Racist Eugenics Scholar Makes A Positive Difference

i-56a45a17d3642d03c3de790eb7975cc2-200px-Herman_Lundborg_(1868-1943).jpgThe memory of Herman Lundborg (1868-1943) is insolubly linked to the Swedish State Institute of Eugenics that he headed, and thus lives in infamy. Eugenics was the pseudoscientific belief that human populations deteriorated over time unless care was taken to weed out weak specimens and keep them from procreating. Somehow, these allegedly weak specimens tended to have foreign looks and/or a low income and education. But the social pseudo-Darwinism of the early 20th century explained that people were poor and uneducated because they were stupid, and they were stupid because they had bad genes. Bad blood. They needed to be culled from the flock, or more humanely, sterilised, not necessarily with their informed consent.

The other day I learned, by chance, that Herman Lundborg actually managed to solve a serious public health problem, thus performing a great and lasting service to the inhabitants of a small part of Sweden. This was the Lister peninsula in Blekinge province (incidentally home of the Viking chieftain Krok in the childhood home of Red Orm, hero of F.G. Bengtsson’s immortal novel The Long Ships).

Unverricht-Lundborg disease is a rare genetic condition, also known as Baltic Epilepsy. It is a form of progressive myoclonic epilepsy that leads to early dementia. First described in Estonia by Heinrich Unverricht in the 1890s, it was found to be endemic in Lister as well (just across the Baltic Sea). Herman Lundborg’s award-winning 1901 MD thesis dealt with myoclonic epilepsy and demonstrated that Baltic Epilepsy is a recessive Mendelian trait, much like blue eyes. Recessive traits are only expressed if you get two copies of them at conception. The reason that people in Lister were so afflicted was that they commonly married their cousins to avoid splitting up land holdings. This was nothing unusual in rural Sweden, but it had tragic consequences for isolated gene pools that had acquired a recessive trait like that of Unverricht-Lundborg disease. Lundborg’s results were communicated to the people of Lister, they changed their marriage customs, and the disease disappeared in a generation.

Where Herman Lundborg went wrong was in his wider interpretation of what the Lister case meant. He believed that it demonstrated the kind of genetic deterioration that demanded a eugenic response. But in fact, such deterioration does not exist and the problem didn’t really lay with the Lister people’s genetic makeup. It lay with their social anthropology. From the point of view of “racial purity”, few populations could beat the Lister people since they were so unwilling to mix. If Lundborg had not looked at his scientific data through racist glasses, he would easily have understood that his work made a strong case for international intermarriage, not for any controlled breeding of Swedish peasant stock.

Welcome to Sweden, little Christina, whom my friends Martin & Nanna have just adopted from Lesotho.


Radiation Phobia and Wolves

For the past few days, Swedish skeptics have been shaking their heads in disbelief over Mora municipality’s office for the environment. The office had taken the complaints of a man with radiation phobia seriously and demanded that all radio transmitters in the area be turned down or re-pointed to ensure that the man’s house would not receive more that 50 nanowatts of radio – an extremely low value. The thing about radiation phobia (or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” as it is called by sufferers, “electricity allergy” in Swedish) is that it is all in one’s head. These people have real symptoms, but they can’t tell whether a wire is actually live or a transmitter is on. It’s a psychosomatic ailment. But the office for the environment chose to ignore this information.

Yesterday we learned that cooler heads have prevailed in Mora and closed the man’s case without further action. But local newspaper Dala-demokraten then broke an even sadder and more bizarre story. A family in the same county has moved out into the deep woods to get away from all electrical equipment and installed shielding of some kind (à la tin foil hat?) all around their house. At least one of these poor people clearly suffers from radiation phobia. But despite all their attempts to get away from radiation, the malady persists. And they have a theory about why that is.

It’s the wolves. Wolves wearing radio tracking devices.

The family has made portable extra shielding to stave off the wolf radiation, but it hasn’t helped much. And yet, the county officials who have looked into the case have found that there aren’t even any wolves with tracking devices in the area. And of course, even if we put a tracking device on the phobia sufferer, s/he wouldn’t be able to tell if it were on unless it had a little lamp on it.

A good basic health care rule is that do by all means describe your symptoms, but leave it to a qualified non-fringe medical professional to determine what’s causing those symptoms.

Singer And Jowly Do Drugs On The Commuter Train

Friday was quite a day for me: wake up at 5 after a restless night, travel by air, give test lecture, get praised beyond belief, eat excellent mutton & cabbage, do very friendly interview, become optimistic, meet up with local skeptical buddy, return home. Then a metal gig headlined by Graveyard, whose stellar new album Hisingen Blues is a must for all Zeppelin fans, preceded by Top Hawk with a basso singer and Horisont as fine openers, the latter with a particularly impressive drummer and an 80s-style high-tenor singer. (All three bands also had technically brilliant lead guitarists who looked really shy and introverted.)

I caught the 00:15 commuter train home, and had an encounter that I’d like to share with you, Dear Reader.

I was reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion on my phone (in preparation for a Regency LARP two weeks from now: I’m Mr. William Elliot) when a 40ish man in a purple shirt and no coat sat down across from me. He had a clean-shaven head (except for his eyebrows), jowly cheeks and a paunch. He seemed tired and paid me no attention. Then a short guy the same age sat down next to me, immediately shook my hand and started to talk. He was short, well-dressed, wearing a stylish little hat, and had Near Eastern looks & accent. He smelled strongly of wine and spoke incoherently, alternately singing snippets of Bellman and Vreeswijk and trying to get people sitting around to join in. I put my phone in my pocket and obediently sang along on some tunes, though he didn’t know the lyrics very well. He told me he was a poet and had once been klubbmästare party-section manager at an Uppsala student’s nation, where he’d made friends with one of my colleagues.

Soon it turned out that Jowly, who mainly seemed to want to sleep, was Singer’s buddy, and the latter kept trying to get him into the conversation. Jowly wasn’t very forthcoming, but suddenly he opened his eyes and said urgently (and irrelevantly), “Cooling systems for mainframe computers! The Americans have got it all wrong! They don’t know how to solve the problem!” Here he was interrupted by some singing from his buddy, but then he got back on track and said, “The cooling, it’s my brother, you know, he’s sort of a semi-savant!”

Here came another interruption when Singer asked me if I wanted some pills. Ignoring my demurral he asked Jowly for the two he gave him before, but Jowly said he’d already taken those, and so Singer got out a pharmacy-style box of pill blisters from which he extracted two yellow/green capsules. “This is like cocaine, I promise! Strong shit! Have some!” The guy broke open a capsule and poured out a white powder onto the base of his left thumb. When I still didn’t want any, he held out his hand to Jowly, who eagerly bent forward and vacuumed the stuff up, spreading some across his cheek and upper lip. Singer snorted a capsule too and helped Jowly clean up, while I curiously took the box and read the label.

“Fluoxetine. Against anxiety and depression. One capsule daily. Prescribed for Mr. This-and-that by Dr. So-and-so.”

I didn’t know what Fluoxetine is. But the writing on the box also informed me that the drug was an SSRI, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. That made me laugh a little. The substance is in fact more widely known as Prozac. It will just maybe lighten your flagging mood and dampen its swing amplitude somewhat if you take it regularly for months, though your mileage may vary considerably. And I’m pretty sure that regardless if you eat it or snort it, it isn’t psychoactive at all in the short term. These bozos thought they were getting high off of Singer’s physician-prescribed mild antidepressants, that don’t even carry the “don’t drive” triangle.

When we reached my stop, Singer was loudly and happily singing the “raï-rattiratti-raïraïraï-raïraï” kid’s choir chorus from one of Cornelis Vreeswijk’s hits along with some teens two boxes over, and Jowly was slumped in his seat. As I got up, Singer shook my hand again and said it had been a pleasure.

Alopecia: Charm Quark’s Non-Cancer

Here’s a guest entry from Charm Quark, one of the bloggers at Skepchick Sweden. When I read it there I asked her to give me a translation for Aard.

I have alopecia, an autoimmune disease in which hair follicles go into a resting phase, causing hair loss. The form I’ve got, alopecia areata, causes hair to fall out in in patches. The disease continuously regresses and relapses, and I have gone trough several bouts since the age of seven. Luckily, the disease is completely harmless and I have no other symptoms, but you appear to be very ill indeed when you have no hair/eyebrows/eyelashes. People think cancer, death and woe. In their eyes I see sympathy – or dollar signs.

When I was diagnosed my mother felt really bad for me and became a bit desperate when the doctors told her there was nothing they could do. I know she acted in what she thought was my best interest when she started looking into healers. She thought, “If this works then it’s amazing and if it doesn’t then at least I will have done all I could”. Me, I was pretty cool with the whole thing. Nothing we can do, says the doctor lady, then I’ll just make lemonade I suppose. I educated my classmates so they wouldn’t think it was contagious or believe I had cancer. Now I can’t remember why, but nothing came of the healers or the other woo that my mother was contemplating. I remember thinking it sounded scary and wasn’t too jazzed about the whole ting. And damn, was I lucky. Where would I be today otherwise? My hair started growing back spontaneously (as mentioned the disease regresses and relapses) after a few months. Had I gone to a healer before my hair grew back, my seven year old brain would definitely have come to the conclusion that healing works. Had I gone to a healer I might not be blogging at the world’s greatest blog today, Skepchick Sweden, but instead misspelling in eight different fonts at a blog for my healing company.

Looking like you have cancer without actually having to go through the disease, treatment and anxiety is a fairly good deal when it comes to undercover work. I have done it without planning to on a number of occasions. The last time it happened was a few years ago on a summer holiday. Me and two girlfriends sat at a table when a Norwegian woman came up to us. She sat down and after a few minutes’ conversation she mentioned that she was a psychic, a medium and all kinds of magical stuff. She started to give us readings one by one. Super happy girl got a super happy reading (compliment after compliment) and nodded excitedly at everything. Skeptic girl was just told “I don’t get anything on you”. Non-cancer girl received the following reading. As the lady looked deep into my eyes and held my hands she said:

– You carry a great sadness. Your life is not easy. You struggle.

This couldn’t have been more wrong. I was in love, realizing my dream career-wise and enjoying a sun-soaked holiday with two awesome girlfriends. However, I looked down at the table to confirm that she was on the right path.

– You’re very ill. You have cancer.

Bitch, please. But I continued staring at the table.

– You have cancer of the …

Now it got interesting. “My” alopecia is actually caused by another autoimmune disease which affects the parathyroid glands. I quickly decided that even if she was off on the cancer I’d give her a fair chance at guessing where the disease was located. Thus, valid answers would have been the hair follicles or parathyroid glands.

– … ovaries.

I shook my head. She pondered.

– … bowels.

Shake head.

– … breasts.

– … brain.

– … kidneys.

– … liver.

– … uterus.

Do you know how many organs you have to guess before you end up at the parathyroid glands? All of them. Most people don’t even know they have parathyroid glands. She eventually gave up and went back to talking about my great sadness. Me and skeptic girl laughed as we walked away, jeez! But what if someone with ovarian cancer had been sitting there? The outcome could have been dramatically different and someone already suffering could have been further harmed.

This is the danger of wearing a disease on your sleeve. You become fair game for every charlatan and snake oil salesman out there. But to those who prey on suffering and desperate people, I have only one thing to say: don’t ever forget the parathyroid glands. Because I’m out to get every last one of you using my non-cancer.

Hot Rectal Peat Douche

“The main strength of the book lies in the description of the numerous ways in which peat was utilised in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The author clearly proves that peat is a fascinating substance with qualities that made it suitable for a wide variety of tasks, from horse bedding, to soap and paper manufacture and as a soil improver and building material. In the UK and Germany its properties were even promoted in health spas, with treatments such as immersion in hot electrified peat and the even less enticing hot rectal peat douche.”

Richard Brunning reviewing Ian Rotherham’s 2009 book Peat and Peat Cutting in the journal Landscapes 11:1 (2010), p. 108

Many Sb readers have a hard time getting onto the server right now. I have trouble posting. This is apparently due to DDoS attacks. The reading problem can be circumnavigated by accessing Sb through Google Reader or similar services.

Skiing Holiday, Broken Bone

Sweden is shaped like a ski, and people live mainly in the southern quarter, but in the other three-quarters there are many skiing resorts. I’ve been going there every few years since I was three. I’m not a competitive or particularly elegant down-hill skier, but I enjoy it and I can get down all kinds of slopes and I rarely fall.

In recent years my wife and I have taken the kids to one of the country’s southernmost skiing resorts, simply because if one of you is going to spend most of their time on the kiddy slope with a neophyte, then there is little reason to drive for seven hours one way. My wife had tired of Romme near Borlänge, so this year she did the booking and put us in BjursÃ¥s near Falun. It took us less than four hours to get there from Fisksätra, lunch break included.

BjursÃ¥s (“beaver sauce”) offers a modest number of ski lifts and slopes, and few of the latter are very long or steep. This was the year when Juniorette really became a serious skier, who ploughs down the slopes at considerable speed with little fear and few falls. And Junior is an excellent babysitter & skiing partner these days, so part of the time they zipped around on their own.

I don’t like gadget sports. I enjoy buying as little gear as possible, so this year I wore a cap I bought at the Great Wall outside Beijing years ago, a staff jacket from the VästerÃ¥s town paper that my wife got me when she worked there in ’99, a pair of gloves someone left at my house one gaming night, and faded jeans. But oldest of all was my actual skiing gear: given to me by my parents in ’88 and still sporting my childhood phone number written in my dad’s hand. Quality stuff, I just sharpen the steel edges now and then and I’m fine. The boots are actually the best I’ve seen, with a single open/close latch instead of the crazy Gigeresque alien armour current ski boots look like. (I remember now that I wrote about my gear last winter too.)

Anyway, to my dismay I broke one of my poles this year. I was in a sitting lift with a mid-slope station, and when me and Junior passed that station one of my poles got lodged against the wooden deck and bent. Aluminum cylinder, broke when I tried to straighten it. So goodbye 80s ski pole. Still, I did have one perfectly usable one left… So I went down to the rental shop and asked if they had any solitary ski poles of the right length. Sure enough, they did – and they gave me one for free. So now I’ve got mismatched recycled skiing poles and I feel pretty smug about not throwing away gear or money unnecessarily.

Distinctly non-smug is how I felt yesterday afternoon though when Junior came down a light slope at his usual sane clip, braked, fell over in front of me and broke his left arm. So we spent last night at Falun main hospital. But as my friend David the physiotherapist commented, if you must break a bone, break your radius. The ulna will keep it straight and it’ll heal just fine. In this case, we were particularly lucky about it: it’s a “green stick fracture” with no displacement of the bone ends at the break, which is pretty much the kind of fracture you’ll want if you must snap off your radius. And of course you’ll prefer to break your second hand, not your first.

Did you know that patients are no longer encouraged to carry their broken arms in a sling? Apparently this causes immobilisation, muscle atrophy and poor circulation, all of which prolongs and impedes rehabilitation. So Junior walks around with his plaster resting on his left-hand shoulder and uses his left-hand fingers for sundry small tasks. But he complains about difficulties when using the bathroom, and last night I washed his face for him the way I used to when he was a little kid.

Oh, and one of the slopes is named Pot Nook, HarsprÃ¥nget. Dalecarlian stoners…

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Are Today’s Allergics Yesterday’s Survivors?

Before modern hygiene and housing standards, children died in droves of infections in the West. Now few do, but instead they are increasingly bothered by allergies, which are immune-system malfunctions. The current view among researchers is that there is a connection here. Live in dirt, and you will get infections that may kill you, but you won’t get allergies.

The Skeptikerpodden podcast has an interesting interview with bacteriologist Agnes Wold that touches upon about this issue. It made me wonder.

The kids who get allergies today: are they the ones who would have survived 200 years ago, or are they the ones who would have died? Or would there be no strong correlation between the outcomes if it could be tested?

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Sweden Has Antivaxers Too

Noted skeptical author and podcaster CJ Åkerberg takes a look at one of the most active and visible anti-vaccine cranks in Sweden, Sanna Ehdin, and at the history of vaccination. The entry was originally published in Swedish on the Tankebrott blog, and I asked CJ to translate it for Aard.

In Sweden we have been quite fortunate to not have the same, vociferous anti-vaccination movement as seen in the US and the UK. But this has changed in recent years. Perhaps it was the slightly chaotic handling of the A(H1N1) vaccination. Perhaps it is due to the fact that some well-regarded figures in Sweden have voiced skepticism of the A(H1N1) vaccination in particular and vaccination in general.

Be that as it may: we now have to face parents, co-workers and friends who see vaccination as a threat, not as a defence in the battle against infection. One of Sweden’s most visible antivaccinationist public figures is author Sanna Ehdin.

Antivaccinationist Sanna Ehdin

Ehdin trained as an immunologist and has made a career out of writing books promoting alternative medicine. Why mention her training, you may ask? Because it is important to underline that education is not a guarantee that what you argue is automatically right.

When it comes to vaccines Ehdin has been both categorically against and slightly more open to interpretation. For example:

“As an immunologist, I am doubtful or negative towards vaccination, [I] believe there are far better and less damaging ways to go.”

[ source ]

“Of course not – it [thimerosal] is used as a preservative [and] antibacterial [and] other compounds can be used. And one can avoid vaccination as well.”

[source ]

On her web site Ehdin mentions that she is “… not opposed to the vaccination of children”, but (there’s always a but) the question is “… when it is done and with what.” First, we note that it sounds uncomfortably like Jenny McCarthy et al.’s “Too Many Too Soon” propaganda, and we note that Ehdin’s literature reference for this statement is from the anthroposophic Vidar Clinic’s Child Health department. (Anthroposophy is a Central European cult based on the writings of Austrian mystic Rudolph Steiner, a one-time collaborator of Helena Blavatsky. Go figure.)

The Vidar Clinic advocates homeopathic remedies and other dubious treatments such as mistletoe extract to treat cancer (at Tankebrott, we have written about this in the blog entries Vidar Clinic’s further excuses and O Vidar Institute, Where Art Thou? )

Recently Ehdin has been active on the vaccination issue on several levels. First, she was way off with her article on the “rise” of miscarriages in the U.S. after vaccination (our reply on the subject). Most recently she has published a blog entry where she states that vaccinations have not had the historical impact generally claimed. Let’s look at this last posting and its central theme.

Ehdin misses the point about vaccination

“Did you know that measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and scarlet fever were reduced thanks to a better lifestyle and not because of vaccinations? The global vaccination programs started after these epidemics almost disappeared.

Scientific research shows that the great epidemics were reduced because of better housing conditions, education about health, a more nutritious diet, and generally better living conditions from the early 1900s until the 1960s.”


First, one cannot help but ask, what scientific research? One asks this question of course, since these factors have had an effect, but what Ehdin is not mentioning is the fact that health care became more efficient, with new tools that increased the chance of survival. The introduction of such treatments as, for example, the iron lung made it possible to save patients who could not breathe by themselves because of polio.

Regarding the discussion below; the numbers relate to the prevalance of the disease, not the mortality, since this is the case for which Ehdin is arguing.

Now, let us focus on the assertion that the diseases had disappeared before vaccination began against measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and tuberculosis.

Statistik över mässlingen i USA och England/Wales

Statistics for the prevalence of measles in the US and England + Wales, 1940 and onward

For measles, I have looked at two examples from the Western world, the US and England+Wales . Both graphs show very clearly what happens when the countries introduced vaccination against the disease.

Statistics for the prevalence of pertussis in the United States and England + Wales (click to enlarge)

For pertussis (whooping cough) one can find the figures for the US here and for England+Wales here. Vaccination against whooping cough was introduced in the US at the end of the 1940s and in England at the end of the 1950s. Note what happens to the curves at these points in time.

What may be interesting to mention specifically for whooping cough is that we have experience of what happens when immunisation rates are going down.

“Three countries – Great Britain, Sweden, and Japan – cut back the use of pertussis vaccine because of fears about the vaccine. The effect was dramatic and Immediate.

In Great Britain, a drop in pertussis vaccination in 1974 was followed by an epidemic of more than 100,000 cases of pertussis and 36 deaths by 1978. In Great Britain, a drop in pertussis vaccination in 1974 was followed by an epidemic of more than 100 000 cases of pertussis and 36 deaths by 1978.

In Japan, around the same time, a drop in vaccination rates from 70% to 20-40% led to a jump in pertussis from 393 cases and no deaths in 1974 to 13,000 cases and 41 deaths in 1979.

In Sweden, the annual incidence rate of pertussis per 100,000 children 0-6 years of age increased from 700 cases in 1981 to 3,200 in 1985.”

Statistics for TB cases in England + Wales and vaccination introduction

These are the numbers for tuberculosis in England + Wales. I graphed the numbers, the red line indicating the introduction of vaccination against the disease.

Scarlet fever was never really relevant to vaccinate against on a larger scale, even though a vaccine was developed back in 1924. General vaccination was never implemented as it was discovered that penicillin had a great effect on this bacterial disease.

Should Ehdin’s (and others with her) ideas be correct, we wouldn’t see any marked decline in these diseases after the introduction of the vaccine in the graphs above. Alternatively, we would see a sharp downturn even before the introduction of vaccines, and we don’t.

Final words

We want to direct attention to the fact that the anti-vaccination movement has gathered some high-profile names in Sweden to their roster. We also want to put our feet down and make it clear that we won’t sit idly by and wait for the first death due do insufficient vaccination levels. We won’t keep quiet when public figures lie about the effects of vaccines. We will act through activism, writing and by informing people.

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2010 Enlightener & Obscurantist Awards


The Swedish Skeptics’ annual awards for 2010 were just announced.

Åsa Vilbäck, MD, receives the Enlightener of the Year award,

“… who has described diseases and treatments in an unbiased and informative manner on her TV show Dr. Åsa on Swedish state television. By upholding a good popular science standard on her show, Åsa Vilbäck has emphasised clearly the importance of evidence-based medicine. She has also warned viewers of dangerous alternative medical methods.”

Enlightener Vilbäck receives a cash prize of SEK 25 000 ($3700, €2800).

The Stockholm Initiative lobby group receives the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award, as it

“… mainly works to deny the state of scientific knowledge in climate science, promote home-made and often contradictory theories about how climate ‘actually’ works, disseminate conspiracy theories and relay unsubstantiated rumours and unfounded accusations against climate scientists.”

See Sundsvalls Tidning, Nerikes Allehanda, Norran, Dagens Medicin. I will add links to more coverage as I find them.

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Science Fraud in Swedish Transplantation Biology

A week ago, the Swedish Research Council’s expert panel for the investigation of suspected science fraud delivered its findings regarding Suchitra Holgersson, professor of transplantation biology in the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg. The panel finds Holgersson, who joined the Academy two years ago, guilty of severe science fraud in several cases where she has fabricated data (published i.a. in the Blood journal) and distorted results, and also in that she has forged documents in attempts to mislead the expert panel itself during the investigation.

Professor Holgersson’s own PhD students blew the whistle on her. Being a woman and an immigrant isn’t any easier in science than anywhere else. But among Holgersson’s students, whose work has been compromised by her fabrications, are immigrant women too.

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