most unscientific 'piffle' of the year. Clairvoyant Tom Wards was the first recipient, followed over the years by other now-forgotten psychics. (One winner, Woman’s Day magazine, has increased circulation substantially since getting the award.)

In February 1986, national president Mark Plummer declared that the next convention would see state branch committees meeting with the 'national committee' and being allowed voting rights in determining policy and priorities, including the National Secretariat. This occurred some months later with the NSW president Barry Williams and his state committee taking over the national responsibilities from the Victorians. At the same time it was decided to incorporate and, because the national secretariat was for the time being in Sydney, this was done in NSW under the Associations Incorporation Act (1984) but in the name of the national body as the "Australian Skeptics, Inc".

However, the objectives as submitted to the NSW Corporate Affairs Commission in October, 1986 were changed from the original objectives of the Australian Skeptics.

The four previous objectives were ignored and what was originally an 'addendum' stating the means by which the objectives would be pursued was elevated, in slightly amended form, to the status of aims and objectives.

Why, and by what authority, the original objectives were abandoned by the Sydney group has not been explained.

What it seems to have done is misread the CSISOP documents - CSICOP has a similar list to that below, but CSISOP clearly distinguishes it from its objectives proper by prefacing the list with the words “To carry out these objectives the Committee…”.

The logical distinction between ends and means seems to have been lost on the 1986 Sydney Skeptics, who in their application to the Corporate Affairs Commission simply state:
The aims and objects [sic] of the Association shall be:
(a) To establish a network of people in Australia who are interested in examining claims concerning psychic, paranormal and cognate phenomena (including empirically anomalous phenomena, "fringe science" and similar claims) in a systematic, careful and open-minded manner.
(b) To be a public resource and to act as a "clearing house" to make information and relevant expertise relating to such claims available to interested individuals, groups, and to the media.
(c) To encourage Australians and the Australian media to adopt a critical attitude towards such claims.
(d) To publish articles and other material examining these matters.
(e) To prepare bibliographies of material relating to the interests of the Association.
(f) To conduct meetings, seminars and conferences.
(g) To encourage research into these matters by objective and impartial inquirers.
(h) To foster links with similar organisations in Australia and overseas.

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