History of WA Skeptics
Classified ad, Sunday Times, Perth 1980
What follows is a mad rush through the history of WA Skeptics up to 1995, pausing only to look at highlights to see if Western Australia has anything notable to offer other than terrible spellers.
The number of WA subscribers to the Skeptic has risen steadily since they began subscribing in 1982. Today about 1 in 10,000 of adult Perthites are subscribers. The proportion of WA subscribers with an email address rose from 40% in 1999 to 60% in 2007.
January 1983 The WA Society for Psychical Research (essentially a non-skeptical talkfest for believers founded in 1979) has been promoting interest in psychic surgery. So Mark Plummer, Melbourne chairman of the newly-formed Australian Skeptics who was visiting Perth, organises a public meeting at Murdoch University at which the trickery behind psychic surgery would be revealed. To provide a live demonstration he calls on magician and press journalist Danny Varney, who later becomes WA Skeptics first secretary.
The public meeting attracts enough interest to get WA Skeptics started. A few of the attendees subsequently became subscribers to the Skeptic, and by the end of 1983 there are a total of 26 WA subscribers, of which 12 do not renew for 1984.
July 1984 The first meeting proper of WA Skeptics was preceded by good publicity in the Post, Weekend Mail and Daily News, and we expected a massive response -- Perth's population had just reached one million, so even if only 0.01% responded we should still attract 100 people. In fact we get only 18 telephone calls and an attendance of 8, of whom 5 are skeptics and 3 are newcomers. In due course this poor response was to be typical of Perth. Despite good publicity, a million people, increasing subscriptions to the Skeptic, and increasing effort on our part, interest in local meetings is never high. As a result, WA Skeptics concentrate on being an information service, avoiding a high profile but always ready to emerge when the occasion demands. This strategy works well.
August and December 1985 Two meetings with videos are held in an attempt to start an active local group. Both attract only 10-12 people, and nothing much happens until the next item.
June 1987 An evening with Mark Plummer, now executive director of CSICOP in the USA, is promoted by flyers to every newspaper and TV station. It attracts 8 skeptics (of 30 contacted), 5 newcomers and 3 media people. It receives good coverage in newspapers and on prime time TV, which persuades Dr John Happs to set up regular meetings in his science lab at WACAE (now ECU) starting in mid 1988. Until then we had been hampered by the lack of a cheap meeting place. The cheapest we could find for the Mark Plummer evening cost $35, which was covered by an entry fee. From now on no entry fee is needed.
Mark Plummer and his fake demo in the Daily News 23 June 1987 page 4. The picture captions read (left) "Bent on Success: Mark shows the tricksters loopy secret", and (right) "Tongue Twisted: The piercing sight that fools the world -- but not the skeptics".
December 1991 The meetings at WACAE may have been free but the attendance is notably uncertain. For example one meeting attracts 60 people, all of whom say they will attend next time, but only 15 show up. In December 1991 our meetings move to Grace Vaughan House in Shenton Park where they have been ever since. The first meeting attracts 13 people, a number that well foretells the future. By 1995 the attendance is usually over 20, but since then it remains stubbornly static. For example a talk by UWA's Professor David Blair, famous for his work on gravity waves, attracts only 18, of whom only 2 are in response to a community ad on the same page as the TV guide in 200,000 copies of the Chronicle. On the other hand some people have been with us since the very beginning. What we lack in numbers we make up for in persistence.
November 1992 The Law Reform Commission releases its recommendations about the law dealing with fortune telling in WA. Earlier we had sent in a submission saying that if Australia went the same way as the USA, which seemed likely, then some means of regulation ought to be in place. We suggested the law should require practitioners to provide reasonable evidence for their claims. We offered to provide further information if asked, but were never asked. The Commission received 24 submissions including ours, of which 13 said the law should be repealed, 4 said it should be retained, and 7 said it should be replaced by one as in NZ, where it is an offence to act as a psychic with intent to deceive. The Commission recommends that the fortune-telling law be repealed. Why? Because inducing people to part with their money, or causing emotional distress, is not a crime unless it involves obtaining by false pretences anything capable of being stolen, for which existing laws are adequate. So our submission is without effect. Nevertheless our prediction that Australia might go the same way as the USA proves to be correct. This year the occasional letter by skeptics to newspapers is becoming more evident, which after ten years of our existence is not before time.
October 1995 Dr Susan Blackmore, the famous British parapsychologist, passes through Perth after attending the National Skeptics Convention in Sydney. We organise a free public meeting for her at Curtin University, which turns out to be our best-attended public meeting yet, with a capacity audience of 60 people despite miserably cold wet weather. There is no formal talk. Instead Dr Blackmore is interviewed in the style of Michael Parkinson using a mutually agreed structure, with the questions being progressively handed over to the audience. The idea is to encourage discussion right from the start, and it works well. One advantage is that the speaker does not have to prepare a talk. Another is that people get what they came for.
Monday 19 June 1995. An evening with Dr Susan Blackmore in Room 245, Social Sciences Building, Curtin University. In order to be seen from the back of the room, Dr Blackmore and the interviewer each sat on a small table.
1995 onwards By now we have an active committee that copes well when Professor Ian Plimer comes to Perth on his crusade against Noah's Ark. We get him good publicity for a members-only evening, for which about 25 turn up for a most enjoyable time. To avoid unwelcome visitors we deliberately keep the meeting private and not public. By 1999, our 16th year, we have a regular A4 newsletter varying in size from 2 to 6 pages, with a circulation of about 170. In five years we send out a total of 13,000 newsletter pages, or 1.5 shelf metres, at a cost of more than $2000 in postage. But it has no noticeable effect on the attendance at meetings, which stays on average just over 20. For comparison the WA (now Australasian) Society for Psychical Research has 120 members, but rifts have developed and eventually its numbers dwindle, becoming focussed almost exclusively on UFOs.
Wednesday 22 August 2007, Grace Vaughan House seminar room. Dr John Happs (standing) introduces Professor Richard Wiseman to WA Skeptics Awards winners, for details see 2007 Results on this website under WA Skeptics Awards.
Here ends this brief history of the early years of WA Skeptics. Subsequent highlights, such as notable investigations, meetings, and the WA Skeptics Awards for Young Critical Writers, are covered by individual articles elsewhere on this website. We leave you with this thought: In 2007 WA had 10% of Australia's population but barely 5% of subscribers to the Skeptic. There is still a long way to go.