Bernard Howard reports from the Skeptics’ World Convention, Sydney, 10-12 November 2000

John Clarke’s gaze had been mercifully averted, so we were spared a TV series “The Congress”, showing all that could go wrong in planning an international conference. Heart-thumping, hair-tearing and nail-biting there may have been among members of the organising committee, but to the visitor the Third International Skeptics Congress proceeded very smoothly. There was a report that James Randi had found himself at the point of leaving Beijing without an Australian entry visa, but the revered face and voice arrived as planned. A catastrophe averted; an international skeptics meeting without our GOM is unthinkable.

The three days of the meeting were devoted to, respectively, “Wealth”, “Wellbeing”, and “Health”, broadly interpreted. A brief report cannot mention each of the many speakers, so I apologise in advance to those omitted. On day one, after initial formalities, and an address by Paul Kurtz, Founder and current Chairman of CSICOP, we heard of the many ways the unwary can be separated from their money. Apart from names familiar to skeptics, we heard from two Australians eminent in public affairs. First, Nicholas Cowdery QC is Director of Public Prosecutions for New South Wales, and shared some of his experiences of scams. Apart from some amusing episodes, he told of his astonishment when visiting South Africa to encounter a health campaign entitled “Raping a virgin does not cure AIDS”. The local witch doctors have been advising the ignorant otherwise, to the distress and shame of hundreds of ten year old females. Second, you would not think that anyone would send their life savings to a PO Box in hope of making a fortune investing in a bluebottle farm. And you would expect there could not be a more humourless, dead boring bureaucracy than the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Both of these assumptions are wrong; the hundreds of Australians tempted by bluebottle farms and similar bizarre schemes were lucky that the PO Box they mailed their cheques to actually belonged to the Commission. Alan Cameron AM, the Chairman of the Commission, explained this imaginative method of assessing people’s gullibility. Sadly, it is regularly found to be high. This was my “top spot” of Day One. Randi was in top form in his evening presentation; in addition to showing us the video clips of his “Psychic Surgery” and the exposure of the fraudulent Peter Popoff, which he had shown during his tour of New Zealnd, he recounted a very disturbing episode at a meeting of evangelist Benny Hinn.

“Wellbeing” on day two covered many aspects of irrationality and critical thinking; from creationism to nuclear power; the “ten per cent of our brain myth”, psychic sleuths, and belief in magic. I liked Roland Seidel’s maxim; “Science tells us about the natural world, everything else tells us what it is like to be human”. My highlight of the day was Richard Wiseman’s two presentations. As well as having devised many ingenious tests of psychic claims, he is a deft conjuror and showman, and a frequent performer on UK television. He showed several film clips of fake seances, Rupert Sheldrake’s “psychic dog” (just a restless dog), and Sai Baba. We know the latter Indian “godman” is merely a conjuror; what was clear from the film is what a bad one he is, a real fumbler. A great contrast to the dazzling displays at the Congress from Bob Steiner, Steve Walker, Peter Rodgers, and Richard Wiseman. Skepticism and magicianship are natural partners.

Saturday evening’s Dinner afloat gave further opportunity for socialising and enjoying Sydney’s wonderful harbour. I found Darling Harbour by night a beautiful sight. Later, on a daytime bus tour, I thought it hideous.

And so to day three, “Health”. Dietary supplements, herbalism, immunisation, therapeutic touch, veterinary quackery, and, of course, cancer. “Raising a Skeptical Family” by our own Chair-Entity, was received very warmly. We often get the impression that Australians are very ignorant of events in New Zealand, and I was surprised to find that the Liam Williams-Holloway case had been followed closely over there. Once more, the Australian Skeptics demonstrated the respect in which they are held; in addition to the distinguished visitors we heard on day two, today we heard from Rosemary Stanton, the country’s leading nutritionist, Dr Gillian Shenfield, Professor John Dwyer and other prominent medical people. Prof Dwyer’s view that “Doctors must take a leadership role in protecting the public from quackery” sat uneasily in my mind with Dr Joe Proietto’s survey of a group of medical students, who, having read a hopelessly flawed journal article, were nevertheless prepared to recommend the therapy described.

My interest in the Health sessions meant I had to miss the concurrent session on “Cults & Crypto-religion”. This included speakers from China on Qigong and the Falun Gong. These, presented through an interpreter, were criticised afterwards as being nothing more than Chinese Government propaganda. Spouting “the Party line” has not died with the decline of Communism in the West.

The Australian Skeptics’ wealthy patron Dick Smith has long been a source of envy. I was surprised to find, advertised in the refreshment area of the Congress, “Dick Smith’s Australian Foods”. In selling his electronic business and moving into foods, he has jumped a level in the Periodic Table, from a silicon-based product to a carbon-based one. If the biscuits and cakes at morning and afternoon tea were his, I hope we may enjoy them here soon.

This was in every way a most successful event, of which our trans-Tasman friends should be proud. Paul Kurtz commented that, in all the skeptics conventions he had attended, he had never heard so much laughter from the audience. The Australian Skeptics have the same attitude as that which has inspired us from our foundation, “Take the work seriously, but not ourselves”. I am unlikely to be able to travel far to another international gathering, and I am grateful to our Australian friends for bringing this one within reach.

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