Skeptical Adventures in Europe, Part 1

Susan Gerbic


This article is the first of five, chronicling the adventures of my month long European – About Time Tour. This tour was funded by the individual skeptical organizations and by private donations. This first leg of the journey was through Scandinavia; along with me was psychic expert and mentalist Mark Edward. We had very limited time in the area; only 5 days, plus jet lag from California to deal with.

About Time Tour – Lecture One – Oslo, Norway

Norway is commonly known as being a very secular country, but what you might not realize is that the government supports churches financially by taxing everyone, and you can’t opt out. The government sets a budget each year, determining how much money the public churches need. This money is given out to the churches based on their membership numbers. There is a secular option: a humanist group called, Human-etisk Forbund (The Norwegian Humanist Association) which I’m told has the largest membership in the world, with over 90K members. The Norwegian government gives the Humanists the same amount per person that they give each church. Recently this amounted to about 1,000 NOK which is equivalent to $126 per person. I asked and was surprised to hear that there isn’t a rivalry between churches and the humanists. I would think that there would be an attempt to compete, to gain membership because of the money involved. But I guess I’m thinking like an American.

There has been an effort to get Pastafarianism recognized as a church (the Flying Spaghetti Monster), but that was not successful. The Humanist Association was founded in the 1960’s and was originally called the Human-etisk Forbund (Human Ethical Society). Its goal focused on ethics, and critical thinking. Culturally, when a child reaches 15-years old, they are Confirmed. Many of these ceremonies still happen in the traditional churches, but a growing movement is looking for secular alternatives. About 30% of teenagers are being confirmed via the Humanist Society. I asked why in a society that is becoming less and less religious, such as Norway, why would a teenager care to be confirmed at all? I was told that there is pressure from the older generations, plus the parties are a lot of fun and the teen receives presents and money.

Here is a brief history of the Norwegian skeptic organization, Skepsis. The Norwegian skeptics formed in about 1989 as a way of both academically and informally releasing news about topics concerning skepticism. It was associated with CSICOP at the beginning. There seems to have been a wave of motivation in the group, with activities dying out in the early to mid-1990’s, with just one person, Asbjørn Dyrendal, continuing the forum website and writing articles. I’m told he is prolific, and the backbone of the organization, keeping it from disappearing during this time. NOTE: Received this update from Asbjørn Dyrendal, “During the mid- to late 90’s, we were still the old editorial board, with Erik Tunstad, Arnfinn Pettersen and Terje Emberland doing most of the work. Erik and Arnfinn were dealing with web issues into the early 2000’s, and Arnfinn and Terje were getting out books after we sort of stopped doing the magazine. I took over as editor some time into 2004 or something (I forget exactly when). Arnfinn tends to be given much less than his due (must be his shy nature). He was in charge, running things, he was making sure books came out, and he was getting ideas about new stuff. And it was on Arnfinn’s behest that I started blogging for Skepsis in 2007. That’s where the situation most resembles the 90’s narrative you got begins, but it’s still giving me too much of the credit. We were several bloggers active (not least Bjørn Are Davidsen), and while I may have ended up being very dominant and more or less alone for long periods of time, there were always other people active.”

In October 2009, The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) organized an Amaz!ng Meeting in London. About 20 Norwegian skeptics that attended TAM London, left energized and inspired. The energy continued as a group of Norwegians attended TAM in Las Vegas in 2011 (TAM 9 From Outer Space).

As a result of this renewed interest in organized Norwegian skepticism, two conferences, Kritisk Mass (Critical Mass) were held. The first was in October 2010 and had about 200 attendees. It included English lectures by Simon Singh (“Trick or Treatment?”) and Rebecca Watson (“Why Chicks Matter”), and appearances by more than 14 other speakers. A second conference was held in February 2012, with over 19 speakers, including an English lecture by Richard Wiseman. About 130 attended this event.

Also, during the years following TAM London, in 2011 an online campaign was released called Ingen liker å bli lurt (“No one likes to be fooled”), organized by the Norwegian Humanist Association. James Randi visited three Norwegian cities to kick it off, and the campaign led to a lot of debate in the media. They still exist as a website and Facebook group with over 22K likes. Around this time, the Norwegian public broadcasting channel also commissioned a TV show called Folkeopplysningen, which means “Public Enlightenment” with a clear skeptical bent, which also gave skeptical issues a lot of traction and attention.

In 2010 the Saltklypa podcast (A grain of salt) was launched and continues today, bi-weekly, with about 3,000 downloads per episode. Mark Edward and I were interviewed on Episode #150. The members of Saltklypa are Bendik Simonsen, Kristin Charlotte Carlsson, Jørgen Tinglum Bøckman, Leisha Camden and Marit Simonsen. Two of the original members have left to pursue other projects, Andreas Wahl as a TV presenter for Folkeopplysningen, and Gunnar Tjomlid to write two books, write a blog and debate in the media.

By 2014 the organizers of the organization were overwhelmed; the fire had died down and they realized that they were trying to grow too quickly and do too much. In other words, they were burned out. They did continue with meetups, articles and social media, and in 2016 it was announced that Skepsis had elected a new board of four people to try and “assemble the pieces”; that seems to be where they are now. After this, the organization has had a larger focus on a social media presence and are again gaining visibility.

Mark and I presented at a Skeptics in the Pub event on September 15, 2017. It was our first stop on this tour, and we were not sure what to expect. Would our message of activism be something the group wanted to hear? Would there be a language barrier? Would people come out to listen? Mark started off warming the audience up with mentalism, then briefly explained his work exposing the psychic trade. In 2015 Mark had been hired to shoot the popular skeptical show I mentioned before, Folkeopplysningen, which is now in Season 4. Mark had done a cold-reading segment for the show with a reveal to the audience at the end. The segment on psychics was in response to the Princess of Norway’s public support of psychics and communications with angels.

After Mark’s mentalism and mini-lecture, I gave my pitch for editors to train for the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (GSoW). We had 33 people attend and zero problem with communication; everyone speaks wonderful English. I had one person join GSoW to train as a Norwegian editor, thank you Carina. I still found it a rewarding experience as I was able to sit and talk with some of the skeptics and learned what they think about their community and the problems faced by Norway concerning scientific skepticism.

American psychic Lisa Williams was very popular a few years ago because of the Norwegian princess’s support; one skeptic told me that people normally give the Princess a pass because she is “really nice and pretty” and it’s “just angels”.

One active member of Skepsis told me that one of the challenges of the group was to keep people interested, to grow the group. I talked to another man who was attending the Skeptic in the Pub event who told me that this was his first time attending a skeptic talk; he had “stumbled across the lecture” and had only recently discovered the skeptic community after watching James Randi’s documentary, An Honest Liar. Since discovering the community, he finds that listening to podcasts, which he calls the “new radio”, is how he continues learning. His favorite skeptic podcast is Skeptoid.

Marit Simonsen interviewed Mark and I for the Saltklypa podcast and told us that she was first involved in the Humanist Association, in the youth division. She said that Randi came to Norway for a 3-city tour which filled up immediately. One thousand seats were filled at each venue with a line around the block; they had to turn people away. She said that in general Norway isn’t fighting against anything specifically; alternative med is the top of the list of problems, because average people use it as if it is normal. It’s difficult to outrage people in the skeptic community, Marit told me, because “everything is pretty good”. Government and health care aren’t things people worry about.

Stockholm and Malmö, Sweden – Lectures Two and Four – VoF

The second and fourth lectures Mark Edward and I did for the About Time Tour were for the Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning group, better known as VoF. The headquarters is in Stockholm, Sweden which is where we spoke on September 17th and then we traveled to the Southern branch in Malmö on September 19th.

VoF was founded in 1982 with a connection to CSICOP; the current chair is Peter Olausson and has 11 other board members. Board member Adrian Lozano was our host and tour guide while we were in Stockholm, and European Skeptic podcaster and Board member Pontus Böckman was our host in Malmö. VoF publishes a quarterly journal called Folkvett and maintains a website with many articles of interest to Swedish skeptics. In 2013, VoF hosted the 15th European Skeptic Congress in Stockholm. Generally, VoF organizes monthly lectures and does community outreach with the media. The VoF Facebook page has over 31K followers.

One way they have found to interest the media is through two awards they give out each year, called Enlightener of the Year and Misleader of the Year. The most famous VoF member, astronaut Christer Fuglesang, drew five big newspapers to cover the 10:23 homeopathy overdose campaign he participated in. While aboard the International Space Station he wore a VoF t-shirt on camera.

Religion is uncommon in Sweden; it is generally assumed that people you meet are atheists. I’m told that the churches in town are historical and are mainly used for weddings and funerals; some have services, but they have small attendance. In fact, one morning I stopped at a store and was chatting with the employees and asked if there were a good breakfast restaurant nearby, someplace where the church crowd gathered at before or after services. The two employees looked at each other puzzled, then I realized what I had said. That was such an American thing to assume that people attend church and socialize before or after. We all laughed when I realized my mistake.

Mark and I noticed that like Norway, Sweden does not seem to have the obvious pseudoscience businesses we would see in America. We would later discover this was true in Denmark as well. We did find one acupuncturist, but nothing else, no psychics or healers that we noticed. However, I was told that on TV there are a lot of commercials that push new age topics and psychics. As religion is leaving people’s social and work lives, new age beliefs are taking over. Pontus Böckman told me that he has seen a rise in the alternative medicine popularity. Anti-vaccine and colloidal silver is becoming popular.

Mark and I did our lectures in Stockholm and Malmö. One thing I did discover in Sweden with the skeptic community is that the love for anything goes with pizza. Anything and everything as a pizza topping is common.

Copenhagen, Denmark – Lecture Three

Things I learned in Denmark: 80% of the population are members of the Lutheran State Church but only 2% attend church; most people are atheists. In a country where discussion of nearly everything is appropriate, it would be entirely inappropriate for a politician to mention a god belief. Less than 1% of taxes go to the church, yet there are a lot of churches, most built in the 13th century. We found two Scientology buildings, both in very excellent locations, yet only a few people were inside.

The Danish skeptics call themselves “The Network of Independent Danish Skeptics”, which started in the 1980’s. They produce articles and maintain a website but are very inactive outside of that. Their website has over 700 articles on various topics, which are often used by journalists when they need to know more about the paranormal.

Our guide and host was Claus Larsen, who along with Steen Svanholm, maintains a website devoted to conspiracy theories. They have completed over 100 investigations; they attend lectures, network around the world and give community lectures. Claus is also the editor of the Skeptic Report project. This is an English website with hundreds of articles on many different pseudoscience topics.

Mark and I were taken on a whirl-wind tour of Copenhagen over two days; Claus made sure we hit all the highlights. We toured the Rundetaarn (The Round Tower) that contains a planetarium built in 1697, Ørstedsparken park named after three men all with the last name Ørsted, one of which was physicist Hans Christian Ørsted. We also visited Rosenborg Castle, which was built in 1606 by Christian IV. We visited several special skeptic-related places, including the church where James Randi’s grandfather was baptized in 1876, as well as the building his great-grandfather lived in.

Our lecture was held in a beer tavern and about 20 people attended, and gained one new editor, Johan. Mark and I did have some great conversations with Claus about activism. His recommendation is that we should organize in small groups, tackling a specific problem, with clear goals, deadlines and a plan. This seems like common sense, but in the greater skeptic community I’ve seen little planning and execution. Groups form with a “we should do something” attitude, but the goals are usually too broad and unfocused to be attained. Volunteers become frustrated, leaders burn out, and it results in a wasted effort.

In conclusion After four lectures and many hours of quality time with the local skeptics, and as an outsider, these are my observations and recommendations. As Mark and I walked the streets in Scandinavia, we didn’t see the normal pseudoscience we would expect to find in America. No psychic shops, detox centers, oxygen bars, or posters advertising for a chemtrail summit. I’m sure a support of the paranormal and quackery exists, it just wasn’t obvious.

All three skeptic groups participated in the April 2017 March for Science event, it is not clear what Oslo’s attendance numbers were; Tromsø, Norway, with a population of 65,000 people reported about 200 for the march. Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, which is located in the Arctic Circle, had 40 scientists pose in front of a statue of Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen. Stockholm had 2,500; Gothenburg, Sweden had 315. And Copenhagen had 5,000.

The Scandinavian skeptics are doing things the right way, keeping up the social aspects, monthly lectures and publishing academic level works. Websites are regularly updated. They aren’t an activist lot, probably because they don’t seem to have a strong advisory. The attitude is more of a “live and let live” one, with no one really caring about other people beliefs. But of concern is what I heard from most people was that they were seeing new age and alt-med starting to creep into the society, with Anti-vax and conspiracy theories being the most common.

My sense with the Scandinavian skeptic community is that they will be fine; I met many talented and scientifically passionate people on this visit. Their organizations are growing in memberships.

My hope is that the Scandinavian skeptic community will organize a regional conference yearly, moving from place to place as the New Zealand and Australian skeptics do. Building a community between the different Scandinavian organizations, sharing lecturers and strategies. Maybe Iceland and Finland could be included as well. I think this will help to grow the skeptic community faster, and bring attention to their local talent.

Also, the countries are close enough together that with some organization they can have a shared speaker from outside Scandinavia who is traveling near the area, and maybe pull in someone who will be speaking at a European conference who would be happy to detour to Scandinavia for a few days. What I’m suggesting is an organized speaker circuit with planned hotel and lecture locations. A committee of people, one from each organization, could manage it with some initial work at the beginning; and eventually with a routine it would be easier to manage.

My next article will be all about the 17th European Skeptics Congress held in Wrocław, Poland.

Corrections were made; to the spelling of Claus Larsen’s name. More clarity was added to the TV show Folkeopplysningen. Added Asbjørn Dyrendal’s narrative of the beginnings of the Norwegian skeptic’s early history.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.