The Australian Skeptics are holding a convention in Sydney. Entertainment editor and critical thinker John Turnbull speaks to three leading skeptics to find out about this unbelievable event.

THE Australian Skeptics have been around since 1980, when entrepreneur Dick Smith met American magician and skeptic James Randi.

The pair worked together to test whether water divining was real, offering a $40,000 prize to anyone who could successfully divine water in a double-blinded experiment. The prize was never claimed.

A few years later, the Australian Skeptics held their first convention, under the motto ‘Seek the Evidence’. Things must have gone relatively well, because in November 2014 the Australian Skeptics celebrate their 30th convention.

 I recently had the chance to chat with three of the convention organisers; Eran Segev, president of the Australian Skeptics; Tim Mendham, executive officer and editor of The Skeptic Magazine; and George Hrab, musician, podcaster and event master of ceremonies.

Independent Australia: The term ‘skeptic’ creates different images in people's minds; can you explain what the Australian Skeptics are all about?

Tim Mendham: Australian Skeptics has been going for more than 30 years and is the second oldest skeptical group in the world. Our remit covers areas as diverse as UFOs, unknown animals, psychics, faith healing, fortune telling, shonky technology and various unproven, or disproven, alternative medicine treatments.

The general premise is ‘scientific investigation of claims of pseudoscience and the paranormal’. This means that the skeptical approach is underpinned by scientific method and testing to appraise any specific claim that, on first glance, appears to act on contradiction of established laws of science.

More prosaically, the Skeptics’ approach can be summed up in nine words: You say you can fly, I say, ‘Show me’.

Of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which means any tests have to be taken seriously and comprise in depth and clearly defined protocols.

We offer a $100,000 prize to anyone who can prove a paranormal ability. We have tested many people for the prize — so far, no-one has won.

We also publish a quarterly magazine, The Skeptic ‒ the second oldest skeptical publication in the world ‒ and hold regular public meetings and an annual convention which moves from city to city every year.

George Harab: To me, being a skeptic, at its most pure, means being a person who confidently and continually uses the process of skepticism.

Skepticism is not a belief system, but a tool that is used to help make choices in every aspect of one’s life. It’s not a faith, it's not a cult, it's not even certain individuals — it's a method.

It's like hygiene, but for your mind and the choices it has to make. You don't "believe" in hygiene, you just know that you have to wash your hands after you waltz with a monkey. That’s what being a skeptic means to me.

IA: What exactly does one do at a skeptical convention? Stand around and talk about how you don't believe in stuff? [My wife asked me this question after I bought tickets.]

Eran Segev: People can expect interesting talks in a great venue, and a lot of social interactions with skeptically-minded individuals. I believe we have struck the right balance between the fun and the serious; the paranormal and scientific; talks and panels. We’re sure it will be great!

Tim: The annual convention covers a number of presentations, panels and discussions on a range of topics from a diverse array of scientific experts and personalities.

This year topics include astronomy, medicine, consumer protection, climate change, science and scientists in the public eye, international perspectives, and even some skeptical music and magic.

It presents an opportunity for Australian skeptics to meet others of like mind, to hear discussions of topics of interest ‒ and often how to present the skeptical view ‒ and to meet with those celebrities who they might only have read in blogs or heard on podcasts.

There is also a strong social component which allows skeptics – some of whom may feel extremely isolated, especially in regional areas – to mingle and take support from others. The conventions often prove inspirational to many people.

Geo: Ah yes. We just all mostly wear black and stand with our arms folded and complain about homeopathy. Fun!

Kidding.

Every convention that I have attended has always been a wonderful opportunity to connect in real space with people that you know, respect and have often admired from afar. When you get together with like-minded yet independent people, that’s when I think the most interesting conversations happen.

I tend to call them ‘five per cent conversations’. Attendees at an event like this will often agree on about 95 per cent of most issues, but it’s in that last 5 per cent that you get some really neat debates and discussions.

I love those conversations, and look forward to learning something new and interesting, which I invariably do.

IA: Do you have an irrational belief or behaviour that you find hard to shake?

Eran: Sort of. I am a sports fan and I have this feeling that somehow whether I watch the game or not, impacts the score. I know it’s rubbish and I ignore it ‒ I simply watch all games involving my team ‒ but the feeling is there.

Tim: Unbridled optimism and a fondness for the Loch Ness Monster.

Been there three times, haven’t seen any sight of him/her outside of a roadside stall selling Monster Burgers!

I don’t really expect to fully realise either of those irrational beliefs. 

Geo: I know empirically that there is no such thing as “luck” or “jinxes”, but it’s a hard thing to drive out of your mind when you’re looking for a parking space, or are waiting for some kind of an outcome.

I have to continually remind myself that I’m not affecting some future result by unrelated talk or thoughts, or that I’m not getting screwed over by some overseer. I’m just having a bad day and the connections to a bad or good “trend” are all in my observing.

IA: What's your favourite bit of skeptical activism over the last few years?

Eran: There are two:

Firstly, the complete and utter discrediting of the anti-vaxxers in Australia and the diminishment of their activities to a huge degree. I should note that my personal involvement in this has been limited and that this is far from a solo achievement of Australian Skeptics. We have been working very closely with other groups, in particular SAVN). 

Also, the support we provided to Ken Harvey when he was sued by SensaSlim. I am proud to have led this activity from the start to its successful conclusion.

Geo: My favorite bits have been the stealth skepticism displayed by things like Mythbusters, The Colbert Report and, most recently, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Those shows demonstrate a textbook skeptical approach, but never say that they’re directly a skeptic show.

Their influence thereby is all the greater, plus they’re most importantly entertaining and funny as anything.

IA: You've got a number of high profile international guests coming to the convention - can you give us an update? 

Tim: We have eight international guests lined up for the 2014 convention.

These include all five members of the world’s most popular skeptical podcast — The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, led by Yale professor Steve Novella, and featuring his two brothers, Bob and Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein, and Rebecca Watson.

There will also be George Hrab, skeptical musician and podcaster; Kendrick Frazier, editor of the US Skeptical Inquirer (the oldest skeptical publication in the world); and Michael Marshall, founder of the UK Merseyside Skeptics and the annual QED convention.

‘Marsh’ was also instigator of the 10:23 campaign — a mass demonstration designed to show the lack of efficacy of homeopathic products by taking ‘overdoses’ of homeopathic treatments such as sleeping pills, without any effect at all.

Thanks very much to Eran, Tim and Geo for their time. Details of the Australian Skeptics Convention can be found at their website www.skeptics.com.au.

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