What is going on at the James Randi Educational Foundation?

And now for something completely different...

Due to the holiday and suddenly being informed that my revised manuscript for a certain journal (more on that later) is needed NOW, I don't have time for much of a post. However, a certain bit of bombshell landed over the weekend that should keep those of you interested in the skeptics' movement (as I am) discussing until I finish "fixing" a final version of my manuscript. It came in the form of an announcement that appeared on the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) website:

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.

Contact the JREF at:
James Randi Educational Foundation
2941 Fairview Park Drive, Suite 105
Falls Church, VA 22042
JREF@Randi.Org

Because of the involvement of the Clark Kent side of my persona with JREF in putting together the Science-Based Medicine conference at The Amazing Meeting every year for the last six years, you might think I know something about this. You'd be wrong. I'm just as much in the dark as most of you. In particular, the abruptness of the press release, being published on the afternoon of a holiday, as well as its cryptic vagueness suggest that the parting between DJ and JREF was not amicable. Either that, or the PR at JREF is not very good, which may be the case given how the announcement on Facebook was handled. Usually corporate press releases about the departure of a major figure in the organization, such as the president, regardless of the nature of the split, have a few kind words for the outgoing president and a generic bit about "best wishes in his new endeavors." Even if there is no successor in place (which is not infrequent), there's usually at least a blurb about how a search for a permanent successor is under way. I also have no idea what this new "enhanced educational agenda" is about, either.

One potential reason for the shakeup could be this:

In fairness, others have pointed out that 2011 was an unusually good year for JREF, but, even so, no board is going to be too happy with a president who presides over a 31% decline in revenue in a single year (2012-2013), regardless of the reason, and if the trend was continuing in the first half of 2014 that might well have sealed it.

In any case, I hope JREF's board can choose a president who can quickly restore confidence in the organization. As for SBM, we hope I at least hope we don't lose TAM as an outlet to promote skepticism and critical thinking in medicine.

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I think Lippard's on to something. That's a pretty severe drop in fundraising.

I have been unhappy with JREF's lackadaisical approach to supporting vaccination for a while. I wrote a post about it in April: How Committed is Big Skepticism to Advocacy that Works?

The whole mess makes JREF look either incompetent or petty, and surely not interested in actual public health advocacy.

I fear that problem with vaccine advocacy came about as a result of the distrust between DJ and the Skepchicks. Remember, some of the Skepchicks did the vaccine clinic at TAM a few years ago, and Jamie Bernstein and associates did that vaccine survey using a JREF grant, with a major disagreement occurring after DJ apparently didn't release all the funds promised. After the falling out occurred, it could be that DJ associated vaccine advocacy efforts with the hated (to him) Skepchicks and was less enthusiastic about such programs. I hope that wasn't the case, but it's hard not to speculate that it was.

There has been a push to create more educator-related posts on the Swift blog over the last year or two (I participated in several ways).

Pure speculation: DJ is seen as an enabler of sexual harassment, which reflected on the JREF and drove skeptical dollars elsewhere.

By LovleAnjel (not verified) on 02 Sep 2014 #permalink

I would say that if DO was seen as an enabler of sexual harassment it was in no small part due to certain parties and their whisper campaigns.

By Tezcatlipoca (not verified) on 02 Sep 2014 #permalink

Noooooo! Not the SkepChick thing again!

I never bothered to form an opinion on that, because I found it too tedious to bear, which may well have been due to my own limitations, which are many and various.

Please, no one tell me what I missed.

By palindrom (not verified) on 02 Sep 2014 #permalink

My guess would be that they're dealing with the fallout over a lot of the discussion and backlash towards JREF over sexual harassment at conferences, etc. A rather large portion of the atheist/skeptical community find Grothe to be too dismissive of social justice issues, like harassment and sexism.

Granted that Press Releases are often filled with ass-covering BS, and I know zip about JREF,
'an enhanced educational agenda aimed at engaging children, parents, educators and the GENERAL PUBLIC, in how to think about the many extraordinary claims we hear every day' (my emphasis, natch) strikes me as a good idea.

Gotta say I'm not that surprised. While the JREF was the first skeptical blog I read with any regularity, I have to admit I hardly ever bother with it for the last few years. Content updates are infrequent, and other skeptic blogs do a much better job of digging deep into topics.

I completely ignored the skepchic/elevator gate controversy and was never a fan of DJ Grothe from his work prior to joining JREF. I suspect there were some major personality conflicts and differences of opinion on the direction JREF should take.

So basically, JREF is and was Randi. Since his decreased involvement due to age and health, it has declined. These days it is really just known for the MDC, and TAM. And as much as I enjoyed the couple of TAMS I've attended, I swear I will never go to another if they keep holding them in Vegas, in July.

By NewcoasterMD (not verified) on 03 Sep 2014 #permalink

I'm curious as to the problem is having TAM in Las Vegas in July. After all the South Point is air conditioned very well. And as the South Point is essentially in the middle of no where, there is no reason to go outside except to catch the shuttle back to the airport.

The stated reason for moving TAM from its original early January date to summer was to give teachers a chance to attend. While I would rather any city other than Las Vegas at anytime of the year, I think I understand why they want to use Las Vegas.

George

By Gerorge Martin (not verified) on 03 Sep 2014 #permalink

It was also relatively central and South Point is relatively inexpensive, not to mention that a lot of Randi's magician buddies live and work there.

To be honest, I've always disliked that TAM was held in July in Las Vegas, and over the last two or three years it's gotten harder for me to summon up the enthusiasm to go each year. The only reason I went for six years in a row to give workshops, do panels, and give a podium talk (last year) for six years in a row was my dedication to the mission of JREF and Science-Based Medicine. Otherwise, if I weren't an active participant, I probably would have gone once every maybe two or three years, if that.

I hope JREF can recover from this, and, if it does, I'd really love to see TAM move around a bit to different locations, as, for example, the American College of Surgeons annual Clinical Congress rotates between Chicago, San Francisco, and a third city over a three year cycle. Vegas in July six years in a row is too much for me. Maybe a year off for TAM wouldn't be such a good idea, to allow JREF and its new president, whenever he or she is chosen, to reorganize and revitalize.

@ #10
I don't know how else to put it.
Las Vegas.
July.
Those two words shouldn't be in the same sentence.

I'm aware of the reasons for changing to July, so teachers could show up. Las Vegas in July I'm sure is cheap compared to other locations.

I am not interested in staying inside the recycled smokers air that is a casino version of "air conditioning" (cold nicotine infused air...yummy) The South Point is so far off the strip, you can't go people watching for comic relief either. I don't gamble, I don't like most of the shows that are put on in Vegas, and after you've seen Penn&Teller a few times....there's nothing else that interests me about Las Vegas. It is a cesspit.

I agree with Davids suggesting to have a rotating location, and have suggested it to JREF several times.

By NewcoasterMD (not verified) on 03 Sep 2014 #permalink

Truth is, many people in the skepti-sphere didn't like DJ Grothe. I also note that they are or were dumping the JREF forums -- shoving them offsite -- in order to save money, they claimed. http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/jref-news/2384-regarding-the-jref-f…
It looks like a considerable shakeup is in effect.
I begin to wonder -- will the JREF outlive it's creator?
I hope so.

Interesting. I haven't made it to TAM yet, thought have wanted to go. The last few years I was aware of it the timing was less than convenient due to life. I do hope they bounce back but having followed the elevator-gate scandal and other tidbits in various blogs I think Orac is right and it was a fundamental clash of personalities. You can't lead a large organization like this unless you can play at least tolerably well with everyone and it seems the president alienated several groups that he needed in order to be able to function.

San Jose is quite tolerable in July, and much more importantly there are many local people (people at Google, Facebook, etc.) who might take an interest in the mission and support it financially.

By Mark Thorson (not verified) on 03 Sep 2014 #permalink

San Jose is quite tolerable in July, and much more importantly there are many local people (people at Google, Facebook, etc.) who might take an interest in the mission and support it financially they've got a lot of space, there'll be a place where I can stay.

Bacharach'd for you.

Re: Las Vegas having cheap accommodation.
Yes, it does. But there's a cynical side to that. The casinos have cheap rates and hope to make their money by having people gamble. My father worked for IBM and IBM would have conferences in Las Vegas. The casinos hated that, because IBMers tended not to gamble as they were educated enough to know it was a waste of time.
I think the casinos will also dislike sceptic meetings for much the same reason.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 04 Sep 2014 #permalink

I'm always skeptical of businesses who operate on the premise that it isn't in their best interest for me to win......

I don't do gambling & certainly don't like the excesses of Vegas.

San Jose is quite tolerable in July

San Francisco is downright chilly. A refreshing break, perhaps. :D

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 04 Sep 2014 #permalink