September 01, 2014

Turbulence in Randi-world? Grothe booted, LA office closed at #JREF

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.

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.


I'm not hugely plugged into the world of "scientific skepticism" or "movement skepticism," but the dismissal of D.J. Grothe as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation seems a bit out  of the blue.

Here's the whole release:
In order to achieve cost-savings and greater efficiency, the Los Angeles office of the JREF has closed effective September 1, 2014. All operations have been moved to Falls Church, Virginia. 
 DJ Grothe is no longer with the JREF. James Randi has taken over as acting President. 
 This restructuring is part of an enhanced educational agenda aimed at inspiring an investigative spirit in a new generation of critical thinkers by engaging children and their parents, as well as educators and the general public, in how to think about the many extraordinary claims we hear every day.

Color me, er, skeptical! There's surely more to it than this.

(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.)

While I don't follow JREF as much as Center for Inquiry, which I also don't follow a whole lot, I'd heard no major rumors among more plugged-in Facebook friends about significant financial worries.

Beyond that, is Grothe's salary that huge? Probably less money than rent of the L.A. office, along with utilities and expenses. And, the idea that an 86-year-old Randi will be "acting president" in any real sense for any length of time is laughable.

Unless the real president is "Carlos," aka José Alvarez, aka Devyi Peña, aka Uri Geller for all the hell I know. That said, as I've blogged before, I have no doubt that Randi knew who "Carlos" was, and had at least a hint about his identity theft, long before either one came clean.

Out of curiosity, I bopped over to CFI; no beans spilled there about any inside information on this.

Anyway, so, no rumors. And, if it needs change, it surely needs it beyond an 86-year-old being acting president. Maybe Randi, like Paul Kurtz, has founder's syndrome? After all, per Wikipedia, Randi himself was chairman of the board. Maybe Grothe wasn't taking orders well enough or whatever.

Even if other people affiliated with JREF had problems with Grothe, part of that could be larger "alignment" issues. And, beyond the savings in salary and office space, a head of a nonprofit is supposed to help out with fundraising, and Grothe apparently wasn't doing that. If it's as bad as it may be, this can't be a surprise — other than it being a surprise he wasn't escorted out even earlier.

Per a Tweet by Jim Lippard, it is that bad, on funding: JREF Revenue: 2011: $1.56M, 2012: $1.29M, 2013: $887.5K.

Still, the suddenness seems "interesting." Because financial problems, if known, don't suddenly pop up out of nowhere. Ones that bad certainly don't.

Unless .... the board and/or Grothe had been pretending things weren't that bad, and suddenly, voila, their lessor padlocked the doors for nonpayment of back rent in LA.

On the savings? Grothe was getting about $95K a yaer plus benefits. The LA office cost about $85K a year.

That said, Randi himself supposedly pulls down  $250K a year as non-executive chairman. If true? Like with Brian Dunning, behind many a skeptic, there's many a sucker for a guru to follow. 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.

(This all said, I have a new post on questions JREF's board, contributors and volunteers should be asking, as well as others that the skeptical movement should be asking itself in general.)

And, neither does larger mismanagement. That includes social media mismanagement of posting the same annoucement on Facebook and adding a "no comments" at the end of it. And, now, the beginnings of a flame war between social justice warriors and others have broken out there.

And, it's being abetted by P.Z. Myers, aka Pharyngula, to whom I shall not link. (P.Z. has some information wrong, but, since I'm now also blocked from commenting there with my Yahoo account,I won't try to figure out some other way to straighten him out.)

Meanwhile, the Randi site's forums, which I know led to a lot of interesting discussion, and probably some occasional flaming, are being cut off from the organization? Jim Lippard notes that this is a few days old, and has been done by other skeptical or atheist nonprofits. That said, I think it would be smarter to kill a forum outright rather than hand its ownership over to somebody else. Branding issues, etc.

That said, if you look at the forums homepage and the dog's breath of topics, it should have been either farmed off, killed, or more tightly run, one of the three, years ago. I mean, whoever let it become a generalized political and social commentary site blew it.

Especially given that Gnu Atheist type social justice warriors are "goosing" this whole situation, and probably have been since rumors started a year ago about Grothe's management, the forums should have either been killed outright or handed off to a third party some time ago.

Flip side is that the Gnus are surely at least partially righton the amount of libertarianism under guise of alleged skepticism that runs around JREF. If someone like Sharon Hill, the blank-check defender of Brian Dunning, is that involved, that says something.

As usual, a bit of pox on both houses from where I stand.

And, yes, bad management happens in the skeptics world. Witness both problems Paul Kurtz had at Center for Inquiry and some  that his successor, Ron Lindsay, has had. Some were financial; some were other management issues. 

Related to that, "founder's syndrome" doesn't necessarily just apply to the founders of non nonprofit advocacy-type groups. Witness the "single donor" issue at Center for Inquiry, withdrawing his 25 percent of budget donations when Kurtz was pushed aside. That said, in Randi's case, given that he named the organization after himself, there's an extra twist there.

Beyond that, how many skeptics' groups are needed? One commenter on Randi's forums may be right: Michael Shermer will take over The Amazing Meeting (for now), and perhaps the whole Randi shebang eventually. 

And, Randi  was getting $250K as chairman of the board? Or even $200 after a cut? Really? That is founder's syndrome. At Skeptics Society, both Shermer as president and Pat Linse as CFO make a shade under $80K, per its 990.

But, don't worry, Gnus; if P.Z. and his Freethought Blog co-founder Ed Brayton get the idea for a larger Gnu Atheist "portal" or something, they'll have some of the same issues, in all likelihood.


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.


Update, Sept. 18: Skepticblog is being replaced with something new. 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 Barbara 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.

1 comment:

leonids11 said...

Regarding the JREF's revenue under D.J. Grothe,
a friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to
a blog post looking at the JREF's total revenue
per year since 2001, based on data from the National Center on
Charitable Statistics.
"But when looking at the overall picture, 2011
was their highest year in revenue," the author of the post writes.
"While it's true that the
revenue decreased in 2012 and 2013,
a different impression can be given when
showing years prior to 2011."