The media summer was, as usual, quite devoid of “real” stories because of the public holidays (even journalists need some time off). In the place of such news, again as usual, came silly season, or as we say in Norway: cucumber news. Mythological sea-creatures were spotted, tick-hysteria and doubtful medical diagnoses were spread and the princess said something silly. Some sceptical news items also made their way through in June; a “healthy” chocolate being promoted through mafia-like methods.
Note: Some of the links are in Norwegian. Google-translate works well enough.
The Norwegian chocolate mafia
The chocolate Xocai is a product sold through MLM (multi level marketing) worldwide, and the claims made on it´s behalf are nothing short of miraculous. Oh, and it´s high in anti-oxidants. Aided by the Streisand effect, this story grew from relative obscurity to national infamy this summer, after the blogger Gunnar Roland Tjomlid exposed their less than conventional methods for silencing criticism. The story, known as “The Norwegian Chocolate Mafia” quickly spread online through reddit and similar media, and was later covered in national media and on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.
It all began a few years ago, when two bloggers wrote critical posts about the product and MLM. A debate arose in the comments section, but whatever stir might have been caused quickly died down. In April 2012 however, the owner of the blog received threatening e-mails from an organisation representing Xocai in Norway. Through the course of an e-mail conversation threats of legal action were put forth explicitly; pictures and pieces of personal information on the blogger and his family were posted on the organisation´s website; and “warnings” of unpleasant plans among the Xocai members were sent to the blogger. He chose to take down the post, but not before he had sent it to Tjomlid. Tjomlid chose to republish the posts on his own blog (here and here), and write up what had happened, including the e-mail correspondence in the post.
The post was quickly picked up by national media (Norwegian) and was written about at length. Norwegian journalists even did some additional digging! The Norwegian Medicines Agency promptly took official action (Norwegian) against the organisation of Norwegian Xocai sellers (they sent an angry letter).
According to a Norwegian blogger, the sales of Xocai and recruitment into the marketing scheme, have suffered (Norwegian) after Chocogate.
The Norwegian Nessies
In cucumber-news, two sea serpents were spotted in Norwegian lakes (strictly speaking lake serpents) in late July and early August. A mysterious sighting was caught on mysterious sighting was caught on tape (Norwegian) in the remote lake of Seljordsvannet. The sighting, immortalised by a 17-year old with a camera, was just the last in a series of accounts of the creature. Claims of a creature in the lake have versed in the area since the 1750s, according to Norwegian news.
Not long after the appearance of Seljordsormen, Norway´s other lake serpent got jealous of the media attention, and made an appearance (Norwegian). August 2nd, three men walking near the lake Hornindalsvannet saw what they call a sea-creature. They got a few photos, but by the time they reached the spot the creature had been, it had fled into the depths.
Though it was generally met with a weak smile and a shrug by the public, a Norwegian blogger has covered the subject (Norwegian) with a slightly more rational approach than what was made in the other articles.
Tick-hysteria, doubtful diagnoses and quack treatments
A story that´s been evolving while making the rounds in Norwegian media this summer, is the increase in tick-borne diseases. What it evolved into was a somewhat frenzied attack on the Norwegian health care system for not providing diagnoses or treatment of “chronic lyme disease”. Stories of this undocumented disease, and the un/disproven treatments for it, have made appearances around the world before, especially in the USA. The Science Based Medicine (here, and here) and Neurologica (here, here, and here) blogs have tackled this. The New England Journal of Medicine has also published a review of the subject.
After a comment from a group of health care workers on the media´s hysteria on tick-borne diseases, a major national newspaper, Dagbladet, published a series of articles and opinion pieces from the view of people believing they are afflicted by chronic lyme (here, here and here), and an opinion piece criticising the media for overhyping the problem. The newspaper in some ways promoted a “cure” and practitioners who offered it. People pushing antibiotic-regimens spanning several years, that the evidence has completely “debunked”, were basically given free advertising space. Any dissenters in the comments section, and the token sceptics in the articles, were attacked and bullied by the proponents. This, of course, is nothing new, and no end seems to be in sight.
August 27th a new television series premiered on NRK, a major Norwegian television network. Folkeopplysningen, or Public Enlightenment (doesn´t quite work in English), will be shown in six episodes, where each will critically appraise a group or mode of CAM. The first three episodes focused on healing, miracle machines and acupuncture. During the last two episodes they will be looking at homeopathy, clairvoyance and psychics and detox .
After the first, and to a lesser extent the second, episode, debates have raged in national media, and online discussions have taken place in social media (the #folkeopplysningen grew far faster than one could follow). Though the debates have been led by poor moderators, and have fallen prey to the usual fallacy of false balance, they have still exposed the ridiculous rhetoric and reasoning supporting miraculous claims.
The host, Andreas Wahl, is a well-known communicator of science (and children´s TV host) with a pleasant and kind on-screen personality which seems to have won over many “shruggies”. Through his way of presenting, fun tests (for a test they invented a bread and tea poultice for healing back pain) and celebrity test persons the show will hopefully do what the name implies.
In the third episode they took on acupuncture, which is far more common and popular than the previous two. Still, the reactions seem to have been very positive overall. There have, however been some murmurs in the sceptical community. The narrative of the episode seemed to say that there was some effect of pain-relief and nausea. Several sceptics commented that the program was “going too soft on acupuncture”, though this might make the subject more approachable to non-sceptics. Whether this is the case or not; acupuncture might be facing a fall in popularity within the general “shruggie” public.
So that´s it from Norway for now. Look out for the next update in October.
Marcus Glenton Prescott is a nursing student at the university college of Sør-Trøndelag, Trondheim, and a member of Skepsis – the Norwegian Skeptics.
Kristoffer Robin Haug is a communication adviser and a member of Skepsis – the Norwegian Skeptics.