2015 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

The Institutet radio show: 2015 Enlighteners of the Year

The Institutet radio show: 2015 Enlighteners of the Year

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2015.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to a radio show on Swedish Broadcasting’s channel 3, Institutet, “The Institute”. Show hosts Karin Gyllenklev and Jesper Rönndahl use humour to reach out with science content to a wide audience.

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award is given to a neighbouring show of the aforementioned, channel 1’s Kaliber, “Calibre”. They get this doubtful honour for a show where they suggested that vaccination against HPV, Human Papilloma Virus, carries serious risks. Their slanted and selective reporting of the science may cause some people to withhold this life-saving jab from their kids. I talked to a similarly angle-pushing TV reporter about this in 2013.


I’m Donating White Blood Cells

I’ve been a blood donor for over twenty years. The other day a doctor called me and asked me if instead of my normal quarterly donation, I’d be willing to give a few extra hours of my time along with a chunk of white blood cells. I said yes.

There’s this transplant patient at a hospital in Stockholm. Like all such patients this person, let’s call her Joan (I have no idea what her real name is), is on immune suppressant drugs to keep her body from tossing out the transplanted organ. She now seems to have contracted a difficult infection. Unfortunately she’s developed antibodies against run-of-the-mill donated blood that would work in most cases. So in order to give Joan white blood cells to beat the infection, you can’t just look at the AB and Rh factors, you need to look at tens of genetic markers until you find a rare match. Me, in this case.

For me, it’s three visits to the hospital. Monday morning, they first checked my health, which turned out to be very good. Then they drew some of my blood and mixed it with Joan’s in a tube to see if it would provoke an immune response. When it did not, they injected me with filgrastim. This is a synthetic analogue of the hormone G-GSF, granulocyte-colony stimulating factor. In the body, G-CSF is secreted here and there, and it causes the bone marrow to make granulocytes and stem cells and release them into the bloodstream. Granulocytes are a category of white blood cells, the immune system’s foot soldiers.

After the doctor and nurse had seen that the injection didn’t cause me to keel over, they sent me off with some dexamethasone pills to take Monday evening. This is a steroid similar to the hormone cortisone, which has a wider range of functions, one of which is apparently to get those granulocytes out into my blood quicker.

The doctor warned me that I might feel a little creaky in the evening from the sudden flooding of my system with unneeded white cells. And I did, like if I had the flu coming on distantly. But I consoled myself with the thought that I was still in much better shape than Joan. This morning I was back at the hospital and got hooked up to a centrifuge. They’re taking blood out of my left arm, spinning it up in the centrifuge until it separates into layers by density, grabbing the bottom part of the layer of white blood cells (the youngest ones), and then sending the rest back into my right arm. They’ll keep at this for two hours, then shoot me up with more filgrastim and send me off with some more dexamethasone, for the whole procedure to be repeated tomorrow morning.

Why am I a blood donor? Why am I doing this complicated thing for Joan, whom I’ll never meet? Well, because I’ve been helped many times by modern medicine, I believe in solidarity and I’ve been taught to feel good about myself when I’m altruistic. And really, it doesn’t cost me much to help out here.

If you want to be all Darwinist, then you can actually say that I’m acting in my evolutionary self-interest. Joan and I are genetically similar. In helping her stay alive, I improve the chances of my genes spreading in the population. Joan is a transplantee and might neither have any kids nor be in any shape to bear them in the future, what do I know. But maybe she has nieces and nephews, whose evolutionary environment will be a bit less harsh if their aunt is around to help feed, protect and raise them. And then they may go on to have five kids each who share a lot of my genes. Anyway, me and Joan are blood kin now.

Talking To Stubbornly Angle-Pushing Journalist About Vaccine

As part of my duties as chairman of the Swedish Skeptics, earlier tonight I took part in a studio discussion on Swedish TV4 about Gardasil, the vaccine against human papilloma virus that is offered to all 12-y-o Swedish girls. It was a pretty silly affair. The TV people had decided on the angle that the information given about the vaccine to young girls isn’t detailed enough. For instance, the school hallway fliers don’t tell the kids that the protection rate against HPV isn’t 100% (duh) or that very rarely the vaccine can provoke some serious side effects (duh again). These are traits, I should probably explain, that Gardasil shares with all other vaccines. And they had invited a young lady who suffers from a rare side effect. Not, as I pointed out on air, the 10,000 contemporaries of hers who have not experienced any side effects.

In my opinion, the crew had taken on a feeble story from a feeble angle and run way too far with it. Wouldn’t surprise me if they get their fingers slapped by the Swedish Broadcasting Commission. But still fun to practice my TV skillz.

2012 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2012. Both the Enlightener award and the Deceiver award are given to the editorial staff of programmes on Swedish national radio.

Medierna is a weekly media criticism show. They roast journalists in an excellently skeptical fashion and have during the year touched upon mistreatment of subjects such as climatology, alternative medicine and vaccination.

Nyhetsguiden is a daily news analysis show. In April and May they ran several anecdote-based antivaccine stories about the ongoing effort to vaccinate prepubescent girls against the cancer-causing HPV virus. This was particularly irresponsible as the Swedish public has a heightened vulnerability to antivax propaganda after the nationwide swine flu vaccination programme was found to correlate with a heightened incidence of narcolepsy. Nyhetsguiden also flirted with climate denialism in November. This kind of reporting is alas what often happens when the science beat is left to general news reporters.

The Huskvarna Drug

Recently while reading Mats Keyet’s 2000 biography of Swedish beat novelist Sture Dahlström, I came across the sad story of the Huskvarna drug. It killed Dahlström’s father and many others.

In 1961 Dr. Hjorton’s powder was made a prescription drug. This measure was of no great consequence anywhere except in Huskvarna, a small single-company industrial town on Lake Vättern. To Americans, it’s probably mostly known for the old Husqvarna motor bike brand. In the mid-1950s the company doctor realised that Dr. Hjorton’s powder was not only dependency-forming but in fact caused lethal kidney damage when taken too often and for too long. Workers at the Huskvarna factory had been taking it regularly even when not ill. They were in fact chemically dependent on a lethal drug. But outside of Huskvarna, few had even heard of Dr. Hjorton or his drug. What had happened here?

The powder was no patent medicine: its composition was known and it was made at the local druggist’s. The ingredients of a dose were:

  • A pain killer and fever reducer: 500 mg phenacetin (Now known to cause cancer and kidney damage)
  • Another pain killer and fever reducer: 500 mg phenazone
  • A stimulant: 100 mg caffeine

Herman Hjorton opened his medical practice in Huskvarna in 1903, the year of his graduation and the year when the gun factory expanded into motorcycles. He was 34 and had sensed an opportunity in the expansive little town. Hjorton was the town’s first doctor and he soon got a reputation for diligence, compassion and approachability, making house calls at all hours. In 1906 a drug store opened in Huskvarna and Hjorton moved his home and practice to the same building.

In 1918 the Spanish flu pandemic struck: an aggressive influenza that often caused lethal pneumonia, particularly in young and strong people. Medicine at the time had no antiviral drugs (we still don’t for flu) and the first antibiotics were hard to come by after WW1, so there was not much a doctor could do for the sufferers. Except for the fever, and the muscle pain that was a common symptom of the viral infection. Dr. Hjorton could treat those. And so he came up with his formula, which actually seemed to help.

Hjorton’s 50th birthday party in 1919 was a huge event for the town, whose inhabitants saw him as a hero. When he died of a heart attack four years later, the whole district was rocked by grief and he was given the biggest funeral in Huskvarna’s history. He had been cycling to a patient when his heart gave out. But though the Doctor was dead, his formula lived on and the sales continued to increase.

Sales increased though the pandemic was over? People were no longer taking it as a flu remedy. They took it as a stimulant. Everybody knew about the powder after the pandemic, and since it wasn’t a prescription drug no doctor needed be involved when you bought it at the drug store. Nor was there any limit to how much you could buy. Many working class families took Hjorton’s powder every morning. Factory workers found that the powder made them faster, stronger, less tired and free of pain. This improved their earnings: in the 1920s performance-related pay became common. They took the powder at work, offering each other a baggie of Dr. Hjorton’s like workers elsewhere would share cigarettes or snuff. The medical establishment didn’t react other than to call it a bad habit. And Dr. Hjorton himself had become a silent authority.

During WW2 phenacetin became rationed and Huskvarna’s inhabitants had to mail-order the powder from drug stores all around Sweden. Their use of it peaked in the 1950s, when one Huskvarna drug store sold 8000 baggies a day. The company that made the baggies was told that a million of them would only last for three months in that drug store. And for some reason, the town’s workers were dying young of kidney failure.

Indirectly, the Huskvarna drug decades ended thanks to the labour union. It was making a general demand that major factories employ doctors, and so, in the early 50s when the drug use was approaching its peak, Kurt Grimlund was hired as company doctor. He came from the neighbouring town of Jönköping where he had already seen an unusual number of kidney failure cases. In 1953, Swiss researchers published a study documenting a link between phenacetin use and kidney damage. Phenacetin was a widely prescribed drug, and so the study sparked intensive international research, some of which Grimlund performed in Jönköping. As a result phenacetin became a controlled substance in Sweden in 1961, and in 1983 it was taken off the list of legal drugs entirely.

But what about the Huskvarna substance abusers after 1961? No doctor would prescribe anywhere near the amount of Dr. Hjorton’s that they were used to taking. They were recommended Koffazon powder instead and seemed quite happy with it. It probably helped that Grimlund had run an information campaign about phenacetin and early death at the factory in the mid-50s. Koffazon is still an over-the-counter drug in Sweden. It’s Dr. Hjorton’s powder minus the phenacetin.


This blog entry is based on C. Andersson 2009, Sippan som hjälpte mot allt. En studie runt det omfattande bruket av Dr Hjortons pulver som ägde rum i staden Huskvarna och på fabriken Husqvarna AB, BA thesis, Jönköping University College. She refers repeatedly to K. Grimlund 1963, “Phenacetin and renal damage at a Swedish factory”, Acta Medica Scandinavica, Stockholm. Andersson’s maternal grandfather died young from kidney failure in Huskvarna.

El-Mag Crank Gets Galileo Argument Wrong

I got a letter with criticism from a man who believes in electromagnetic hypersensitivity and thinks I should too. Most of the letter is the Galileo argument, where the letter writer refers to an anthropologist whose ideas were, in his view, once highly respected until they were taken apart by critical thinkers. I should be as critical of the current medical consensus regarding radiation phobia as these thinkers were of the anthropologist, says the letter writer, because the current medical consensus has been paid for by the telecomms industry. In other words: it’s a conspiracy.

But who, then, is this anthropologist whom the letter writer selects to represent a mainstream scientific consensus that may soon be toppled by independent critical analysis?

Thor Heyerdahl.

It’s sad but also absolutely priceless.

Skeptic’s Guide Interview

I’m on the latest instalment of the Skeptic’s Guide podcast talking about the Mora/Orsa electrophobia case and the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award. I also mention a bunch of upcoming European skeptics’ conventions, though Steve Novella cut out the bit where I recommended that the skeptical rogues grow mullet hair styles and mustaches for the Berlin meeting in May to honour the German porn industry.

(My previous interview with the SGU, about the Swedish Skeptics and weird archaeology, was almost four years ago! Time flies.)

Drugstore Misunderstanding About Saltpetre

Saltpetre, potassium nitrate, is added to food to give meat products a nicer colour. One winter in the 70s when we were living in Connecticut, my dad went to a New York drug store to buy saltpetre for our traditional Christmas ham. And the elderly druggist winked at him and said this odd thing.

“Hehe, it’s an old army trick!”

As my dad told us later that night, he had to ask what on Earth the guy meant. And then he learned that the druggist thought he was going to take the saltpetre as an anaphrodisiac, to decrease his sex drive. Supposedly the US armed forces did this as a matter of course to improve discipline and troop morale, adding saltpetre to the rations.

Now I find that this idea, that somehow stuck with me, is a widespread piece of unfounded folklore. Saltpetre does not decrease a man’s sex drive, and the armed forces have never added it to rations.

A few years later I learned, though, that you can mix saltpetre with sugar and make your own fireworks.

I Have A Hidden Pill Compartment

Went to bed with a headache, woke up intermittently during the night to find it still there, and got up in the morning with the same headache or one very similar to it. So I took an aspirin, which stuck in my throat, as pills usually do. I figured it would slide down along with my breakfast. The headache receded after a cup of caffeine solution and I forgot about my pill.

After more than five hours, during which I had no trouble eating or breathing, I coughed the pill up, unchanged. Where was it in the interim!? Can most people swallow pills without nibbling them to gravel, as I usually have to?

2011 Enlightener & Obscurantist Awards

i-230db6e878da54fec87ff8136882123f-Hjarnkontoret-barn-svt-ny-180.jpgThe Swedish Skeptics, of whom I am the chairman, have just announced their annual awards for 2011 [ab].

The Swedish public TV show Hjärnkontoret receives the Enlightener of the Year award,

“…for their excellent science coverage directed towards children. Hjärnkontoret has aired for 16 years and thus contributed to the upbringing of the entire current generation of students and young scientists at Swedish universities. Thanks to its welcoming format and accessible time slot on public television, Hjärnkontoret reaches out to children of all backgrounds, thus widening and democratising the recruitment of future scientists. Furthermore, the show increases knowledge and appreciation of science among the public at large.”

The Enlightener of the Year receives a cash prize of SEK 25 000 ($3600, €2800).

The Board for the Environment of Mora and Orsa municipalities receives the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award, as it

“… has disregarded scientific knowledge when dealing with so-called electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Since 2006 the Board has dealt with a complaint including demands that the municipality force cell phone operators to decrease radiation from their antennas. This radiation was said to cause a number of health problems. The Board for the Environment has spent considerable resources on investigating this demand without acknowledging the fact that controlled scientific experiments have never been able to demonstrate any hypersensitivity effects of radio waves. Instead the Board has alleged that the science is uncertain and that a link cannot be excluded. …

People who believe that they are hypersensitive to electromagnetic fields usually experience real symptoms. But there is no scientific support for their interpretation of the cause. Instead, we are usually dealing with a psychosomatic condition. Accepting the sufferers’ interpretation in opposition against scientific medicine is actually a disservice to the people involved.”

See Svenska Dagbladet, Dagens Nyheter, Dagens Medicin, Expressen, SR P4 Dalarna, Mobil.se, Dalarnas Tidningar, Dala-demokraten, Eskilstuna-kuriren, Dalarnas Tidningar again, Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. I will add links to more coverage as I find them.