The Skeptical movement in Australia is a loose confederation of groups and individuals who are interested in and regularly investigate pseudo-scientific and paranormal claims from a responsible scientific viewpoint.
These claims range from what we might call the lighter end of the scale (UFOs, monsters and ghosts) where the most you can lose is probably some money or a little time, to those very dark areas of psychic schemes and quack cures where the results can be dangerous, damaging or even fatal.
On a more formal level, Australian Skeptics dates its foundation to 1980, when James Randi, the then principal investigator for the American-based Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP – now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), visited Australia to investigate water divining. This investigation was sponsored by entrepreneur Dick Smith.
For these tests, Dick Smith and others raised a prize amount of $50,000. That has since grown to $100,000, and is the basis for our challenge to anyone who claims to have psychic or paranormal powers to demonstrate their ability under proper observing conditions.
Randi’s visit raised a great deal of interest, not least from those wishing to continue the momentum he generated via an organisation that would investigate paranormal and pseudoscientific claims and act as a central source of information for the public and the media.
Consequently, Australian Skeptics was founded in Melbourne, Victoria, and began publishing a quarterly magazine called The Skeptic from 1981. The first chairman of this group was lawyer Mark Plummer. Dick Smith became a patron of the group, and remains so to this day.
Groups in other states and territories were soon started, all sharing the same aims of promoting skepticism in Australia, with the Victorian group working notionally as the national headquarters.
The first Australian Skeptics National Convention was held in Sydney in 1985, and a convention has been held in some Australian city every year since.
In 1986, Mark Plummer took up a position with CSICOP in the US, and Australian Skeptics moved its organisation headquarters from Melbourne to Sydney, with Barry Williams as president. In the same year it became an incorporated association in NSW as “Australian Skeptics Inc” (ASI). Production of The Skeptic magazine was transferred to ASI in 1987. ASI still operates today and is responsible for coordinating several awards (listed below) and the annual national conventions, the $100,000 challenge, as well as the magazine and as the primary focus for media and the public (though local groups are also active in these areas).
Various regional groups have also started up, many based on the Skeptics in the Pub model of monthly informal gatherings.
ASI is supported by subscriptions to the magazine, donations and bequests.
In 1995, ASI received a sizeable bequest from the estate of Stanley David Whalley. With these funds the organisation established the Australian Skeptics Science and Education Foundation (ASSEF). ASI and ASSEF give grants for various skeptical and scientifically-oriented activities, including awards to science students, research on skeptical projects, and activities by state and local groups.
At the national convention, ASI also announces its awards: the Thornett Award for Promotion of Reason (a $1000 prize given to a member of the public for significant contribution to educating or informing the public regarding issues of science and reason); the Skeptic of the Year to someone associated with the skeptical community who has been particularly active over the previous year; and the less-desirable Bent Spoon award to “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle”.
Finally, over the years, Australian Skeptics, ASI and various skeptical groups and individuals have been very active – and very successful in – in a range of campaigns. Just some of these include:
- The battle against the teaching of Creationism in schools, especially in Qld. Creationists pulled in their horns and have never been as strong
- Major study on the teaching of pseudoscience and pseudomedicine in Australian universities. Several universities withdrew or toned-down support for such courses. Led to the foundation of the Friends of Science in Medicine lobby group.
- Major study of Australian health insurance funds’ cover for alternative medicine
- Media campaign against pseudoscience Power Balance wristbands, (including production of Placebo Balance bands. Local distributor was put out of business, impact went international.
- Set up legal defence fund support for Ken Harvey in fight against Sensaslim pseudo diet product.