Relatively Woke

Some Twitter conversation and a comment by Aard regular Phillip alerted me to an on-line offensive that the Swedish extreme Right seems to be staging against critical race theory and wokeness. I thought I’d take the opportunity to clarify my own position.

In general politics I’m a member of the Social Democrat party. In US terms this means that I consider AOC and Bernie to be good vanilla politicians. In one Swedish Leftie internal debate, I am on the side of Socialism rather than Identity Politics. I am more interested in your relationship with your employer and the banks than in your skin colour. Of course I’m anti-racist anyway.

But inside the walls of Academia, I part company with many Leftie friends. I like to refer to myself as a member of the Alan Sokal Academic Left. We’re academic Lefties who seek scientific truth first, and want to further Leftie political causes second. You can’t right a societal wrong if it’s impossible to determine if the societal wrong has any objective existence. Nor can you right a societal wrong if there is no way of measuring objectively which methods work.

On an unrelated note, I also like to annoy earnest Leftie humanities colleagues by pointing out that it doesn’t matter in practice what our politics are, because Swedish humanities have almost no political influence or relevance. You can try all you like to “make visible the power structures” in archaeology, it will not move society at large in any particular direction anyway. Also, it’s my opinion that if such activities do not increase our knowledge of societies in the past, then they should receive no archaeological funding. Because archaeology is about material culture and societies in the past.

As for wokeness, we don’t really have a word for that in Swedish that I am aware of. Here the extreme Right often attacks “political correctness” instead, which seems to refer to the same things. My opinions are probably quite woke seen from a US perspective where AOC and Bernie are considered extremists (which makes everyone in European politics laugh). But in the Swedish context my political correctness is middling.

I get along poorly with the woke academic Left because of their bad science/scholarship: their knowledge relativism, their incomprehensible fad jargon and their focus on meta-issues. But I’m fine with their politics.

2018 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

Fråga Lund

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2018.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to the pop-sci TV show Fråga Lund. The show answers viewers’ questions about science and research in an accessible way by recruiting scientists and other experts in various fields. Through its format that mixes facts and playfulness the programme attracts a different – and far larger – viewership than the purely fact-based science programming that Swedish public service TV also offers.

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award goes to the writer and speaker Thomas Erikson for his best-selling amateur psychology books and lecture events where he touts simplistic personality tests without basis in real psychological research. Erikson was soundly taken down at feature length in the long-read magazine Filter already last summer.

National Heritage Board Abdicates Again At Ales Stenar

Bob Lind has yet again managed to get the National Heritage Board to abdicate its responsibility at Ales Stenar, a beautiful 7th century AD burial monument near Ystad in southern Sweden. Bob has self-published odd interpretations of the site that have found no traction among professional archaeologists. He has kept vigil at Ales stenar for decades, lecturing to visitors, ranting at the municipal guides and occasionally attacking them. He has a very large sign on site, next to the National Heritage Board’s, with permission from the County Archaeologist. My colleague Björn Wallebom has criticised this, and the local paper ran a critical article yesterday, quoting myself and others.

In 2007 the National Heritage Board’s representative Ewa Bergdahl said on this subject,

There isn’t just one single truth. This place is so incredibly more complex than previously believed, … You have no privileged position with us just because you do research at a university

And this tiresome old post-modernist anti-science relativism persists at the Board. This time it’s Qaisar Mahmood, my buddy from Leftie and refugee volunteering circles, who says stupid things to the press without the benefit of any archaeological training.

Our responsibility is to present the image we think is right. It would be wrong if we took measures to exclude other images. … We have seen no reason to file a complaint against the County Archaeologist’s decision. We take responsibility for what is ours. Just because we don’t file a complaint it doesn’t mean that we support or open the door to other versions.


Vårt ansvar ligger i att ge den bild vi tycker är rätt. Det är fel om vi skulle gå in och utesluta andra bilder. … Vi har inte sett något behov att överklaga länsstyrelsens beslut. Vi tar ansvar för det som är vårt. Bara för att vi inte överklagar betyder det inte att vi står bakom eller släpper fram andra versioner.

1. The National Heritage Board’s responsibility is to present the image that scientific consensus thinks is right. Nobody else’s. Certainly not its non-archaeological office staff’s.

2. The Board owns this property. Its staff are not taking responsibility for what is theirs.

3. The fact that the Board doesn’t file a complaint does mean that it supports and opens the door to other versions.

4. If someone wanted to post an equally pseudo-scientific sign about Odin that contained hints of extreme-right propaganda, then the Board would not allow it.

5. When the National Heritage Board allows a sign with a discredited interpretation at a high-profile archaeological site that it owns, then it is equivalent to public hospitals allowing faith healers to roam the corridors, tending to patients.

Qaisar, archaeology is a science. I do not get to speak for medicine, Latvian studies or meteorology. You do not get to speak for archaeology. Scholarly consensus is the arbiter of truth in these matters.

Update same day: Qaisar Mahmood and the Board’s Custodian Lars Amreus have responded briefly on Facebook and Twitter to my criticism. If I understand them correctly, their line is that the Board of National Antiquities does not in fact own Ales stenar, they recently handed it over to the National Property Board. This organisation has never made any claim to archaeological authority. And it creates the question, why then does Qaisar Mahmood of National Heritage talk to the press about Ales stenar? As I said, this is an abdication of responsibility.

And another update: Qaisar has given me a long public reply on Fb, and I’ll try to summarise it fairly here. He’s saying that my expectations of what role the National Heritage Board is supposed to play in Swedish archaeology are no longer supported by its directives from the Ministry of Culture. The Board has in fact not abdicated from any position of archaeological authority in the case of Ales stenar. It can’t abdicate, because it no longer makes any claim to such a position. Those are not its orders from our elected officials. I’m sure Qaisar knows what he’s talking about. I just shake my head and wonder, will the real Board of National Antiquities please stand up?

Signage at Ales stenar. Left: two copies of a sign from Ystad municipality and the National Heritage Board. Right: Bob Lind’s signs.

My blogging about Bob’s antics has grown voluminous over the years. Read it all here with a new category tag.

2016 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2016.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to the science desk at Dagens Nyheter, a major newspaper. Science editor Maria Gunther and medicine reporter Amina Mansoor have made medicine and other science accessible in an initiated yet comprehensible way. Congrats Maria and Amina, well deserved!

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award is really gutsy and interesting this year. Karolinska Institutet is one of the world’s most prestigious medical universities. The 2016 award will be remembered as the one given to the most respected insiders in Swedish science ever: professor Anders Hamsten, the former Vice-Chancellor of KI, and others among KI’s former directors. They receive the anti-award for their attempts to quiet down the murderous scientific fraud perpetrated at KI by the surgeon Paolo Macchiarini. Dishonourable mention is also handed out to certain leaders at the Karolinska Sjukhuset hospital.

My Relativism

Like Romanticism, Post-Modernism is a poorly defined term that means different things in different contexts. But in academe, pomo can pretty much be equated with relativism. This term also means several different things, but all of them apply to pomo.

The relativism that makes me hostile to pomo is knowledge relativism or epistemological relativism. “All statements of fact are historically and culturally situated and thus meaningless outside a local contemporary sphere”. This stance can be applied to itself and immediately yields absurdity.

The other pomo relativism is aesthetic. “All value judgements of art are historically and culturally situated and thus meaningless outside a local contemporary sphere.” In other words, there are no timeless aesthetic pronouncements. Bach and the Beatles (whose work I love right here, right now) are not timeless greats. There are people now, and there will be people in the future, who don’t like them. No canon deserves any respect. There are no classics outside of marketing lingo and university syllabi. High culture and low culture are contingent constructs. No art critic has more authority than another.

I’m an aesthetic relativist who opposes post-modernism. My aesthetic stance isn’t grounded in the humanities. It’s based on a natural sciences perspective and a love of genre literature that rejects the concept of high culture. Aesthetic opinions are not traits of the artworks themselves. They are traits of people. And all people are are historically and culturally situated.

Skeptical Sir Richard

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)
Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)

Yesterday I finished reading the first volume of Sir Richard Burton’s 1855 Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (in the public domain). Here Burton recounts his travels in the summer of 1853, when he disguised himself as a wandering Persian physician and performed the Muslim pilgrimage. At the time, if a non-Muslim was caught doing this, he would be lucky if he only ended up forcefully circumcised.

Burton is an amazing writer, with a keen eye for detail and fine cynical sense of humour. He comes across as a man without any religion who is nevertheless interested in other people’s religion. This lovely passage from ch. 20 of the 1893 Memorial Edition encapsulates his skeptical attitude.
(The bits about Spiritualism are late insertions by Burton.)

[In Hamzah’s Mosque outside Al-Madinah] It is believed that the souls of martyrs, leaving the habitations of their senseless clay, are fond of sitting together in spiritual converse, and profane eye must not fall upon the scene. What grand pictures these imaginative Arabs see! Conceive the majestic figures of the saints — for the soul with Mohammedans is like the old European spirit, a something immaterial in the shape of the body — with long grey beards, earnest faces, and solemn eyes, reposing beneath the palms, and discussing events now buried in the gloom of a thousand years.

I would fain be hard upon this superstition, but shame prevents. When in Nottingham, eggs may not be carried out after sunset; when Ireland hears Banshees, or apparitional old women, with streaming hair, and dressed in blue mantles; when Scotland sees a shroud about a person, showing his approaching death; when France has her loup-garous, revenants, and poules du Vendredi Saint (i.e. hens hatched on Good Friday supposed to change color every year): as long as the Holy Coat cures devotees at Trèves, Madonnas wink at Rimini, San Januario melts at Naples, and Addolorate and Estatiche make converts to hysteria at Rome — whilst the Virgin manifests herself to children on the Alps, whilst Germany sends forth Psychography, whilst Europe, the civilised, the enlightened, the sceptical, dotes over clairvoyance and table-turning, and whilst even hard-headed America believes in “mediums,” in “snail-telegraphs,” and “spirit-rappings,” [* In fairness I must confess to believing in the reality of these phenomena, but not in their “spiritual” origin.] — I must hold the men of Al-Madinah to be as wise, and their superstition to be as respectable as that of others.

An energetic man after my taste, and a writer I shall return to.

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 Believe In Robert Lind

Here’s my translation of a classic 1979 revue routine by Hans Alfredson and Tage Danielsson. Kramfors is a town of 6000 inhabitants in central Sweden, near the 62nd parallel.


TD: New religions keep popping up like mushrooms, and now it’s time for the – ubiquitous in entertainment these days – Religious Corner. Sitting next to me is a fellow man [HA: “Flatterer”] … a co-slipper on the endless unsanded sidewalk of life. And I would like to ask you a straight and direct question: do you believe in God?

HA: No, in Lind. Robert Lind in Kramfors.

TD: Is that someone you know?

HA: No, but I believe in Him.

TD: But you don’t know if He exists?

HA: I believe He does. I’m almost convinced that He exists. I can sort of feel it in my entire body that He exists. Yes, I believe He exists. The answer is “yes”.

TD: So this is something inside of you?

HA: Yes, I believe, I sort of know. Also, I’ve felt that I could hear His voice.

TD: How so?

HA: I called Him.

TD: How do you know it was Him? It might have been Bosse Parnevik [a popular impersonator at the time].

HA: I don’t think so. Parnevik was on tour in Finland at the time.

TD: But my dear friend, do you have any evidence for the existence of Robert Lind?

HA: Well, evidence, you know, it’s hard to come by. But He does advertise every week. I think that’s a kind of evidence. Last week for instance there was a big ad in the Saxon weekly, for a biodynamic health bike in rugged Hammer Plastic, and other things. You know, He has this mail order company in Kramfors, “Robert Lind in Kramfors Ltd.”, you’ve heard of them, right?

TD: But I don’t understand, how can a person learn Robert Lind’s will?

HA: Well, prices and stuff are in the catalogue…

TD: Yes, but if you are troubled and want contact, everyone can’t just call Him, can we?

HA: That’s true, it would get expensive if everyone called. Kramfors is after all outside the Stockholm area code. But I usually call from work, that’s the kind of guy I am. Simply a bad boy!

TD: But I was thinking of Him [gestures towards the ceiling], He must get completely swamped by calls.

HA: Yes, that may very well be true. He did seem a little miffed last time I called. He said, “You again? Dammit, there’s got to be an end to this now!”. This suggests that the End is nigh.

TD: But if this Robert Lind really does exist [HA: He does! He does!], then do you feel that he may have existed for all eternity?

HA: Yes, in the beginning was Robert Lind, yes, box, all right.

TD: But how do you know?

HA: I can feel it. And besides, my mother says so. I asked my mother, and she said, “Oh, Robert Lind in Kramfors, they must have been around for ever”. You aren’t suggesting that my mother is a fibber?

TD: Certainly not!

HA: Watch it or I’ll sic the old lady on you! She’s strong! Middle-weight Olympic winner.

TD: Please understand that these are all new concepts to me. How do you picture Robert Lind?

HA: I think he’s short and fat. Or tall and muscular. He’s got hairy legs. I don’t know, I’m just guessing, sort of imagining him. I’ve got a diffuse, a diffident idea of Him.

TD: How do you picture the Afterlife?

HA: That’s a bit clearer to me. I believe that when you die, you go to Kramfors. But if you’ve been wicked, then you’ll have to stay in Dals Långed.

TD: What is your mental image of Kramfors itself?

HA: I think it’s all light and beauty. But Dals Långed is a hellhole.

TD: And I suppose that Robert Lind rules the quick and the dead?

HA: I wouldn’t go that far. But He has a certain influence, at least in Kramfors. You see, He’s on the Municipal Council. He’s a very powerful person. Generally speaking, I’ve devoted my life to Him. I’ve become a sales agent! Can I offer you a set of garden furniture in pressure-treated softwood? Four pieces? Including a couch?

TD: No, really, I demand a bit more of the One I believe in than a set of garden furniture in pressure-treated softwood, including a couch, four pieces.

HA: Oh. Well, then you’re talking to the right person, because there’s a soap dish included as well!

TD: Aha, now we’re talking!

2014 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

Last spring I stepped down from the chair and the editorial board of the Swedish Skeptics, but I remain an enthusiastic member of the association and we have a really strong executive board these days. Now they have announced the Swedish Skeptics’ annual awards for 2014.

The Enlightener of the Year award is given to Viralgranskaren, “The Viral Investigator”, a column in the Swedish version of the free subway newspaper Metro. Here journalists Jack Werner, Linnéa Jonjons och Åsa Larsson investigate claims that go viral on the social media: everything from fake celebrity deaths to racist propaganda and food safety alarmism. “The Viral Investigator also gives its readers practical advice about how they can become better investigators, and about the tell-tale signs to identify stories that are probably fake.” In November Werner, Jonjons and Larsson received The Swedish Grand Journalism Prize for Innovator of the Year.

The Deceiver of the Year anti-award is given to one of the country’s main morning TV news shows, TV4 Nyhetsmorgon. They have “repeatedly aired pseudoscientific and false claims, dealing among other topics with psychology, psychiatry, medicine and veterinary medicine”.

Two Stockholm Dissenter Churches De-Sanctified

I follow the decommissioning of Sweden’s churches keenly for several reasons. I like churches, the older the better, but I don’t like the Church much. And I take great interest in the West’s ongoing secularisation process. Before, I’ve blogged about how Maglarp Church was torn down, about how Örja church was sold as housing and about the National Heritage Board’s advice to congregations that decide to stop heating their churches.

Two upscale 1890s dissenter churches in the posh Östermalm precinct of Stockholm have been similarly de-sanctified in the past year.

A year ago, a real estate company co-owned by footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic bough the 1898 Elim Church next to the Swedish History Museum, where I spend a lot of time. Elim was a Baptist church and is now being converted into luxury housing.

Now I hear that the Trinity Church near Östermalmstorg Square, a beautiful neo-Gothic brick structure inaugurated in 1894, has been sold. It’s been a Methodist church, and that particular sect isn’t doing so well in Sweden. The buyer is internationally famous Grammy-winning music video director Jonas Åkerlund, who intends to use the building for unspecified cultural purposes.

The latter case is kind of funny. 30 years ago, Jonas Åkerlund played drums with the seminal Satanist black metal band Bathory. His most recent music videos, however, have been for Coldplay, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

Thanks to Johan Lundström för the tipoff.

Update same day: Aard regular Thomas Ivarsson points out that the 1880 Caroli Church in urban Malmö, not far from Maglarp and Örja, was de-sanctified by the Church of Sweden in 2010 and is now part of a shopping mall.