Friday, March 20, 2009

Two Norgewean Champions of Skepticism:

Asbjørn Dyrendal & Ole Eivind Siggerud

Interview by Manuel A. Paz y Miño (Trondheim-Norway, Sept., 2008)

Dr. Asbjørn Dyrendal is Associate Professor of History of Religion at Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) in the city of Trondheim (Norway), author of two monographs, many articles and chapters of books (the next ones to be published in books on Satanism), and editor of the web page of the Norwegian group "Skepsis. Critical examination of the unexplained, the extraordinary and the marginal."
The group was founded in 1989--by several Norwegian journalists--and published in the 1990s (until 2001) a magazine with the same name". Also Skepsis has published 3 books Fyrster i Tåkeland (Rulers in the Fog Land), Konspiranoia (Conspiranoia), and Åpent sinn eller høl i huet? (Open mind or Hole in the Head? Dyrendal explains this title: “The last one is a pun on a Norwegian expression, a pun we used as a slogan for many years: ‘There's a difference between an open mind and a hole in the head.’ The English version reads something like this: ‘You should keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out.’").

1. Dr. Dyrendal, were you reared as a Lutheran? If so, how did you harmonize that with your skeptical views?

I grew up in the church, became an atheist and left the church in my teens, and have been a member of the Norwegian Humanist association (Human-Etisk Forbund) since then. Obviously, I am somewhat shaped by a cultural background in a Lutheran country, and for my own part,that means I find it difficult to reconcile religion and skepticism. Many of our members, however, do not, and I have no particular problem with that.Norwegian skeptics come from many kinds of background, and that is made easier by the fact that we are not an organization which focuses on criticism of religion generally. We deal as much as we can with empirical claims and leave more abstract questions to the side. The Humanist and Heathen associations (of which several of us are also members) can deal with that debate, and may then meet members from the several religions in a different debate.

2. How did you know the Skeptical movement?

I has just finished with my Master's thesis when I became academically interested in a subject that Norwegian Skeptic's had been dealing with ("the Satanism scare"), met up with and discussed that and other subjects with the editors and writers. We saw eye to eye on most things, and shared the same ideals.

3. How would you describe the Skepticism in Norway in the present?

With the rise of the Internet, everything once marginal and difficult to access has become available at a moments notice. This means that conspiracy theories, "alternative history", all things pseudoscientific, claims of the miraculous and other kinds of fraud skeptic's have been fighting or writing about for years has become better known. One part of that equation is that large parts of what we have been arguing against has moved from the margin to become an "alternative mainstream." Another part of it is that as the alternative moves into the mainstream, more people not only become aware and critical; theyalso take it serious as something to criticize. So a self-aware skepticism is becoming more mainstream in parallel with the growth of the alternative.However, most of this skepticism is as disorganized and individual-cum-network based as the alternative is. If we look at the organizational landscape, the picture is more or less the same as it was when I joined Skepsis some 15 years ago. We still have around 700 members, I think, and we still depend on a very small number of unpaid activists to keep the organization going. However, if we dropped out of the picture, there would be skeptical bloggers, web pages, boards and other concerned academics who I believe would fill many of the positions we now hold. 15 years ago, that was less likely.

4. What are the main paranormal themes of interest for Norwegians?

To Norwegian skeptics, or to the Norwegian population? Both are fairly secular, but if we start with the latter, I think something involving religious healing of disease would be at the top. Most would never depend on that alone, but they are curious and open minded about it. Another concern at the top is a relative newcomer: psychics. Mass media have fanned the flame of popular belief in psychics, engendering both more skepticism and more strongly held belief. And probably much more of the latter. There is now a large cottage industry of self-declared psychics--who are, however, often combining their work with "healing" as such are wont to. Otherwise, much fewer could make a living from it.Norwegian skeptics are perhaps not as focused on the old paranormalisms as we used to. We are, for instance, interested in unproven "medical" treatments and diagnoses, both from the inside of medicine and from the alternative movement. I would say that counts as a concern. We are also somewhat concerned about how "psychics" are becoming more legitimate, but so far that has not been a major issue.Conspiracy theories is another topic of interest, although it may be overreaching to call it a concern. They may have a cultural impact factor to be concerned with, but so far seem to harm none but their proponents. As an American commentator noted, they seem to raise a few eyebrows, but make few clench their fists.

5. What are the most important challenges for Norwegian Skeptics?

If by that you mean which topics we focus on for the most part, it would be alternative treatments and diagnoses. Daily, it would be coming up with quick corrections of false claims on "our" issues in the media, and getting heard doing it. More strategically, it would be involving more people as active. The challenge here is tough, because we need people with high qualifications. We (or the situation) ever raise the bar on how much you need to know on a given topic, and on the ability to communicate that knowledge out to people.

6. What has been the answer from public to your work?

Some people like us, others hate us. Many don't know we exist. But those who are interested in information about such topics generally know who we are, and may listen to what we say. We sell out our books, our web pages get read, and we are fairly well respected in the relevant communities, both academic and media.

7. What about the response from your students?

Well, my students are a mixed bunch. Some like and some dislike my take on these subjects. Since I teach History of Religions, many of them come with an existential interest in the subject and vague belief in many paranormal and alternative theories. Many show a mixture of skepticism and belief. They are there to learn, and generally we manage to teach them some of the reasons to be skeptical of unfounded claims.I teach one course which deals with many of Norwegian skeptic's traditional subjects (apocalyptic movements, conspiracy theories, cults, conspiracy culture, alternative medicine etc.), and the course is generally well received by the students. Again, they are confronted with their own preconceived notions about the matter and some take it less well than others, but generally, they seem satisfied and interested.

8. What about your own work?

I write a lot, mostly popular stuff. Some of my academic work deals with subjects related to skeptical inquiry into "claims of the paranormal", but most, I hope, is infused with a general ethos of skepticism. I do fairly little debunking in my academic papers, but I have done some of that as well. (My academic work centers on western religion in the 20th and 21st Century, especially Christian Fundamentalism, Satanism, apocalypticism and conspiracy culture).9. What about the future of the Norwegian skepticism?Hmm. My crystal ball is in the shop–it didn't seem to work properly–and my prophetic abilities have never impressed anyone. The immediate future includes marketing our brand new book on apocalyptic movements and apocalypticism through the ages. The next challenge, I believe, will be to get together a broader ensemble of academics to deal with the infusion of alternative treatments into mainstream in a responsible, balanced manner.Further on, in "crystall ball"-time: We have existed for almost 20 years on a basis of "labor of love", but that can only go so far. My basic knowledge of social movement history says that unless we can recruit new activists to take things further, perhaps reorganize and find a better financial and organizational base for an organized skepticism, skepticism will be dependent on unorganized, but capable individuals dealing with their choice areas.That may come in ten years time - or never. We'll cross that bridge when we get there. As long as we find the time, energy, and enough fun in what we do, we'll keep going.

Photo by Hilde Haugen

Ole Eivind Siggerud is both a chemistry student and the first President of the Students' Skeptics Society (SSS), founded in January (2008), at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU). SSS organizes at NTNU biweekly activities including documentaries screenings and lectures with guest speakers, and also "Skeptical Pizza" gatherings in downtown where its members can get to know each other better."

1. Ole, were you reared as a Lutheran? If so, how did you harmonize that with your skeptical views?

To answer that question I feel I should give some background information on the current religious climate here in Norway, since it's quite different from a lot of other countries.About 82% of the population belongs to the Church of Norway, which is the state church. Despite this, less than 50% believes in the existence of gods, and only about 3% attend church or religious meetings more than once a month.I was brought up in the Church of Norway, and called myself a Christian. However I have never believed in miracles, or the virgin birth, or any Old Testament story, or Jesus' divinity or the Holy Spirit etc. In other words I was basically an atheist with a poor grasp of definitions, or what one can call a "cultural Christian".Since this is perfectly normal within the Church of Norway, I didn't really question my reasoning before I went to High School. When I started to question my beliefs, I quickly realized I was an atheist.

2. How did you know the Skeptical movement?

I've always been very interested in science, and after my older sister introduced me to The X-Files I became interested in all sorts of paranormal stuff as well. I never really believed in any of it, but I found the topics fascinating. Many years later I started watching "documentaries" promoting conspiracy theories and other pseudoscience as a fun exercise in criticalthinking.It was when googling for conspiracy theories, back in 2005, that I stumbled upon The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Before this I didn't know there was an organized skeptical movement. I was instantly hooked, and soon subscribed to a long list of podcasts and blogs.

3. What has been the College's public’s answer to your work?

The Students' Skeptics Society's first event was held in February 2008, and we now have 57 members. The feedback we've gotten has been very positive so far, we have yet to receive any negative comments. We've even received funding from the student services organization here in town. So the public's response has really exceeded all our expectations.

4. What about the future of skepticism in the NTNU?

We'll keep on hosting lectures and screen documentaries, and try to make the local skeptics community more sociable. We're having two great lectures this semester, and hopefully we'll have a lot more in the future. We'll probably start having regular "skeptics in the pub" events as well.I'm also thinking of contacting student skeptic groups in other countries to exchange ideas and experiences.

Massimo Polidoro: An Italian Champion of Skepticism

Interview by Bernd Harder

-The Skeptical Inquirer calls you a „professional skeptic“: How did you turn skepticism into a profession? (A few biographical remarks.)

I am not sure I would call myself a “professional skeptic”, thus meaning that I make my living by being skeptical. What I do is investigate mysterious happenings and then tell about what I discover. And that’s from my “telling” that I mainly earn my living. Through my books, articles, TV shows and lectures. So, maybe I should say that I am a professional storyteller… with a skeptical outlook.

-Ok, but how did you start this odd career?

First of all I was very lucky. And secondly I took my childhood dreams very seriously. I must explain. I grew up as a kid with a strong fascination for all that was magical and mysterious. The first movie that I can remember playing a strong part in my imagination was “The Great Houdini” with Tony Curtis, which I saw around the age of five. When I saw that fantastic superhero, with all his magical techniques, his ability to escape from anything and his cavalier like qualities in fighting bogus mediums taking advantage of people in need, I fell in love. My first thought was: “I want to be like him”.

-And so what did you do to be like Houdini?

Well, it is not like I was thinking each day how to become like him. I had my school, my passion for music, and The Beatles in particular, which led me when I was twelve to create an Italian Beatles fan club and publish a fanzine that had a circulation of over 100 subscribers (in the days when the Internet did not exist). So, with the little money I got from this I was able to foster my other great interests: magic and the paranormal. I bought books, mainly from the USA (I learned my English thanks to Beatles songs, rather then from my teachers), and read anything on the subject that I could put my eyes on. I also performed magic quite early at birthday parties and for friends. Luckily I got sidetracked.


Yes. Making a career as a magician is very hard, and if you don’t become a superstar like Copperfield or Sigfried & Roy (which is not that simple, as you can imagine), you could very well end up performing at weddings and restaurants for the rest of your life. Which can be great fun, don’t get me wrong, but wasn’t really what I was aiming for.

-So you got sidetracked.

I was about 15 when I read a book by Italian science journalist Piero Angela titled “Journey into the world of the paranormal” and, for the first time, I was exposed to a skeptical point of view on parapsychology. The book was a thourough examination of parapsychology, which answered many questions that had been hanging in my mind. It revealed to me that America had a great thing called CSICOP, the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now CSI, Center for Skpetical Inquiry), founded by philosopher Paul Kurtz. Furthermore, it had a few chapters dealing with Uri Geller and other similar subjects, all discussed from the point of view of James “The Amazing” Randi, another co-founder of CSICOP. I had never heard of Randi and to read here, for the first time, about the adventures of this very clever and astute magician, that not only rivaled but surpassed in many ways those of Houdini, was a revelation for me.

-In the sense that now you wanted to be like Randi?

Exactly! So I immediately subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of CSICOP, and wrote both to Piero Angela and to Randi. To Angela I said that I would have loved to see the birth, in Italy, of a Committee like CSICOP that could investigate paranormal claims, and to Randi that I very much admired his worked and that hoped to meet him one day. To my great surprise both answered me. Angela, which is one of the most popular and respected TV personalities in Italy, told me that he too wanted to create such a Committee, but that there were very few people in Italy interested in helping, so he was putting them all together and asked me to join. Can you imagine how excited I was? And then the ice on the cake: Randi wrote that he would come to Italy in order to help is friend Piero Angela start the Italian Committee and that he would gladly meet me. I was on top of the world. And it was only the beginning.

-What happened next?

Well, to make a long story short, we all met in Italy, and this was in October of 1988. Piero invited me and Randi to Rome, where he lived. Thus I had a wonderful chance to bombard Randi with the million questions I had in my mind about Houdini (on which he was an authority), on magic, on the paranormal and so on. I even got to play as his hidden accomplice during a TV show. To me this was more than I could ask for, but after a couple of days, during a dinner at Piero’s house, with all his family, they dropped the bomb. Piero had discussed this before with Randi and was eager to make a proposal to me: was I interested in going to study with Randi in America, sponsored by him, in order to learn how to be an investigator of mysteries and then come back to Italy and run the Italian Committee? You can easily guess my answer!

-So that’s how it all started. And then, when you returned to Italy you started CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and, at the same time, studied Psychology at the University of Padua.

Yes, I felt I needed a formal education and Psychology looked to me as the best answer to my thirst of understanding. Because I feel that I have always been driven by a sincere need to understand, rather than simply debunk or dismiss incredible claims. I like to approach a claim with an open mind, as much as this is possible; try to see things from the point of view of the claimant and try to understand what is really happening there, if the person is deluding him or herself or if there’s really something that deserves further analysis. The most satisfying experience for me, at the end of an investigation, is not just to find a solution to a mystery but to understand the mechanisms by which one or more persons were lead, in good faith, to see the extraordinary in something that, maybe, turned out to be quite ordinary.

-How do you avoid, both in public and in private, that people perceive you as an odd eccentric, who may be somehow interesting and fun but who isn’t taken seriously?

I am not one that constantly talks about his interests and passions, and I certainly don’t get into quarrels with people I meet that strongly believe in the unbelievable. I respect all positions, and if asked I express mine, without trying to convince everybody that I am right. Furthermore, many of my friends don’t even know about my work as an investigator of mysteries, until they see me on TV or read about me in some magazine. To most I am mainly a writer and a journalist.

-Do you regard yourself as some kind of modern Houdini, who is known to have enjoyed debunking mediums, clairvoyants and charlatans of all kind?

No. As much as I love Houdini, and I have written two books about him and keep on studying his fascinating figure, I don’t seek to be recognized as a modern version of himself. In his own time, probably, his aggressive approach was what was needed to fight Spiritualist frauds, taking advantage of the huge demand for reassurance of an afterlife after the bereavement brought on by World War I. I prefer a different approach. I don’t engage in fist fights with charlatans. I try to be as friendly and open to those who claim psychic powers as I can. Most of the time, these people are sincere and truly believe in what they do, they truly think they can bring some help or consolation to others. Of course, if I see there’s even a hint of fraud in their practices I go ahead and publicly reveal what I found. In some cases, like that of a cruel fraud by a philippino healer, we even brought in the police to pursue the matter.

-Why is all this still necessary? Why do people still believe in the supernatural, despite all the debunking and despite all the scientific education we have in our time?

I don’t think that people will ever stop believing in the supernatural or avoid falling into the traps of superstition. I fear that these traits belong to the human nature. However, I think that the role of people like you and me can be very important. As the Chinese used to say: “it is better to light a candle, than to curse darkness”. And with all our work, our investigations and debunking of frauds, we actually help keep the light of reason alive. So that any wayfarer, lost in the dark forest of the irrational, can see it and use it as a guide to get free and leave the darkness of ignorance behind. If he or she wants, of course. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Today, it is true that the Internet can spread all kinds of poisonous ideas everywhere, but it is also true that our voice can be a lot easier to find than it has ever been possible. So maybe we should learn from our opposition and make a better and more effective use of this wonderful and powerful instrument.

-In Germany, right now the second season of „The next Uri Geller“ suffers from a massive drop in ratings. Do you regard this as a good sign?

I think that it probably depends from the fact that second seasons of reality shows always see droppings in ratings. The novelty is lost on the viewers and fewer are interested in repeating the experience. If tomorrow there’s a new paranormal show, with something really exciting on it (maybe naked bodies and explosions!), it will very likely be another hit.

-What is the current state, in 2009, of the eternal battle between skeptics and obscurantists? Do the skeptics gain some ground? What is the direction of public opinion in this case, that is, the development of society in this regard?

It seems to me that beliefs go in cycles. In the 1970’s there was the explosion of the paranormal: Uri Geller, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, the Age of Aquarius, biorhythms, the Bermuda Triangle, talking with plants… Then the 80’s saw a dropping of interest in the subject for many reasons. One was certainly the establishment of organized skepticism with CSICOP, and the subsequent debunking of many self claimed psychics and the discovery that many ideas, like biorhythms, simply didn’t work. Then in the 90’s there was a resurgence of beliefs in the occult, starting with New Age ideas and culminating with the magical notion that something major would happen on the year 2000. Well, nothing magical happened in the year 2000, while something terrible (foreseen by no one) took place in 2001. New Age is now old stuff, as are many beliefs linked to it, like channeling or crystal healing. So, it seems to go in decades: sometimes irrationality is high and the next decade is low. As much as we feel that irrationality never goes away, today we are probably around the end of a “low period”, and I am afraid that the new high cycle is currently building up and will probably explode around the fatidical 2012, that again some see as a turning point. We’ll see.

-How should skeptics react to the TV appearances of Geller & Co.? In other words: When and how should skeptics react? And in which cases/under which circumstances would it be better to simply ignore such frenzies in the media?

In Italy, with CICAP, when we were in the early stages and relatively unknown, we immediately reacted to every TV show that promoted the paranormal with no skeptical point of view present. Letters to TV station and to newspapers (there were no emails then) were helpful. They brought us attention and put the authors of such programs on guard. For they soon started to invite us as well and, today, we can say that, most of the time, when there is a TV show on the occult, or some journalist has to write about the paranormal, they contact us in order to have one of our members participate or to report our position. But this was a result brought about by creating strong links with the media, by becoming friends with many journalists, and not attacking them as irresponsible fools. Usually, an author of a program is not out to con the viewers and foster superstition. They just want to make an attractive show, gather as much viewers as possible, and thus have high ratings and consequently more publicity, that is to say more money. This is the final goal of commercial television: money. If skeptics find a way to appear as attractive, witty and interesting as psychics and astrologers they certainly get their share of TV exposure. But if all you can do is preach and condemn, then don’t be surprised if you are ignored.

-In Italy belief in miracles is still wide-spread. Don’t you make enemies in the „homeland“ of catholicism if you try to criticize figures like Padre Pio etc.?

Ours is certainly a singular situation. The fact is that Italy is the “home” of the Pope and, while this does not imply that Italians are more religious than people in other countries, as many polls show year after year, it certainly implies that the media gives enormous space and time to anything coming from the Vatican. As for our work, we notice that we are usually applauded by the Church when we investigate Astrology or the Occult in general, while we are criticized when the subject of our work is the Blood of St. Januarius or the Shroud of Turin. I have to admit, however, that this kind of criticism comes usually from some diehard fanatic or from a singular priest, never have we received an official reprimend from the high quarters. Another example of one the oldest strategies of the Church: ignoring criticism and just waiting for it to vanish. If they are still here after 2000 years it must mean that it works.

-What was your most interesting case?

It’s hard to say. It could very well be my first case, that of a poltergeist phenomena that centered around a kid who was just six years younger than me. The media made a big thing out of this poltergeist story. Furniture would fall on the ground, windows would brake, lamps would explode… The house of this family in Milano looked like it had been through a earthquake. And in the end, when through a stratagem I found that it was just the kid who threw and broke things when no one was looking, I felt like Houdini for a moment. “Ah-ah, I got you, you are a fraud!” But immediately after, I learned that true life is not a cartoon and that things can be more complex then they seem. The kid was passing through some difficult times, he felt neglected by his parents who worked too much, and by accident had found that, when he broke a lamp, instead of being scolded he attracted a lot of attention. He kept doing it and the attention mounted. Soon the press was on it and the house was invaded by all kinds of people, including many psychics who just wanted to exploit the kid for their own self promotion. Basically, he had started the Frankenstein monster and did not know how to get out of it. That’s why I never publicly debunked the kid. Instead, I talked to him, tried to understand him, and the whole thing just deflated itself. It was quite an eye opening lesson for me.

(This interview was published originally as "Detektiv des Übersinnlichen" (Detective of the Supernatural) in the German Society for the Scientific Study of Parascience's journal Skeptiker 1/09, p. 30-33).

Rob Tielman: A Champion of the European Humanism

Interview by M.A. Paz y Miño

Dr. Robert Tielman is a social sciences educator and he retired as a professor of Humanist Studies and head of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Department at the University of Utrecht. Among several positions he is President of the Public Schools in the Netherlands, President of the Humanist Archives, and Secretary of the Dutch Foundation of Gay and Lesbian Professors.
He was President of the Dutch Humanist Association (1977-1987) and of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (1986-1998). And he wrote Homosessualiteit in Nederland (1982) and Bisexuality and HIV/AIDS: A Global Perspective (1991).

-What specific circunstances in your life helped you to become a humanist?

Rob Tielman: My father was an atheist, my mother a catholic: it stimulated me to reflect upon giving meaning to my life. My university professor was a humanist and he introduced me in the humanist movement. I am now 40 years active as a humanist.

-Why is better for us to be called humanists rather than simply freethinkers, non-believers, atheists, skeptics, humanists or religious humanists?

Rob Tielman: It is better to call yourself what you are and not what you are not. Freethinkers, non-believers, atheists and skeptics are not necessarily humanists. The word religious is very confusing. In Dutch we have a clear distinction between theistic religions and non-theistic life stances like humanism.

-Do you think human beings are predisposed to have religious beliefs not only by social factors but natural ones, i.e. genetic ones?

Rob Tielman: I am a sociologist and I notice that there are many human beings who do not need to belief in things that do not exist so I see no biologic determinism. Ghosts do not exist where people don’t belief in them. Sociologists call this self fulfilling prophecy.

-What is needed to reach a successful humanist ethical life?

Rob Tielman: Education and identification with humanist role models.

-How do you explain the present religious fundamentalism around the world?

Rob Tielman: My social scientific outlook is: “Paradox as Paradigm” (the title of my inaugural lecture in 1987): things are not what they seem to be. There is no rise in religion or fundamentalism but the rise of secularism makes some religious people despairing.

-What do you think about the future of humanism, humankind and earth?

Rob Tielman: Everybody who knows about the horrors of the past is an optimist. Most human beings tend to ignore the progress that has been made.



PERUVIAN RATIONALIST HUMANISTS are people who were born and live in, or have a relationship to Peru.
We interpret reality based on reason and science, effort ouselves to live with positive values, and trying to be the least as irrational and the most realistic as possible, without both super-natural and paranormal beliefs.
We organize public activities like video-forums and lectures with a free entrance specially for young students.
Also we offer to make secular or non-religious ceremonies (child's namings, confirmations, marriages, funerals) for non-believers.