Why I am not an Australian Skeptic

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Why am I not a skeptic? Well, at least, why am I not a part of organised skepticism, as claimed by the so-called Australian Skeptics, actually the NSW branch of Skepticism in Australia? It's the experiences I've had, and the resulting appreciation I developed. You might just claim it's sour grapes, but hopefully you'll find the detailed story persuasive. And, it is just as well there are other groups I've been able to relate to - the Humanists, Less Wrong, Effective Altruism - and there's others, like Sunday Assembly and the Unitarian Church - that give you other options to realise your passions in this area. In my case, I ended up in the Humanists, defending again a takeover attempt by neo-nazis. We survived, but it took its toll. I know my short term memory was shot for about 6 months afterwards. I've not been clinically assessed, but I do suspect neurological damage. The choices you make ...

I acknowledge I'll be commenting on people involved in Skeptics Australia who have since passed on - Barry Williams and Martin Hadley. Now, maybe they did some worthwhile things during their time in the Skeptics, but I'll be focusing on the issues I had with them. I would have rather written this while at least Mr. Hadley was still alive, but it has taken me some time to get around to. It's something I need to write and get off my chest - something I told myself I'd write quite some time ago - before I drop off the perch myself, something I'll no doubt get around to in due course. But, I'm talking about an environment that went beyond just these two people at the time. I'm sure many people on that same committee are still alive, and I think the issues do persist to the current day.

So, as I roll back the clock decades - growing up in Sydney's suburbia, with a scientific bent, in a household that just didn't get where I was coming from - when I discovered the Skeptics it was like a breath of fresh air, to discover a group which resonated with so much of where I was coming from. Perhaps that was its own problem, because it was the first group I latched onto. I was naive, thinking the world actually worked as advertised. But I discovered some real problems with Skepticism along the way. My ultimate conclusion was that it was a world unto itself, judgemental, cliquey and inward looking. For sure my personality added its own elements into the mix, but I don't think that stops my conclusion from being valid.

I was at first going along to their dinners and trying to submit material to their journal. But, the thing is, as an attendee at their dinners, as a subscriber to their magazine, you had no influence on what actually happened at the Skeptics. You could make suggestions, but the committee was a law unto itself, and you had to be invited onto it. Delving further, this committee was the custodian of a substantial inheritance. And so, they said they had to be careful that they were not taken over by hostile forces seeking the cash. Well, maybe. But it encourages arrogance. And there would have been other ways of arranging things. Have a senate with invited members that does involve invitation. But then, have a democratically elected committee, with the "Senate" passing some money onto the elected committee via a "hole in the wall" so that you could notionally have the best of both worlds.

Along the way, by historical accident, the NSW branch claimed the title of "Australian" Skeptics and ended up publishing the "Australian Skeptic". But, not having access to the same financial base, I've communicated with people in other state branches who did not appreciate this claim to the word "Australian" by what was in fact the NSW branch.

Now, a lot of the critique by creationists, whatever, outside of the fold, of Atheists, skeptics, whatever is that they are "arrogant". And a lot of the time, it is just throwing rocks. But I hope talking about the whys and hows of this "arrogance" with illuminate the picture better.

So, wanting to get my material published, I followed the first rule of writing - read the publication you're submitting to. But, then as I got some material published, and I went along to the dinner gatherings, I noticed something curious : it seemed I was only one attending who had actually read articles by other people there. And they didn't seem to read anyone else's articles either. It seemed their only goal was to push stuff out there, they did not feel any obligation to be a part of the community and read stuff there. Now, one senior member of the Skeptic community did actually read my stuff and complimented me on it. Interestingly, he was not from Sydney, and was visiting from interstate.

At the time, Barry Williams the editor would include a lot of material in the Skeptic about cricket. On the one hand you could say it was a cute addition to the journal, but you could also wonder what it was doing there in a journal about skepticism. In fact, looking back, the content of the journal was a strange amalgamum. You had the "charlatan of the month", along with various philosophical and other content where the journal was straining to credibly comment on this as a group focused on what is "wrong in the world" - such content more naturally fitted with journals by the Humanists and others. And of course, that self-indulgent stuff on cricket. Well, it was a realisation of a principle I would only become aware of decades later :

High status individuals are indulged. But, when lower status individuals do similar things, excuses are found.

You could see this "inwards looking" aspect elsewhere. When someone I knew in the Skeptics was talking about them in another circle of relatively "progressive" people, he was talking about the great and amazing people in the Skeptics ... that nobody had ever heard of. Yes, OK, maybe James Randi triggered a little bit of a response, but you did start to appreciate how much of an enclave the Skeptics actually were.

Along the way, I developed an interest in cancer. It's fascinating for me, being a way the body doesn't "do what it is supposed to do". Not just cancer, but all over, this sort of thing does fascinate me. You can read more about this in my article on cancer here. I also developed an interest in the influence of attitude. I had a chance meeting with Prof. Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize Laureate, who told me about some research being conducted by a researcher in Canada that he found intriguing. And indeed, I looked into that. Thinking that as a non- specialist, but qualified in science, my engagement with the ideas would be of interest to people, I set about writing an article on it.

But, on submitting articles, I found there were numerous delays. I guess I learnt to be patient. I know I spoke to Mr. Williams about it, he said he'd look into it. Then, when I next got in touch with him, he said his computer had crashed. Now, it strangely seemed to be not the first time this happened. Mr. Williams never seemed short of excuses. But you'd further think that the right thing to do would have been to send an email to everyone you could think of along the lines of "my computer crashed, if you've sent me articles, please re-submit". But, this brings me up to a corollary of my first observation :

People with power and discretion will never be short of excuses and rationalisations.

Finally, after all this rigmarole, Mr. Williams rejected the article. No suggestions about re-writing it, just a rejection. This is in the shadow of being stuffed around, Barry's articles on cricket, and several pieces at the time denying global warming. My suspicion is that while it was OK to challenge global warming, writing something about cancer and attitude was just not on. It reminds me of Christopher Hitchens, a man I otherwise admire - but there were times when he would invite comments from Holocaust deniers, but later when people wanted to talk about 911 conspiracy theories, would want them ejected. Now, keep in mind I don't deny the Holocaust, and while concede there might have been an intelligence stuff-up, more or less support the mainstream story about 911. But you do notice how these things go "clang".

But, keep in mind, I wasn't denying the worth of regular cancer treatments, just claiming there was a connection between progress of the cancer and attitude. I in fact am pro-vaccination, and have written a piece on that.

I did suspect something was amiss, and wrote the President and board of the Skeptics, challenging this position. I was in fact thinking of resigning, but at the time, I received some encouragement to stick around and not give up - to at least try to hold them to account, just a little. Strange to say, it was a novel idea for me, something I would not have thought of myself. That President at the time was Mr. Martin Hadley. Over time, our correspondence became quite hostile, and I don't think the fault was all mine. I heard it commented that Mr. Hadley was not so much writing to properly engage my position, but rather was writing for the benefit of other members of the Skeptics committee. Strutting his stuff, as it were.

Somewhere along the way, Mr. Hadley offered to review the article. Now, given how hostile our exchange had become, given that he and Mr. Williams seemed to know each other quite well, given that they were both involved in an institution that was unaccountable and had a lot of power compared to me, it wasn't something I could take seriously.

Somewhere along the way, we were at a public event, and Mr. Hadley wanted to shake my hand. I recall it was a building next to Hyde Park. Maybe the Australian Museum, but more likely the Sydney Grammar School. I was hesitant, but did so. I was thinking it would be a gesture of reconciliation, that maybe he would be taking his foot off the accelerator at his end. However, when I got home that evening, I saw another hostile email from him in my inbox, escalating the hostility. It was then that I saw it clearly. A switch flipped inside my head. Now was the time to resign, to move on. I had made my stand, and done all that I could. There was nothing left for me. It was one of the factors that prompted me to set up this website.

I knew something was really wrong, but it was only a decade or so later that I discovered there was a word for Mr. Hadley's behaviour : Perfidious. Normally used in warfare, of approaching under a white flag and then unleashing your weapons and attacking. I reflected that a "win at all costs" approach can mean you win in a way which does quite a lot of collateral damage, and may have a Pyhrric tone. I'm reminded of Mr. Williams and his approach to cricket ... and also underarm bowling.

I realise this is a definite criticism to make of Mr. Hadley who has passed away, and if I'd been more organised I'd have preferred to make it while he was alive. But it was one of those moments that upended my thinking. I'm really trying to make this descriptive rather than a personal attack. You'll have to take my word for it that it happened as I outlined. If it comes to it, I'm happy for our past correspondence to become public. That is, if enough people bother to pay attention and this part of history becomes a contested issue.

Sure, this is in the past. At the time I was wonder if the Skeptics would ever apologise, but I had it on good advice that, well, they never did. A result, perhaps, of the arrogance of power? If I can see a prominent and public attempt by the current Skeptics to distance themselves from the actions of past administrations, that would be something. I can't imagine it would have happened before I wrote this article, but OK, I'll acknowledge it if it does appear or has appeared. I can imagine someone saying privately to me something like "yes that was a mistake" or "yes that was excessive at the time", but it's easy to make a private concession. Again, a reflection of the power they wield. Some might say I should "get over it". Humm. Yes, something that has been said numerous times by bullies around the world.

Speaking of bullies, some time ago there was a controversy around "free thought bullies", with many people "piling on" Rebecca Watson and others. The so-called "elevatorgate" controversy. Now, I did in fact tweet my support for Rebecca Watson. My view is that if someone is telling you how they feel, you need to accept that. That's a given. If you wasn't to be seen to be taking people seriously, you need to do that. A separate issue is whether those feelings are reasonable, but those feelings are always something the individual can feel. To deny those feelings feels a bit off. Further, while it's reasonable to express your disagreement politely, there's a problem when there's emotional judgement mixed in along with "piling on". Yes, as an individual you should be able to express your view. The trouble is I think people don't want to just express their view, they want to have an impact as well, doing more than just "express themselves" in pursuit of that. Sure, express your individual view. But, if you're "piling on" as part of a "tribal identity", you can have problems. Of course, there are legitimate lobby groups and political parties. But, if you're talking about a group of amorphous "supporters" that sit outside of any real organisational structure - well, you're talking about something that's more like a "lynch mob" than any realisation of free speech. In fact, I think there's an endemic double standard within broader atheism / skepticism movement. There's an ideal of working through things dispassionately, but many people do not. In fact, people who are narky get more attention, and there's a feedback loop.

While people take pains to criticise what they see as problems in the outside world, they can be are blind to their own internal failings. I recall communicating with Karen Stollznow, who spoke about the casual sexism of Barry and others in the "Australian Skeptics". And look - some things in the outside world have that "rational" character to them. Either they are right or wrong, and we might be able to measure that. Looking at philosophical issues, it's less clear, but you can at least try to make a rigorous and impartial analysis. But, when something has happened, and you're trying to get to the bottom of it - well, dealing with that situation is a whole other domain, which doesn't really fit into that neat-and-tidy rational ideal. Things become dominated by egoes, table thumping, strong assertions, people trying to leverage their power and flex their muscles through convenient rationalisations, language abuse and manipulation - rather than supposed "reason".

But, continuing my personal story. Giving up on the Skeptics, I then made a contribution to Ian Woolf's "Diffusion" science radio show, and also thought I'd give a presentation to a "Skepticamp" conference. Some of this story is also detailed in my other article here. Now, I was originally planning to give that speech, expecting there would be polite applause, and then we'd all move on and forget about it. In one internal psychological sense, I was wanted to draw a line, after which I could move on. However, at the time a certain Dr. Rachie decided to spend time on twitter and live criticising me. It was a surprise, as I would have thought that, from the Skeptic point of view, the most strategic thing to do would be to ignore me. I mean, that's what they'd mostly done previously. Dr. Rachie was asking "who I was", when if she'd have reflected maybe she'd have remembered meeting me before. While I'd put my views forward elsewhere, maybe the fact I was doing it in a public forum that has the "Skeptic" label, while to some degree at arm's length from the "Australian Skeptics" finally roused them from their slumber. Now, while that video was on youtube for ages, it has mysteriously disappeared, while it seems some other videos from that same Skepticamp seem to still be there. I don't know what happened, and am trying to find this out.

But then, into the bargain, so called "Reasonable Hank" stuck his oar in on twitter, not being there himself but still passing judgement. Strange how, in other circumstances, many people decline to comment in detail on some situation, saying "well, I wasn't there". But no such circumspection from Mr. Hank. If you check out his web page, there are a lot of people saying some very insulting and threatening things. And was strange how many people within broader Atheism and Skepticism were starting to hurl around personal insults all around. Well, I'll make an insult, but try to be a bit more restrained, at least in comparison : in spite of his claimed name, I've never found "Reasonable Hank" to be that.

But it all seems part of a greater selectivity. If you agree with the "party line", it doesn't matter what your credentials are. You don't have to be medically qualified to support vaccination. I certainly do, as should be obvious. But if you're going to make even the tiniest comment supporting claims of a connection between attitude and cancer, then your credentials will be carefully scrutinised. It won't be enough to be scientifically qualified or even be someone with scientific credentials, trying to make a scientifically informed analysis. Your qualifications will then be noted, and while in other circumstances your unqualified support would be welcomed, here it becomes crucial. It's something that's been identified elsewhere; what we have is a "selective call for rigour". So, at the end of all this, let me make a general statement. It is my appraisal of the motives behind what's behind the Skeptics. I think it was true then, and I can't see that a leopard would change its spots in the meantime:

The major driver behind the Skeptics movement is the ability to feel superior and pass judgment on others, in spite of claims to the contrary. As a side issue, the Skeptics may indeed be "correct" about some things and may indeed do good at times. However, this is for the most part a side effect of the dominant thrust.

And, for balance, let me also say:

Clearly, there are many groups (eg. anti-vaxxers, con-artists, extreme christians) who are wrong, and worthy of criticism, presumably with their own flaws. But, in terms of what's driving them, it's not black-and-white difference between them and the skeptics, but rather a shades-of-grey thing.

And you know, I've know of a few people who enter the scene, get converted, and become feral. Fortunately, something which I think I grew out of. Then there's people who hang around, and are tolerated and humored. Perhaps my experiences were ultimately beneficial, because fortunately I didn't end up in that rut. I can recall one of the things I said in that video, paraphrased: "If people try to apply pressure to you to 'take one for the team' - DON'T".

Way back when the Skeptics used to run water-divining sessions. And surprise, surprise the water diviners weren't able to track the water flows. Sure, some made excuses and were in denial. But others were in a state of shock and somewhat puzzled. Look, yes they were wrong. But maybe the Skeptics should have also taken an interest in providing counseling based on the impacts they were having in some cases. I recall the tragic story of how a TV repairman was reviewed for allegedly overcharging customers and committed suicide. Fortunately, the Skeptics didn't see that outcome. But, heck, it's all about "reason", right? And people accepted their invitation freely. After that, its their problem. Nothing to do with the Skeptics ....

But, as I've outlined, it wasn't just these two people, but rather the then prevailing environment. And while I understand there was some dissent, the Skeptics committee more or less went along with Mr. Hadley's approach in dealing with me. In fact, there was one of my last letters which was, I understand, perceived as a general attack; in fact, I was putting the rest of the committee on notice that I held them equally responsible. However, I understand my letter was interpreted in a manner most suited to their preconceptions at the time; this intent was lost on them.

Look, I'm sure I have my own flaws. But the difference is, the Skeptics' flaws were magnified by the fact that they were the ones in power, power that was unaccountable ( and I think, still is). I am reminded by the maxim of Lord Acton:

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If there is a single maxim that might be properly applied to the "Australian" Skeptics, this would be it.