Norway, for those who don´t know it, is a tiny country in Scandinavia. With less than five million inhabitants and vast petroleum resources, as well as successful social security schemes, it has grown to be one of the richest countries in the world per capita with a high standard of living. Norway is also among the most secular countries in world (http://www.secularism.or.ul/which-are-the-most-irreligious-n.html, and as a result Norwegian sceptics are envied by their international peers for living in what seems to be a utopia. In truth, irrationality seems more lik a Hydra, than a dragon. Chop off one head and two more appear. Irrational beliefs run just as rampant in Norway as other countries.
In fact, it´s inhabitants are the most gullible and naïve in Europe, according to a 2009 survey (well, not really. That´s a common take on the numbers, but it requires quite a few assumptions. It does however do for a nice counterpoint).
This is an introduction to what will be a series of regular updates on the situation of science and scepticism in Norway.
Irrationality in Norway is exemplified through prominent characters in Norwegian society. The princess Märtha Louise, who would be heir to the throne had she been born a little later (the succession laws were changed after the birth of her brother, the crown prince Haakon Magnus), has been the source of great frustration and comedy the last few years. Not only does she support quackery or promote the paranormal. No, she actually runs an “angel school”, where you can learn to contact your guardian angel. For a fee, of course. This, however, isn´t a major problem. As James Randi noted after visiting Norway in 2011, most Norwegians seem embarrassed by the actions of their princess. Though no reliable survey of the population´s feelings about this has been done, consensus seems to be that she simply is a wacky, upper class, stay-at-home person with too much time on her hands.
A greater challenge to rationality in the public discourse is posed in the form of a kind, unassuming, seemingly harmless old man: The faith healer Joralf Gjerstad, more commonly known as Snåsamannen orSnåsakall´n (the man from Snåsa). For decades he has healed Norwegians of their ailments: from the pains of life and the common cold, to blindness and cancer. At least this is a commonly held belief, and a claim made in his many best-seller biographies. Proposing more sceptical views of his feats is generally met with a shrug. In central Norway, often with boos and hisses. The latter was actually the case in a nursing school where a psychologist was lecturing on commonly held non-pathological delusions.
The “shruggies”, as we might call them, are even more common when it comes to CAM. Homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic are popular treatment options, often provided in conjunction with conventional approaches. Indeed, both maternity wards and departments for blood disorders often offer acupuncture as a means of pain relief, and GPs offices share premises with homeopaths and chiropractors. Voicing concerns about this, again, provokes a shrug, “it might have something to it ” and the ever-present “what´s the harm?”.
Even the government seems to have taken this stance. After replacing the old Quackery law (Kvakksalverloven) with the Alternative treatment law (Lov om alternativ behandling), a research institute,NAFKAM, was created at the university of Tromsø specifically to study CAMs.NIFAB, the centre for information on CAMs and registered practitioners, was created simultaneously to provide knowledge based information on CAM for the public. These have later become known for their register of exceptional outcomes, where unexpected outcomes after CAM-treatment are recorded for the purpose of further research. What in other sciences becomes statistical outliers, here becomes more important than the bulk of the empirical results.
Foreningen Skepsis (The Scepticism Association) is the organisation for Norwegian sceptics which stagnated and nearly disappeared in the nineties. The last decade has seen it´s return as a yet small voice, often competing closely with the Norwegian Humanist Association (Human-Etisk forbund). Lately both Skepsis and the Norwegian Humanist Association have succeeded in getting some media attention and creating public debate to encourage critical thinking. The Norwegian Humanist Association has started a campaign Ingen liker å bli lurt (No one likes to get fooled), and the Norwegian public broadcast channel (NRK) has made a six-part series on CAMs to be aired on national television. As a result of this series, prominent members of Skepsis have been in the media for debates on CAMs and healing.*
Though some have attempted to frame these as witch-hunts and slander campaigns, public opinion seems to have been positive. With any luck they should be able to build on this and create an atmosphere for critical, rational debate in the general public. At the very least, it has ignited new hope in many skeptics who have recently discovered the growing community, and spurred activities nationwide.
Who said sceptics couldn´t be optimists?
We´re looking forward to contributing to the twenty-first floor, and hope you will find our pieces worth reading.
Marcus Glenton Prescott is a nursing student at the university college of Sør-Trøndelag, Trondheim.
Kristoffer Robin Haug is a communication adviser at the Scandinavian communication agency Geelmuyden,Kiese, Oslo.
*Edit: We initially wrongfully stated that Skepsis/the Norwegian Humanist Association were behind the new television series on CAMs, as a result of sloppy research/wishful thinking on our part. This was quickly pointed out to us by fellow sceptics, though not before the news circulated various channels for CAM-proponents. We apologise for the error, but take some time to bask in the glory of being the origins of our very own conspiracy theory.