September 25, 2014

James Randi and founder's syndrome at #JREF? Like #CFI?

Special update, Sept. 24: Jeff Wagg, a non-immediate predecessor of D.J. Grothe's, albeit under different title (assuming that "general manager" = "president," and with the stipulation that at least Phil Plait was intervening), supports Alison Smith's account about an alleged sexual assault by skeptic Michael Shermer at the 2008 The Amazing Meeting, part of this piece by Michael Oppenheimer on misogyny in the skeptical community.

Per the whole thread on which Wagg comments, he adds that Smith told him at that time that Shermer had raped her, as well as her being very drunk before she went to her room.

And, Wagg says Smith's story hasn't changed.

That said, did Wagg contact police himself? It doesn't look like it. He reportedly talked to Randi, but obviously Randi didn't call police. As for why Smith didn't? Well, many rape victims, especially if away from their normal surroundings, are hesitant to do that. And, it looks like, per an Ophelia Benson post at Free the Bullies, that Smith apparently didn't want outside action.

At the same time, even if Shermer was "trying to get her drunk," nobody put a gun to her head. Nobody forced her to let Shermer in her room, either.

However, that said, we also at a minimum seemingly have further confirmation further confirmation about what Randi said about Shermer in the Oppenheimer piece: That he blamed alcohol for alleged bad behavior like this. We also have further confirmation that, in Shermer's reaction to said piece, he seems to have been lying about his relationship to alcohol.

And, per the original header of this piece, if all Randi can do is call Shermer a "bad boy," we also seemingly have further confirmation of founder's syndrome at best and toleration of unethical and possibly illegal behavior in the name of money and PR at worst.

Meanwhile, I'm going to respond to a general train of thought on Ophelia's comment list.

Per a number of the comments, reporting an alleged crime is not necessarily legally limited to the victim. In fact, adults in most states are **required** to report allegations they hear about child abuse, especially child sexual abuse. Even if the victim is an old enough juvenile to theoretically talk to police himself or herself, or even if the victim is now an adult, but statute of limitations has not expired.

Nor is someone who has heard about an alleged crime perpetrated by one adult on another necessarily morally limited. Let's say something similar to this happened in 2012, and the person to whom Smith, or some other victim, talked to, knew that Shermer had an alleged history by that time. Were I, at least, the person getting my ear bent, I would at least consider going to the police on my own.

Again, none of this is meant to blame Wagg for not doing more than he did.

And, there's further evidence of founder's syndrome at Randi anyway — the nepotism. Randi's then-boyfriend, now-husband, "Jose Alvarez," Devyi Peña of identity theft infamy, was the board's secretary at JREF. Even for an unpaid board position, that's not best practices.

Meanwhile, related to this? If more and more of this starts panning out, will skeptics, at least one of them a refugee from JREF, stay on board with Shermer's new blogging platform, Insight, at Skeptic? Again, this isn't an immediate question, as both a question to said participants and a rhetorical one, but ... it is one that at some point, per my "if," may need to be answered.

On the apparent drunkenness level of Smith, there's also the issue of liability. And not just of the hotel or whatever. If JREF had its own wet bar, and that's where she was getting sloshed, if outsiders were running it, they're responsible. If JREF ran it, ditto.

Finally, on this update, to once again riff on an old proverb:

"Where there's smoke, there's fire — and often, there's also someone fanning the flames."


Earlier this week, I blogged about the stunning (not necessarily shocking), just stunning, news that D.J. Grothe had been axed as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, with the 86-year-old founder himself coming back to run the organization.

(Update, Sept. 5: Randi provides a pablum update as opaque as the original. This, in layperson's terms, might be called "adding fuel to the fire of rumors." Maybe Randi is now in Bill Nye territory and figures any PR is good PR.)

A few follow-up points here, mainly related to the header.

First, Grothe's $95K plus benefits, especially given the cost of living in LA, is not a huge amount for a man in his position.

Second, Randi's $250K as non-executive chairman of the board (page 7 of the PDF of a recent IRS 990 form) IS a huge amount, and would be at an even larger nonprofit. True, that's from 2012, and in 2013, he made "just" $195K, as reported on the latest 990. The principle still stands, I think.

(At Skeptics Society, both Michael Shermer as president and Pat Linse as CFO make a shade under $80K, per its 990. So, we'll say $160K vs $300K; that said, even with a down year, JREF's revenue ratio is also at least 50 percent above that of Skeptics' Society, and was twice that in a good year. So, still a bit of an edge to Skeptics' Society, but not a huge one.)

In fact, it reminds me a small bit of the "skeptic" whose feet of clay (or dollar bills) I have pointed out strongly in the past — Brian Dunning. If JREF had gotten to the point where nobody on the board, or other staff, was questioning this level of salary, that's not good. And, it makes it look like Randi, like Dunning, was getting a bit of the guru treatment.

If JREF was in existence at this point primarily to put on the annual The Amazing Meeting which, in turn, served as a fundraiser and kept Randi's name and face in the public eye, which, in turn, helped pay the freight for $250K, then lather, rinse, repeat, I guess. I mean, I could call that the functional equivalent of money-laundering.

Speaking of, I'm also, per Pro Publica, comparing JREF and Skeptics' Society on net revenue.

(Gnu Atheists, don't try to dogpile. P.Z. Myers' "book," to use the term loosely, of almost totally unedited blog posts, was the same thing. He — and Ed Brayton — aren't old enough for founder's syndrome, but there's plenty of guru syndrome already at Freethought Blogs.)

And that's not a whole lot better than the board at Center for Inquiry several years ago, questioning one donor making up, reportedly, one-quarter of annual contributions, nor questioning if that person's money couldn't be used for things like matching donations fundraising drives rather than just dumped in the kitty.

If "movement skepticism" groups aren't going to start, with a page from Descartes, by being skeptical about themselves, that's also not good. Many seem to be, and some were before this point. I'd love to hear more about not only legitimate concerns about Grothe's management, but also any legitimate concerns about Randi's larger stewardship or similar issues. That includes whether some people have felt uncomfortable saying more, earlier, due to Grothe's shadow. Or Randi's, perhaps even more.)

Related to that, how many different skeptical organizations are needed? One person on a Randi forum suggested that Michael Shermer and his Skeptics Society might just swallow up JREF — most likely waiting tastefully until his death, unless Randi himself initiates action first. Yes, the SJWs don't like Shermer, but, you just have to fight them off. As far as "branding" issues, well, hell, death is going to force the Randi branding issue front and center anyway; did he think he was immortal?

And, that's just a couple of many questions.

Why does JREF still exist? Why doesn't it just let Shermer take it over? How many different national skeptics' groups are needed? Does a non-executive chairman of the board of a small nonprofit need a $250K salary, if finances are a concern? Is said $250K, or even $200K, part of why he's worried about his organization's finances? Does founder's syndrome exist here as well as it did at CFI? Without getting into allegations about Grothe's character, or his management skills, those are just a few of many questions to ask, aren't they? (That said, his management skills, at least his time-management skills, as well as his fundraising, do seem to be questionable. That said, P.Z. praising Eugenie Scott? What alternate world is this?)

Per that phrase "founder's syndrome," I think it can come in a variety of forms. Note my "did he think he was immortal" rhetorical question.

Randi has the opportunity to address several of these after a new president is named. He can expand the board by a couple of members, become a non-voting chairman, and reduce his pay down to, say, $100K.

(Note: I just got done serving four years on the board of directors of a small nonprofit. The founder, the year before I came on the board, stepped down as both executive director and chairman of the board, as well as not running for a non-chairman board position. That's how you stop founder's syndrome, if that's part of what's up here.)

Beyond that, what is "movement skepticism"? What should it be? Without going down the road of Gnu Atheists and saying it should cover the theism-atheism debate, should it get into more than cryptic creatures, ghosts, UFOs, and other fringe claims? Should it branch into politics and related social issues (and not in a social justice warrior way), in which case, libertarianism within the movement might finally be flushed out, once and for all? (That said, Shermer himself appears to have moderated his libertarianism again.) Of course, Snopes currently has kind of a lock on some of that.

In other words, how big — or how small — of a pond do modern "movement skeptics," or "scientific skeptics," or Skeptics™, as I call them at times, really want?

These last questions are, in part, rhetorical. I suspect many may want a smaller pond. And some may still want a guru or two as well.

As for the "unification" of different groups, as I've blogged before, Shermer's SkepticBlog is down to just 1.5 regular posters, Donald Prothero plus an occasional assist from Daniel Loxton. Some of this is also probably "all things Internet." People come and go from various movements in the online world.


Update, Sept. 12: Although Grothe is not mentioned, the issue of sexism and misogyny in movement skepticism gets a thorough walk around the block by Mark Oppenheimer in Buzz Feed. The biggie? Naming Shermer's hitherto-nameless 2008 accuser. Shermer, in turn, has issued a long denial. That said, as with other forms of abusive behavior (Ray Rice and his wife) an (alleged) abusee remaining amicable with an (alleged) abuser, whether sexual or physical, is not all that out of the blue. It's surely a minority, but how small of one? On the third hand, and I know the social justice warriors don't want to hear about it — if alcohol was involved, nobody put a gun to your head to make you drink, did they?

It is interesting that Shermer didn't comment on this Randi comment from Oppenheimer's piece, though:
“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference. 
“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember.”

Very interesting, especially since Shermer claims, at least on the 2008 issue, to have been sober.

Let me put it this way. At age 60, Shermer is old enough, and has been around movement skepticism enough, to be part of the old guard in more ways than one. 

The overall truth, on Shermer in particular, and Oppenheimer's piece in general, is probably somewhere in the murky middle. And, again, why I can declare at least part of a pox on Skeptics™as well as Gnu Atheists.

To riff on an old cliche:

"Where there's smoke, there's usually fire. ... And, there's also often someone fanning the flames."

Know what I mean? If not ...

In other words, there's probably problems and issues on both sides of this street.

Does Oppenheimer's original piece infantilize women? I don't think so. I 'm not as much inside "movement skepticism" as some, so I don't know.

Did it perhaps put lipstick on a pig in its discussion of Rebecca Watson? Probably yes, on second read.

Update, Sept. 13: Shermer's now drawing fire from many humanist types for a letter he wrote supporting sentencing leniency for convicted conservative icon Dinesh D'Souza, who pled guilty earlier this year to a campaign finance violations charge. I agree, per a Facebook comment, that it's not that Shermer agrees with D'Souza on everything, but that, due to the number of times they've debated each other in front of paid audiences, it's a "follow the money" issue.

Update, Sept. 18: Skepticblog is being replaced with something new, per Barbara Drescher's comment. Jim Lippard has one of the first posts. Questions of "why," that run through my thoughts, are answered well right here, in his tracing the roots of modern movement skepticism back to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP:
But what were CSICOP’s original goals, and has the organization successfully met them? What are the goals of the other skeptical organizations that have been formed in the U.S. and around the world since (and in a few cases, before) CSICOP, and are they being achieved? Just what is the value and purpose of “organized skepticism” as a movement, as a set of institutions, as a network of people participating in conferences, writing articles and books, recording podcasts and videos, and interacting online? What does it accomplish, what is the broader social context in which it resides, and what is its relation to the institutions, practices, and subject matter of science? Does it do anything that isn’t already done by science, science journalists, science communicators, historians and philosophers of science, social studies of science, science museums, science educators, and just ordinary amateur science-interested people? What can skeptics learn from these other areas? What does it mean to self-identify as a “skeptic”? Where has skepticism gone wrong, and what can we learn from its failures? Are there alternatives to “organized skepticism” that might better achieve all or some of its goals?

Click the link; you'll learn what Jim plans to cover and more. 

And, for more background, click this link, also included in Jim's piece. Daniel Loxton goes into a bit more depth, already in 2007, on some of these issues.

Also, if Drescher is part of the new effort at Skeptic, is she still going to be doing anything with Randi, or not? Especially since Randi's own column is reportedly not in the latest issue of his foundation's magazine, that plot thickens, too.

Update, Oct. 7: At the same time, an overall good roundup here of why PZ Myers has no business criticizing anybody else's sexual behavior. Liquor him up as much as Shermer may have been at times, and the yucky behavior toward women he sometimes has shown himself would probably be at the level of rumors of criminal behavior on his own part.


badrescher said...

As for the "unification" of different groups, as I've blogged before, Shermer's SkepticBlog is down to just 1.5 regular posters, Donald Prothero plus an occasional assist from Daniel Loxton.

There is a reason for that which isn't your "all things internet" hypothesis. This isn't a formal announcement, but here's the scoop:

SkepticBlog is not "Shermer's". It is now owned by, but that's just a formality and a fairly recent one. It began as a site to promote "The Skeptologists". While Shermer was involved in that failed show, it was not a Skeptic Society endeavor.

A new blog, which will be directly connected to Skeptic Society and housed on will be launching in a couple of weeks. At that time, Skeptic Blogs will be archived.

Gadfly said...

Thanks for the update. Do you know if he's got new writing "recruits"? I know that Donald and Daniel have pretty much been it on SkepticBlog since the first of the year.

Gadfly said...

Also, tying this to the JREF Forums: A blog is at least somewhat easier to moderate (and less expensive on hardware overhead) than a set of forums.