By Barry Williams
In 1982, Australian Skeptics instituted an award to be presented annually at the National Convention to individuals or organisations who made the most outrageous claim of a paranormal or pseudoscientific nature in the preceding year. After conferring with leading American Skeptic and illusionist, James Randi, who had earlier instituted a Bent Spoon award, it was decided that our award would also commemorate one of the less useful, though widely acclaimed, alleged paranormal claims; the psychic ability to distort items of cutlery. So was born the Australian Bent Spoon Award. Some years later, in a masterpiece of alliteration, it was decided that the preamble to the award should read “presented to the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle”.
As this award was designed to rival the Nobels, the Miles Franklins, the Oscars and the Ernies in its impact on public awareness, hardly any expense was spared in the construction of the trophy. A piece of timber, which we had no reason to doubt was an off cut of gopher wood from the Ark construction site, was polished to a high gloss and thereupon was affixed a spoon, which, rumour suggests, may have been used at the Last Supper. The spoon, having been tastefully bent into a graceful curve, by energies that are, we suspect, unknown to science, is plated with gold by means of a deposition process long thought lost with the submergence of Atlantis.
The inaugural 1982 Bent Spoon Award was made, amid considerable public apathy, to self-proclaimed “psychic”, Tom Wards. Wards had achieved some notoriety in the less reputable journals, for the inaccuracy of his predictions of world events and the bombast with which he promoted himself. Interestingly, Wards was exposed some years later by a TV current affairs programme for seeking customers in a Victorian rural centre and giving them all the same reading. Not much been heard from him in recent times.
The 1983 award went to another Melbourne mystic, Dennis Hassell, who attracted audiences with his claim to be able to make various parts of his anatomy disappear. What purpose was supposed to be served by this ability, even if genuine, was never explained. The notoriety attached to his award seems to have had the effect of making him disappear in toto, and we have heard nothing of him for years.
The 1984 award was attended by a minor public scandal. The Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, a no-longer extant public utility, then responsible for Melbourne’s water supply (among other things), was planning some new works on land it owned at Laverton. It showed admirable social responsibility in seeking to find if there was anything of historical significance on the land, but, unfortunately, used inappropriate methods of finding out. A member of the staff had heard of an American “psychic archaeologist” who prospected sites with divining rods. At public expense, this miracle worker, one Karen Hunt, was brought to Australia and, not surprisingly, found that a colonial building had once been located on the site. The drawings she made were judged, by those who know about such things, to be typical of American colonial architecture, but quite different from Australian architecture of the period. Despite much effort on behalf of Australian Skeptics and our US associates, Ms Hunt’s claims were never put to a formal test.
In 1985 we had our first (and to date only) run in with a “psychic dentist”. Brought to Australia by the Findhorn Foundation (an early New Age body), Brother Willard Fuller drew large crowds to meetings, where, by means of prayer and general ranting, he caused cavities to disappear and amalgam fillings to turn to gold (or so he said). Alerted to these claims, the Dental Licensing Board took legal action, resulting in him being fined for practising dentistry without a licence. Bro Fuller left Australia shortly thereafter and the Findhorn Foundation, his sponsors, were awarded the Sceptical accolade.
The next award went to an Australian sporting icon. In 1986, Peter Brock, Australia’s premier touring car driver, became involved in promoting an “energy polariser” which, he alleged, when attached to the firewall of a car, improved its performance in all fields. The device was not connected to any of the vehicle systems and supposedly worked by application of mysterious “energies unknown to science”. Along with motoring journals, the Skeptics conducted an investigation of the device and found that there was no basis to the claims made. The fallout from this affair saw Brock severing his relationship with General Motors, his long time sponsors and with a number of his colleagues. The publicity associated with the case saw the device withdrawn from sale.
Adelaide “psychic”, Anne Dankbaar was the lucky winner for 1987. In a widely publicised case, she claimed to have discovered, by psychic means, the remains of the legendary Colossus of Rhodes in the water near that Greek island. The publicity attendant on the claim saw the Greek Minister for Culture sponsoring a recovery mission, but all that was found was some modern builders’ rubble. The local media were criticised in our award for giving wide publicity to a claim without doing any checking of facts.
In a slow year for paranormal events, another Adelaide “psychic” figured in the 1988 awards. Diane McCann, a prominent new age proponent, decided and loudly proclaimed that the City of Churches was in fact the location of part of the lost civilisation of Atlantis. Her award recognised her unfamiliarity with geography as much as it did her extraordinary claim.
In 1989, we altered the timing in which potential nominees could carry out their activities. Previously it covered the calendar year that preceded the convention, which had hitherto always been held on the Easter weekend. In this year we changed the convention date to later in the year and the committee decided that it made more sense consider events that happened between the conventions. This is why there is no 1989 award.
Channelling was all the rage in 1990 and Australia was treated to a visit from one Mafu, an ancient entity and our winner for the year. Mafu had been through many earthly manifestations and his earthly “channel”, Penny Torres Rubin drew many Skeptics to her public appearances. They were distinguished by the entity’s inability to speak any of his previously acquired tongues, which may have been unfortunate, because the wisdom he dispensed in English was indistinguishable from vacuous drivel.
1991 saw acceleration in the trend of weekly women’s magazines to concentrate on purveying celebrity gossip and spurious New Age nostrums. In a closely fought battle, Women’s Day was declared the winner over its (largely indistinguishable) rivals, based on its higher circulation figures.
The winner for 1992 was someone whose a name that would have echoes throughout the 1990s. “Dr” Allen Roberts, a fundamentalist pastor, had made headlines by being kidnapped by Kurdish rebels in Turkey, after he had visited the site of what was (he claimed) Noah’s Ark. His claims made in public meetings about this extraordinary “find” were subjected to scrutiny by scientists and skeptics alike, and revealed the paucity of his knowledge of subjects, such as history and archaeology, in which he claimed some expertise.
1993 was another slow year and the award went to Tonight Live on Channel 7 for giving publicity to various paranormal claimants. Some Skeptics were not entirely pleased with this award, as there was evidence that this recipient had gone out of its way to receive it.
Things looked up again in 1994, and in a hard fought contest, the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Office was named. This office, the custodian of the laws of the land, showed scant recognition of the laws of nature, when it allowed its staff to take sick leave with certificates provided by the practitioners of entirely unsubstantiated “alternative” health modalities.
American author, Marlo Morgan got the judges’ nod for 1996, following the success of her appalling denigration of Australian Aboriginal culture in her book Mutant Message Down Under. A ludicrous mishmash of American Indian legend and mindless new age dogma, this book achieved best sellerdom in the US and Europe, while causing great pain and expense to Aboriginal groups. Representatives of these groups were forced to travel overseas to publicly expose her cultural inaccuracy.
The health of Australia’s children is increasingly under threat from ill-informed critics of immunisation against preventable diseases. The 1997 Bent Spoon was awarded to a leader of this campaign, Dr Viera Scheibner, a micro-palaeontologist, whose unsubstantiated attacks on conventional medical practice has left many parents confused and many children unprotected against dangerous diseases.
This theme continued in 1998 when we, for the first time, sought among the groves of academe (more the thickets or undergrowth, really) for a worthy recipient of the accolade. Southern Cross University won the admiration of the judging panel for a remarkable piece of rationalisation in instituting a study into the efficacy of various alternative therapies, while at the same time offering a degree course in those very therapies. Not so much putting the cart before the horse as inserting the cart and the horse into the starting barrier side-by-side.
In 1999 we were somewhat saddened by the only serious contender for the award. Michael Willesee was formerly a towering figure in Australian current affairs television and he had once won a Skeptics’ Journalism award for his critical approach to dubious claims. In this year, however, he seemed to have succumbed to a form of millennial hysteria as he gave his name and prestige to an utterly credulous and appalling TV “documentary” Signs from God, which gave uncritical acceptance to a plethora of weeping statues, stigmatics and other pseudo-religious and oft-exposed claptrap.
In 2000 Australian Skeptics celebrated 20 years of existence (as well as the last year of the 20th Century, though some of the ill-informed disputed this) and hosted the third World Skeptics Convention . It also saw one outstanding candidate for the Bent Spoon, in the person of Brisbane woman Ellen Breen who, under the non de drivel Jasmuheen, promoted the dangerous doctrine of “breatharianism. This holds that the human organism, properly trained, has no need for food or drink of any kind, and can subsist entirely on air and light. And so it can (albeit for a very brief period) as the tragic deaths from starvation of a number of her acolytes around the world attests.
Queensland, on a roll, also produced the Bent Spoon laureate for 2001. During this year a couple of inventors from Cairns started a company that launched the latest in a long line of “perpetual motion” (or “over unity” as they are now popularly named) devices guaranteed to solve the world’s energy problems. Thanks largely to the work of Skeptic, Ian Bryce, this gadget was exposed as a technological fallacy, and the company Lutec Pty Ltd was named as the very deserving winner.
All in all, the Bent Spoon Awards for the past 30 years have honoured an eclectic group of individuals and organisations whose contributions to the intellectual health of the nation can, at best, be described as decidedly negative. Some have attacked their awards, many have chosen to ignore them and one or two have even sought to claim the distinguished trophy. However, part of the small print of the Award is that anyone wishing to acquire the trophy must remove it from our keeping by paranormal means. This seems to be an insuperable barrier as we still have it. We would like to think that winning a Bent Spoon might have caused some recipients to rethink the validity of their claims, or to retire from public view. However the evidence is otherwise and many of them continue to peddle their preposterous pseudoscientific piffle unabated.
We invite readers to nominate their candidates for future accolades, bearing in mind that the winner should either be an Australian or have carried out their activities in Australia.