(Investigator 40, 1995 January; Previously the skeptic Vol 14, No 3)
I have often been asked the same question, "How did the Australian Skeptics start?" and as the answer may be of interest to our subscribers I have put together this brief history.
In 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was formed in the United States.
Its official bi-annual journal, The Zetetic (title changed to the Skeptical Inquirer and made a quarterly in 1978) came to the notice of Australians Dick Smith, Philip Adams and Mark Plummer, who became subscribers.
In a letter to the Skeptical Inquirer, (Winter 1979-80. 4:2 p 107) Plummer opined that a branch was badly needed in Australia and asked for interested parties in this country to contact him.
Dick Smith read the letter, contacted Mark, and offered to sponsor a visit to Australia by James Randi, a professional magician and principal investigator for CSICOP. Randi had previously worked on an expose of psychic surgery with Richard Carleton who at that time was with the BBC in London.
In October 1980, James Randi came to Australia, and supported by an offer from Dick Smith, Philip Adams and Richard Carleton of a $50,000 prize for anyone who could prove psychic phenomena, tested over one hundred people who made such claims – water diviners, spoon benders, ESP, psychic photography and metal detection.
All failed to prove their claims under controlled test conditions.
Following the meeting, Mark Plummer called for volunteers to start the Australian Skeptics. Among the first to join was James Gerrard who became and remained National Secretary for the first five years, Mark assuming the mantle of National President.
Dick Smith and Phillip Adams became Patrons of Australian Skeptics and offered $10,000 each as an award to anyone who could demonstrate a paranormal ability under controlled conditions. In 1987, Dr Paul Wild, then head of the CSIRO, became a third Patron. In 1991, Ron Evans, Secretary of the South Australian branch, added an extra $10,000 to the amount to be offered to successful paranormalists.
The first issue of the Skeptic came off the press as a four-page tabloid format newsletter in January 1981, with Mark Plummer as editor, assisted by James Gerrard. In that year three issues were produced and in the next year the magazine increased in size to sixteen pages and became a quarterly.
Editorship passed to Janet de Silva in 1983, followed by Anne Tuohy in 1985 and moved to Sydney under the pen of Tim Mendham in November 1986. At this time, Mark Plummer went to the USA to become CSICOP’s Executive Director, and the New South Wales branch committee became the National Committee with Barry Williams at the helm.
By late 1987 Tim, who was wearing five hats – editor, secretary, archivist, treasurer – and shouldering the responsibility for back issues, wilted under the strain. Harry Edwards took on co-editing, the secretariat and responsibility for back issues. Despite the decreased number of his jobs the ever-increasing size of the Skeptic (then averaging 40 pages) and increasing pressure from his employers proved too much and early in 1990, Tim was forced to throw in the towel.
Barry Williams took on the role of Editor, purely as a temporary measure, but found that he liked the job so much that it would now require the application of explosives to remove him. Harry Edwards has remained as his side-kick in the job and has become the chief investigator of strange beliefs. Since 1990, Dick Champion has held the purse strings, and Ian Bryce has been responsible for testing challengers for the $30,000 Skeptics Challenge.
In 1993, we produced In the Beginning, a compilation of all the major articles from the first five years of the Skeptic. In this way, we make all of our work available to our subscribers.
In its fourteen years of existence, Australian Skeptics has grown from a handfull of enthusiasts into an organisation of more than 1500 subscribers, whose numbers include representatives of almost every profession and occupation.
We have branches in every state, award the Bent Spoon annually to the "perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle", have tested many claimants for our Challenge (none have yet been successful), and have spread the concept of scepticism via our journal and through the media at large. In this, we have had a measure of success, in that those who wish to promote magical thinking are on notice that their claims will not go unchallenged.
has always been to
thinking and to encourage people to look at the world as it is and not
as it might appear in our fantasies. The evidence suggests we have not
done a bad job, but, as someone once almost said "The price of
freedom is eternal vigilance". With your support, we hope we can keep