Norway: Brainwashed Science on TV Creates Storm

By EUSJA member

Bjørn Vassnes, Science Journalist, Norway:

Normally, science is not a subject in Norway. If you ask people on the street, very few can name a single Norwegian scientist, dead or alive. And even the biggest newpapers do not have science reporters, even if Norwegians read more papers than anyone. Then, suddenly, the whole nation is discussing science: in the newspapers, on the TV, in the radio, and most of all in blogs and other internet media. With a temperature that you usually find in much more southernly countries.

No, there has been no big discovery. No controversy over GM food, stem cells or research animals.

SOCIAL SCIENTISTS FELT FOOLED BY TV-COMEDIAN TURNED TO SCIENCE JOURNALIST

The heat is generated by Harald Eia, a TV-comedian turned science reporter, who is exposing social scientists and gender researchers in a  not very flattering manner in a TV series called «Brainwashed». The uproar started already last summer, more than half a year before the series was ready. Some social scientists who had been interviewed by Eia, went out in the press to say they felt they had been fooled, tricked to expose themselves by «dubious» tactics.

Harald Eia, TV-series "Hjernevask", NRK (Foto: Ole Kaland, NRK)

What Eia had done, was to first interview the Norwegian social scientists on issues like sexual orientation, gender roles, violence, education and  race, which are heavily politicized in the Norwegian science community. Then he translated the interviews into English and took them to well-known British and American scientists like Robert Plomin, Steven Pinker, Anne Campbell, Simon Baron-Cohen, Richard Lippa, David Buss, and others, and got their comments. To say that the American and British scientists were surprised by what they heard, is an understatement.

SCIENCES DOMINATED BY IDEOLOGY

In Norway, the social sciences have been more dominated by ideology and fear of biology than in perhaps any other country. This has a long history starting in the 60s. Social science became very much bound up with the ideology of the Social Democrats, who put pride in the fact that Norway was the most egalitarian country in the world. And with the new wealth from the North Sea oil, it became possible to create a society with very little poverty. Which of course has been good for most Norwegians.

MONEY CORRUPTS SCIENCE

But science started to suffer. With so much easy money, few wanted to study the hard sciences. And the social sciences suffered in another way: The ties with the government became too tight, and created a culture where controversial issues, and tough discussions were avoided. Too critical, and you could risk getting no more money.

It was in this culture Harald Eia started his studies, in sociology, early in the nineties. He made it as far as becoming a junior researcher, but then dropped off, and started a career as a comedian instead. He has said that he suddenly, after reading some books which not were on the syllabus, discovered that he had been cheated. What he was taught in his sociology classes was not up-to-date with international research, and more based on ideology than science.

One of the problems, which has prevailed until now, is that the social sciences in Norway not at all will consider biological (evolutionary, genetical) factors in their analyses of human behavior. Even gender roles and sexual identity are explained as 100 percent determined by culture. The theory is that boys and girls are created equal – at least in their heads. All talk about possible inborn differences in interests or capabilities was taboo. Because Norwegians wanted everybody to be equal, it was considered threatening to even ask if there might be some inherited differences. Not only between the sexes, but between people generally.

This was of course a theme in other countries as well at some stage (remember what happened to Larry Summers at Harvard), but in Norway it has been more pronounced than anywhere else (with the possible exception of Sweden). And in Norway this became a big problem because there are few scientists, and most research is sponsored by one source, the Norwegian Research Council, which has strong links with the government.

NO CRITICAL DISCUSSIONS

The situation was such that until recently, there has been no critical discussion of the basic dogmas about sex and gender, about criminality and about the Norwegian school system. Some questions were asked when Norway joined international school tests, and we discovered that we had fallen behind, to a level with much poorer countries. And there was some discussion why the most egalitarian country in the world had bigger differences in choice of education and careers between the sexes, than any other developed country.

This has been called the «gender equality paradox», and nobody could explain it. The common reaction was that we just had to work harder to reach our egalitarian goals. But of course, this «paradox» is easily explained if one takes evolutionary psychology into consideration: Because Norway has such a high living standard that you can live a decent life also with «female» jobs such as nursing, the women now choose careers that suit their psychological needs. But to say such things aloud, was like putting yourself in the gauntlet.

If Eia had presented the series five years ago, he also would have had to try the (media) gauntlet. But even in Norway, the outside world is creeping in, and last year he felt that the time was ripe for this project. He was maybe a bit optimistic, and some of the interviews created such storm, long before the series was aired, that there was a possibility that teh project has to be abandoned. Some scientists even threatened to sue him.

But his standing as the most popular TV-comedian in Norway, made it difficult for NRK (the national broadcaster) to back off, and after some delay and bitter dicussions in the media, the series went on air on March 1. It immediately became one of the most watched series on Norwegian TV, and the most watched program on internet-TV.

LOOKS NAIVE, BUT IS WELL PREPARED

For many people, it was difficult to see Eia in his new role as an investigative science reporter (a kind of science journalism’s Michael Moore), but he was well prepared. He could look naive, but he often knew more about the subjects than the scientists he interviewed, which made some of them look like arrogant ignorants. One of them fled the country, declaring that Eia had «ruined her life».

Eias methods have been critisised as being unfair to the Norwegian scientists, but they were given a chance to defend themselves, and his ways of interviewing people are not worse than most politicians or business people are used to. One problem is maybe that the Norwegian scientists had not met any critical journalists before.

But the main problem, which Eia has exposed so brilliantly, is that much of Norwegian social science, and gender science in particular, is built on very shaky ground. Most studies have been done without even considering factors like heredity: The reason why some people turned criminals, or did badly in school, was always explained by social and cultural factors. To even mention heredity as a possible factor, was met with condescending laughter or irritation.

METHODS CRITISIED, RESULTS JUSTIFIED

Before the series, most of the social science community was very skeptical, but now even  established scientists have admitted that the critical light had been justified. Another effect of the series has been that scientists you almost never heard from in the public: psychologists, biologists and other natural scientists, have started to write in newspapers and participating in debates.

So even if Eia’s methods have been critisised, there is now a general agreement that the result of this project has been good for both the sciences and society as a whole. For the first time, science is really being discussed. Even if many strange things have been said and written, this has been (and still is) a unique educational process for both the general public and the scientific community.
______________________________

The series “Hjernevask” (Brainwashed) can be watched, in Norwegian, here:
http://www1.nrk.no/nett-tv/klipp/625996

EUSJA tried to help Norwegian science journalists and science communicators in the past to create an association of science journalists. In vain. Norway is, apart form small Iceland, the only one of the technically and scientifically highly developed Scandivavian countries where science journalists are a very rare species. What happens to a country, were science and technology are not publicly discussed, shows dramatic and amusing story by Bjørn Vassnes, one of those rare species in Norway. It shows once again that science journalism is important for a democracy, and that science communication, science PR on the contrary can ruin the credibility of science. Norway needs a science journalists’ association. / Hanns-J. Neubert

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3 Responses to “Norway: Brainwashed Science on TV Creates Storm”

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