Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family and personal background, e.g., geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?
Tim Mendham: Australian born – several generations dating back to mid-19th century, Anglo-Celtic background, English speaking (no other languages spoken in the household), minimal background in the Anglican church – rarely attended church, full Atheist by late teens.
I have been a member of Aust Skeptics since it was founded, acting as secretary, treasurer and editor during the 80s (all volunteer basis), life membership in later 80s, and from 2009 appointed executive officer (only paid skeptical position in Australia, and one of only a few in the world).
Jacobsen: How is skepticism important in the electronic era?
Mendham: By electronic, I assume you mean digitally-based communications? The rise of social media has meant that pseudoscientific theories and ‘solutions’ proliferate rapidly and often without any alternative explanations offered. This means that “it’s there in black-and-white” implies factuality of many spurious claims.
Demise of critical mainstream media – often suffering in the face of the rise of ‘entertainment’ oriented outlets – restricts the opportunity for alternative/scientific/skeptical input, therefore general skepticism as an aspect of critical thinking is even more necessary.
At the same time, these current forms of communication can be used by skeptical organisations to reach a broader audience, especially the young, who often only use digital media as their information source. Skeptical groups need to take advantage of all avenues of communication, traditional and modern.
Jacobsen: Does skepticism within Australia seem on the rise or on the decline in general? Where are there greater risks of gullibility and fraudulence?
Mendham: When the Australian Skeptics was first formed in 1980, for some years it was seen as a fringe novelty, particularly by mainstream media. However, over the succeeding years the skeptical movement in Australia has made a concerted effort to raise its profile as a source of considered, intelligent and science-based information, particularly via media appearances.
At the same time, it has been noted that in some areas the presentation by proponents of pseudoscience and pseudomedicine has become more sophisticated, which requires a similar level of response. The skeptical movement has grown in overt expression, somewhat following in the footsteps of the recent more activist atheist movement.
Whereas once upon a time skepticism was an amusing but possibly socially embarrassing pursuit (‘spoil-sport’, ‘negative’) followers are now open about their beliefs. However, this might be at the cost of the following for more formal skepticism – magazine subscriptions have fallen (as they have for all forms of published media) and our largest conference attendance was in 2010 (we have held conferences every year since 1986).
This particular conferences included a large number of overseas celebrity speakers from the skeptical fraternity, many of whom had never been seen in Australia before (Randi, SGU, George Hrab, Eugenie Scott, Pamela Gay, Brian Dunning, Simon Singh, as well as some local identities, such as the founder of Aust Skeptics, businessman Dick Smith, popular science communicators Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki and Dr Paul Willis).
However, Australia lacks any great number of the high profile self-professed skeptics found in the US, UK etc who appear regularly in the media under a skeptical umbrella (Dr. Karl would be the most noted exception). We also do not have a great deal of locally-developed science-based programming on TV or radio, though there are many outlets for this in digital media, which therefore reaches a younger demographic.
The greatest areas of risk of gullibility and fraudulence are similar to those that exist globally – pseudomedicine, anti-vaccination, psychic mediums. High profile conspiracy theories and religious fundamentalism/creationism are considerably less of an issue in Australia than, say, they are in the US.
Various Australian Skeptics groups – especially those in New South Wales (Australian Skeptics Inc) and Victoria (Vic Skeptics) – are noted for being highly activist on both local and international matters.
We have been involved in campaigning for science-based policy and the need for improved and consistent effectiveness of regulators. A lot of this activity is also through grassroots organisations, which work via a network of individuals, some formal Skeptics and some just skeptically-minded.
Jacobsen: What tends to be the main sources of anti-scientific and extraordinary supernaturalistic claims in Australian society?
Mendham: Non-critical media – popular TV programs and some low-level ‘current affairs’, some talk-back radio, public presentations (especially psychic mediums) and committed online media.
Jacobsen: What are the targeted objectives of Australian Skeptics Inc.?
Mendham: see https://www.skeptics.com.au/about/our-aims/
Jacobsen: When societies move away from science, critical thinking, and evidence, how does this negatively impact the functioning of society via poor policy and other decisions?
Mendham: A distrust of authority – not necessarily a bad thing with politics, but it also applies to those with relevant scientific expertise – matched with an unsupported trust in those offering ‘alternative’ theories and practices, simply because they are alternative to “them”.
This has especially expressed itself in an active anti-vaccination movement, though in Australia it’s easy to overestimate the extent of this movement. Outside of some ‘alternative lifestyle’ regions and some well-to-do suburbs where parents “can’t be bothered”, there is a high participation rate for vaccination – national average 94%, with about half of the remaining 6% being unable to vaccinate through being medically compromised.
Therefore, about 3% of non-vaccinators are anti-vax. All levels of government support vaccination – federal and state governments have instituted science-based policies that restrict the access of unvaccinated children to publically-available and government-subsidised childcare, as well as cutting certain welfare payments to the parents of unvaccinated children.
In these cases, religious-based objections are not allowed. Other than that, in Australia it is only some fringe political groups that do not largely respect science-based policy – that doesn’t necessarily mean science-supporting policy, though the public sector represents the largest component of R&D funding.
Jacobsen: How can folks, nationally or internationally, become involved in Australian Skeptics Inc.?
Mendham: They can subscribe to our magazine (https://www.skeptics.com.au/the-magazine/ – https://www.skeptics.com.au/product-category/subscriptions/). We also have a small range of merchandise. Otherwise, there are regular skeptics-in-the-pub meetings in most states, our annual conventions, and a range of social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, our website, plus a fortnightly free newsletter to keep interested parties up to date.
Jacobsen: What are the main concerns regarding claims sold to the general Australian public moving into 2019 for you?
Mendham: Little changed from previous years – anti-vax, psychics. There is a need for regulators to lift their game and be active in some of these pseudoscience areas.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Tim.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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