Bent Spoon to CSIRO head

The incoming chief executive of the CSIRO, Dr Larry Marshall, was awarded the much un-coveted Bent Spoon award for 2014 at the Australian Skeptics National Convention in November.

The Bent Spoon is the Australian Skeptics’ annual award for the “perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle”.
Marshall, even before taking up his new position, put the spotlight on himself with some unguarded comments endorsing water divining.

In an interview with ABC Radio, he said that he had seen diviners operate with very good results.

“Something that has always fascinated me, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen farmers find water, and as a scientist I can’t explain how they do this, but there’s a number of tricks when people dowse for water, and I can tell you, I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy.

“I’ve always wondered whether there is something in the electromagnetic field or in gravitation anomaly, whether there’s something that would enable you to more efficiently detect water.”

The Twitter world leaped into action, with many comments questioning why someone with a physics background, and soon to be head of the country’s largest research institution, would endorse the totally unproven ‘skill’ of dowsing.

CSIRO quickly followed with its own Twitter message: “Don’t worry. Larry’s interested in helping farmers access water but he wasn’t saying divining is the answer.” This apparent attempt to put a lid on the commentary failed; in fact, it then encouraged others to comment on the attempt itself.

Marshall later told ScienceInsider that, while he would be seeking further advice from his more “level headed” CSIRO staff, while dowsing is a “little out there” it is the agency’s job to “push the envelope”.

Dr Marshall takes up his new position in January 2015. He was educated at Macquarie University where he took a doctorate in physics. He has spent the last 25 years in technology venture capital.

Eran Segev, president of Australian Skeptics Inc, said that “The members of the various Skeptics committees from around Australia who vote on the Bent Spoon Award were in agreement that it was not so much that Marshall has a science background and was endorsing an unscientific process – others have done that as well – but that he was soon to be in the top position of CSIRO which was our greatest concern.

“It was also their view that it should be clear that the Bent Spoon was going to Marshall as an individual, and not to the CSIRO.”

Dishonourable mentions in the Spoon category were the perennial contender Fran Sheffield of Homeopathy Plus for her endorsement of homeopathic treatments of the Ebola virus, and the promoters of the Premium Wine Card, a credit card-sized item that supposedly improves the flavour of wine through “an embedded set of precise frequencies that produce a long-lasting natural resonance [that] can be transferred to wine through the wine glass.” Both contenders were presenting totally unproven, disproven or just plain silly solutions.

Skeptic of the Year

The more appreciated Skeptic of the Year Award went to Peter Tierney, a consistent campaigner against pseudoscience, misrepresentation and dodgy behaviour among the anti-vaccination brigade, particularly the Australian Vaccination Network and various chiropractors. His efforts have gained much media attention through his online activity and complaints to AHRPA and the Chiropractic Board of Australia, whose industry members repeatedly flaunt the organisation’s admonition on promoting an anti-vaccination stand. Tierney is continuing in his campaign.

The third award for 2014 was the Thornett Award for the Promotion of Reason. This commemorates Fred Thornett, a Tasmanian Skeptic who died in 2009 (in true awards fashion, we call it “The Fred”). It acknowledges a member of the public or a public figure who has made a significant contribution to educating or informing the public regarding issues of science and reason. In addition to a commemorative certificate, $1000 is awarded to the recipient or to a charity or cause of their choice.

This year the award went to the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters (NRVS), a grassroots pro-vaccination group of people who live in the northern NSW area, a region that has among the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Finally, a life membership of Australian Skeptics went to Lilian Derrick, a long-time stalwart of the Skeptical movement in Queensland and secretary/treasurer of the Gold Coast Skeptics.