Skepticism in Norway: Update summer 2012

By Marcus Glenton Prescott and Kristoffer Robin Haug 

An update from Norway – Summer 2012

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.

Folkeopplysningen

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.

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0 Responses to Skepticism in Norway: Update summer 2012

  1. Chocolate as antioxidant is old news. I would have liked to see the links on the Xocai bullying exposure, but got a “not found” error.

    If I understand correctly, the current position on acupuncture is that it may have some small effect over and above placebo. Given the reality of nervous system feedback loops, there is nothing inherently spooky in such a claim (unlike, say homoeopathy, which the new English Health Secretary believes in).

  2. Marcus says:

    Paul: Sorry about that. The links should be functioning again shortly.
    The main article on Xocai can be found here: http://tjomlid.com/2012/06/28/xocai-the-nasty-tale-of-a-norwegian-chocolate-mafia/

    When it comes to acupuncture some tiny effects have been found beond placebo. These effects, however, fall well within what we could expect to see as a result of flaws in the research (inadequate blinding, inadequate control groups, researcher and publication biases, flawed metaanalyses etc.). A good example of this is the systematic review released online by the archives of internal medicine this week (archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1357513).
    ORAC on Respectful Insolence, and Steven Novella on the Science Based Medicine blog have explained this better than I did on my blog, so I´ll link to them instead:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/09/12/can-we-finally-just-say-that-acupuncture-is-nothing-more-than-an-elaborate-placebo-can-we-2012-edition/

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/an-acupuncture-meta-analysis/

    When it comes to chocolate; yes, there´s antioxidants there. The clinical value of eating antioxidants as supplements or in large quantities, though, is questionable to say the least.

    Again, I am sorry about the links. When fixed they should explain (these updates are mainly summaries). I hope this will help a little in the meantime.

  3. Thanks. Link now working. Certainly high levels of antioxidants, while still favoured by the “health food” industry, are now suspect and and may do more harm than good (one Finnish study, as you may know, Marcus, was halted because of signs that the subjects were dying faster than the control group). I gave up on vitamin A, C, E supplements some years ago. IIRC, what work there is in favour of dark chocolate (see e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22684995) is vague about the mechanism, and I was quite wrong to link the benefits (if any) of chocolate in particular to antioxidants in general.

    Regarding acupuncture, no real disagreement; I used the deliberately lukewarm “MAY have some SMALL effect”.

  4. Regarding chocolate, the claim, FWIW, the claims refer to the flavonoids specifically, not antioxidants in general. This morning a friend sent me a story (usual hype) based on this:

    http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_128749.html

    Of course, this in no way excuses the conduct and claims of Xocai; if the observed difference is real there are lots of confounding variables; and too much chocolate makes you fat.

  5. Marcus says:

    Yeah, I read that study. I must admit I found it ever so slightly chilling. Other studies have found higher risk in people with autoimmune disorders, which made me give what we tell patients who´ve removed bowel some serious thought. An example: In my experience (and note, this is only my brief experience) patients with ulcerative collitis who´ve removed large sections of bowel are advised to get some supplements. The most important one in the cases I´ve seen has been a regular B-12 injection IM. When it comes to other supplements they often are told something along the lines of “just take some mulitvitamins”. The ones I´ve met in check-ups often end up buying every nutritional supplement they can find; especially antioxidant supplements.
    Though I still am unsure of the risks and effects, it does make me think we should be a littel more careful with the advice we give patients.

    Yes, I´ve seen some work on chocolate (though I have not analysed the article you linked to), and they do indeed show some limited effects. I do, like you, have some reservations, but it is definately intersting.

    It is nice to have a proper conversation on these topics online. Doesn´t happen too often.

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