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.

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