(Investigator 64, 1999 January)
"We could be the richest psychics, easy," said Barry Williams, editor of the Skeptic. "We know what buttons to press."
He was addressing the December meeting of The Skeptics S.A. about the rise of the Skeptics as an organization in Australia.
Born in 1938 Mr Williams started doubting at 15 after a salesman sold him "ancient" out-of-date books. "I was conned," he said.
In the 1960s he was impressed with Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods – until reading paragraphs on a subject he was familiar with, ancient Egypt.
"It was rubbish," said Mr Williams.
In 1979 a TV crew over New Zealand taped lights which subsequently became one of the best cases for UFOs. Australian businessman Dick Smith suggested on TV that Australia needed a skeptical organization able to comment on such unexplained phenomena.
Mark Plummer of Melbourne then started such an organization and Mr Williams became its New South Wales spokesperson.
In 1981 the quarterly journal the Skeptic commenced.
Media attention was gained by practicing hoaxes.
In one case visiting American magician, Bob Steiner, pretended to be a psychic and gained wide TV coverage before admitting it was a trick.
Another time James Randi, also an American magician, taught "channeling" to a clothing store worker who subsequently performed this trick at the Sydney Opera House and appeared on the TV program 60 Minutes.
In 1996 the Australian Skeptics became the beneficiary to a bequest of $1million. The organization subsequently instituted the full time position of Executive Officer & Editor – filled since January 1997 by Barry Williams.
The Skeptics offer $100,000 to anyone who demonstrates a paranormal power under test conditions. Candidates are told, "We want an exact description telling us what you think you can do."
Said Mr Williams, "This stops more than 90 per cent. The remainder are dishonest, deluded or deranged.
"People can easily delude themselves about all sorts of things. We want to challenge the dishonest but they won't come near us because they know they're dishonest."
An example of the "deluded" was a man who videotaped dancing lights in the sky. The tape recorded his growing excitement while his friends beside him remained impassive. The lights were merely stars and their movements the camera shaking!
Skeptics began holding