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.


Talking About Heyerdahl On Norwegian Radio

Here I go again, bad-mouthing Thor Heyerdahl to his countrymen. But note that I’m quoted as saying, “Norway is a country that has produced many great archaeologists. Thor Heyerdahl was not one of them.” Proud Norwegians, your country is great! And its greatness does not hinge upon the posthumous judgment of that guy with the raft.

Hear the audio clip here.

Update same day: Hehe. Some commenters on the NRK website are offended. One feels that I am just a kid with a lot of opinions, which is rather flattering to this balding father of a teen. Another thinks I’m just trying to become famous in Norway by criticising someone who really deserves fame. A third is of the opinion that Heyerdahl’s archaeological credentials are completely irrelevant, and erupts, “Has Rundkvist crossed the Pacific on a raft? … Rundkvist will die as an unknown man. Maybe with a solid scientific legacy, which will collect dust on some bookshelf somewhere.”

The Heating Is Increasingly Turned Off In Swedish Churches

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Sweden’s goodbye to religious faith and cult continues apace, and so does the relocation of the population from the countryside to the cities. Here’s a sign of the times. The National Heritage Board has recently re-issued its 1998 how-to guide for (rural) congregations who wish to quit heating their churches (available as a free PDF).

Sweden’s rural churches, many of which were built in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, have only been heated for the past century or so. It’s comfier for the congregants and it reduces humidity, thus improving preservation conditions for some materials. But from other preservation perspectives it’s not good at all. Looking at church organs, for instance, older ones were built for a cold and damp environment while modern ones want a warm and dry one.

Anyway, the reason that the heat is getting turned off in more and more churches isn’t preservation concerns. It’s the shrinking congregations and the price of electricity. Fewer and fewer people live in the country, and their religious ratio is dropping too.

The book’s chapters cover preservation aspects of wooden furnishings and paintwork, murals and stucco, painted wooden sculpture and canvas, textiles, books, metalwork and organs. It closes with a check list for annual inspections of unheated churches.

Antell, O. & Karlström, J. 1998. Att sluta värma en kyrka. National Heritage Board. ISBN 91-7209-143-6. 32 pp.

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.

Kon Tiki Airport Restaurant


I’ve written a bit before about Thor Heyerdahl’s hyperdiffusionism and the status as a Norwegian national hero he still enjoys despite being completely discounted as a scientist. Last time I passed through Oslo airport I discovered this Kon Tiki-themed restaurant with a faux Ecuadorian Bolivian stele. I think what Heyerdahl interpreted as a full beard is more likely to depict a decorative face plate hanging from the man’s nose. And anyway, a beard is of course not evidence that a man is a civilisation-bearing Übermensch from Europe.


Kensington Runestone Faker’s Signature Found

i-99e17a64e823299d6c7b23c48f713e2b-KensingtonRunestone-225.jpgThe Kensington runestone of Minnesota is a rather obvious 19th century fake. But in a recent paper in Saga och Sed 2010, Mats G. Larsson shows something less obvious: the hidden signature of the stone’s carver, who also was its finder.

Olof Öhman came from Forsa in Hälsingland, central Sweden. He claimed to have found the stone among the roots of an aspen tree he had felled with his son. Now Larsson points to the unique rune for Ö on the stone, which is an O with a small N inside. This looks a lot like O-n, an abbreviation of the man’s surname. And as it turns out, Öhman came from a farmstead named Ön, “the island”, which is likely where his name came from. This is pretty suggestive. But the clincher is found in some simple cryptography.

Öhman owned a copy of the book Den kunskapsrike skolmästaren, which contains a short section on numeral cryptograms. One of the first things that stick out about the Kensington inscription is the unparallelled preponderance of numbers in it. They form the following sequence:

8 – 22 – 2 – 10 – 10 – 14 – 13 – 62

To get a comprehensible message, Larsson flips this sequence over:

62 – 13 – 14 – 10 – 10 – 2 – 22 – 8

The inscription has twelve lines. Larsson counts the words from the left on odd-numbered lines and from the right on even-numbered lines, arriving at the following:

62: öh
13: mans (jumping up to the penultimate line when the end of the last line is reached)
14: fan
10: vi
10: ved
2: hade
22: ved (jumping down to the second line when the end of the first line is reached)
8: sten

“Öh mans fan vi ved hade ved sten”, or in English, “The Öhmans found. We kept/collected firewood at the stone.”

So Olof Öhman probably told the truth when he said he found the stone while collecting firewood. And then he carved an inscription on it.

Larsson sums up (and I translate),

“… this is not strictly a case of forgery, but of a practical joke gone wrong through the gullibility of others. … Öhman himself may have been both surprised and a little disappointed to find that his hints about who made the inscription were never noted, and as time passed it became successively more difficult for him to confess. After his rune stone gained acceptance in wider circles through skilful marketing by others, it became almost impossible for him to come clean with his honour intact.

According to John Gran’s son [J. Gran was Öhman’s neighbour], Olof Öhman once expressed a strong wish to write something that would fool society, the people and particularly academics, towards which he was extra hostile. The end result of his prank was not however quite what he had hoped for: academics in the runic field were not fooled, but non-academics were.”

Larsson, M.G.. 2010. Vem ristade Kensingtonrunstenen? Saga och sed 2010. Uppsala.

Swedish University Invites Imaginary Bosnian Pyramid Crank

Swedish academic archaeology has a few hard-core post-modernists. Their attitude to the discipline tends to be meta-scholarly (they study people relating to the past rather than the remains of the past), radically knowledge-relativist (they reject rationalist science with its aim to gain cumulative objective knowledge about what the world is like) and influenced by Continental philosophy, sociology and “critical theory”. My attitude to these colleagues is such that if I were the one who decided who gets research funding and teaching jobs, they would all be doing fieldwork on highway projects or driving a bus. And this is of course in all likelihood a mutual sentiment.

Cornelius Holtorf of the Linnæus University’s Kalmar campus is one of these post-modernist stalwarts. To get a feel for his work, consider his studies of fake exotic ruins and ancient architecture found in animal pens at zoos and Las Vegas casinos. My opinion of this work is that to the extent that any academic should study these things at all, it should not be done on funding intended for archaeology. I’ve criticised Holtorf in print (2005a, 2005b, 2007), among other things on the grounds that he advocates friendly relations with pseudoarchaeological fantasists and charlatans (as in this 2005 paper of his). But of course, to a radical knowledge relativist, the difference between science and pseudoscience is simply a matter of sociology.

Cornelius Holtorf has now done something in line with his convictions, that is, something I consider extremely irresponsible and which causes me to palm my face and groan. He has invited Semir Osmanagić to speak at the university library in Kalmar.* Does that name ring a bell? The title of the talk is “The Bosnian Valley of the Pyramids in Context”.

Yes. Sad but true. Cornelius Holtorf is lending academic credibility to the Bosnian nationalist who believes that certain mountains in his beloved homeland are the world’s biggest and oldest pyramids, and that the Maya were space aliens from the Pleiades. This is von Däniken country.

The Linnæus University’s small but solid archaeology department is otherwise home to scholars whose work I admire and follow with great interest, including Joakim Goldhahn whose Bronze Age rock art project has featured prominently on this blog for years. These people must be deeply unhappy to see their workplace associated with Osmanagić. I’d like to think that the choice of venue, in the library, not one of the university’s lecture halls, betrays a small attempt to distance the Linnæus University symbolically from one of the biggest cranks in current European archaeology. But still, in years to come, Semir Osmanagić’s web site will proudly proclaim the recognition he’s received from the Linnæus University, Kalmar, Sweden.

* Tuesday 18 October, 14:00-16:00.

Johan Normark shares my opinion.

Gothenburg Book Fair

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I visited the Gothenburg Book Fair for the first time because of my new book. The Academy of Letters needed people to put on the Researcher’s Square stage, and conveniently one of their staff had just published a book with them – me. When the local organiser saw me she did a double take because I was way younger than she had come to expect from the Academy.

The book fair, as I understand it, exists to let publishers and writers communicate with each other and their customers, and also to entertain and inform these customers. The main convention hall is packed with display booths and throngs of people. Often someone in the booth, preferably a celebrity, talks to the standers-by on a mike, and so the din is pretty awful. Giving my 15-minute stage presentation felt like I was at a cattle market, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the audience reacted as if they heard what I said and found it interesting. (You have no idea how much audience love you can get just by not reading from a script.) I also had ample time to check out the booths of those few organisations that interest me and talk to acquaintances, and spent most of today handing out leaflets for the Swedish Skeptics. My voice, already shaky from a cold, is in shreds.

Largely, I felt about the book fair like I feel about the magazine racks at news agents. Sooo much stuff that I don’t give a damn about or feel actively hostile towards. In fact, I find that the whole Swedish-language media business is of little interest to me, which made it all the more incomprehensible how the reading public adores a lot of these writers and journalists and broadcasters. There was just any number of these strictly Swedish celebs around, people on bar stools in booths that I am aware of but do not give a flipping shit about. I don’t know if their books are any good and I am not tempted to find out because they treat themes of no interest to me. So the best moments of my Gothenburg stay were time spent with my skeptical peeps and other friends.

Thinking about it though, I realise that the reason that I’m so down on the Swedish media is that I can’t help receiving them to some extent full-spectrum, indiscriminately. I would hate the UK media if I lived in the UK and the US media if I lived there. It’s just that with them, from here, I can partake selectively. The great majority of Anglophone media products, that would leave me bored or angry, never cross my horizon.

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.

Swedish Pyramidologist


Pyramidology“, says Wikipedia, “is a term used, sometimes disparagingly, to refer to various pseudoscientific speculations regarding pyramids, most often the Giza Necropolis and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.” The encyclopedia goes on to explain that there are several kinds of pyramidology that do not necessarily correspond, one of which is the metrological kind, where the dimensions of these great edifices are studied. In the archaeological trade, we sometimes (uncharitably) refer to writings of this kind as “pyramidiocy”.

In late March I got a call from Lars Lison Almkvist who has self-published a book titled Cheopspyramidens nyckel, “The Key to Khufu’s Pyramid”. Almkvist explained that he contacted me in my capacities as skeptic and archaeologist, and offered to send me a copy of the book. I emphasised that I know very little about Egypt, but accepted his kind offer. And now I have studied the book and come to some conclusions.

Before I say anything about the book I must underline that Lars Almkvist has been unfailingly courteous and friendly to me. He has also shown great courage and good scientific sense in sending his work to an avowed skeptic instead of preaching only to the choir. When I criticise his book, this is in no way intended as comments on him as a person. We may disagree on points of archaeological fact and interpretation, but we share an interest in the distant past and a will to find out about it.

Approaching the book, I immediately reacted to the title, the subtitle and the first sentence of the preface. I translate:

The Key to Khufu’s Pyramid
The solution of the geometrical riddle

As a lone interpreter of the ancient geometrical language, I must be strictly scientific.

I asked myself, “Why does Almkvist believe that the Great Pyramid hides a geometrical riddle that awaits its solution or a message that awaits decoding?”

As regular readers will know, I have helped my dad on and off to build an octagonal sauna. A considerable amount of 3D geometry went into its design. But I am quite sure that my dad and the architect have hidden no riddle in the sauna. Sadly, the Rundkvist lineage does not perpetuate any ancient tradition of sacred geometry. The sauna’s design conceals no message. And sauna or pyramid, it’s all architecture. So I entered into the book with this question foremost in my mind.

We learn in the preface and introduction that Almkvist’s pyramid geometry is actually a recent outgrowth of his interest in an Early Iron Age cemetery at Gettlinge in the Swedish island province of Öland. This is a standing-stone cemetery of the same kind as the one in Ravlunda, Scania, that Bob G. Lind has been seeking alignments in. Almkvist applied his results from Gettlinge to Bronze Age rock art sites in nearby parts of the Swedish mainland, found correspondences with Babylonian mathematics, and only then took up pyramidology by way of the Fibonacci series. He finds the same mathematical relationships in all of these sites though separated by centuries or millennia and thousands of kilometres. In his reading, he has come across ideas that he has felt a need to accommodate about an Early Iron Age settlement hiatus on Öland. (This interpretation has long been abandoned by archaeology – we have found that the hiatus is one of furnished burial only, not of settlement.) To explain how the geometrical knowledge survived this purported abandonment, Almkvist suggests in a true Bob G. Lind fashion that the Gettlinge cemetery actually dates from the Bronze Age.

With these preliminaries out of the way, Almkvist launches into 40 pages of geometrical operations on the dimensions of the pyramid, explicated by over 50 schematic drawings. In his own words (p. 3, my transl.), “The very detailed scientific account is only comprehensible if one devotes a very long time to all of the drawings, c. 50 of them.”

I have not devoted a very long time to all of the drawings. But I have looked them over in the light of my high-school geometry, and I have tried to find the answer to my first question. I have failed. Nowhere does Almkvist tell his readers why he assumes a riddle or hidden message in the Great Pyramid’s geometry. And it is also unclear what the answer he has found to the riddle is. We are never told the hidden message. All Almkvist gives us is a series of geometrical relationships that he finds significant. His main argument can be summarised as “Coincidence? I DON’T THINK SO!”.

To my mind, Almkvist’s pyramidological studies are a classic case of geometrical pareidolia, apophenia or patternicity. They are akin to the Kabbalah, to the Bible Code, to the Rorschach Test, to the meanings people find in hallucinations. Our brains are not very willing to accept that anything is random or meaningless. We seek meaning in any noisy signal – and often we find it. Watch a cloud for long enough and it will start looking like Ramesses II.

So as a friendly challenge to Lars Almqvist, I have sent him the designs of my father’s octagonal sauna, and a question. We know that the builders of the sauna are counting in base-10 and using a standard metre as their main unit of measurement. Is it impossible or very difficult to find geometrical relationships in the sauna of the same kind as those Almkvist operates with on the Great Pyramid? If it turns out that it is equally hard or easy, then this would to my mind suggest that the relationships Almkvist has found in the pyramid are quite fortuitous.