Thursday 14 November 2013

Helmuth Nyborg gets Watson’d


Helmuth Nyborg is a Professor of Psychology in Denmark who does psychometric research and publishes widely (about 97 papers) in peer-reviewed international journals. He is a firm proponent of the genes plus environment view of human behaviour. He has fallen foul of the environment-only view, to which I will give the appellation “blank slate-ism”.

He has just been stitched up by three critics in one of the The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty which lurk in The Ministry of Science, Innovation, and Higher Education. In the midst of all this horrible nonsense, which has already caused him a lot of trouble and cost him his Emeritus status, I cannot help but be distracted by the funny names education departments give themselves. Innovation? I suppose a Committee for Public Safety is an innovation for Denmark, but the Jacobin terror got there first.

The three pursuers have found him guilty of two crimes: “that the defendant had committed scientific dishonesty by appearing as the sole author of an article and by including a reference which did not support the data it indicated to support.” There is no appeal allowed. Helmut writes to me, in great detail poor fellow, showing that he offered co-authorship to a colleague who did not accept it, and that the reference was to the correct dataset, but should have included a note on a technical correction about birth rate projections which makes no real difference to the results. You can get the very much fuller account from him (see email address below).  I shudder to think what this committee could do to any authors of any published paper if it classifies omissions of this sort as “scientific dishonesty”.

Is there a back story? Yes, Helmuth got on the wrong side of a colleague at his university. They applied for the same job years ago. The other guy got the job. Helmut, who had 40 publications at that stage, which was far more than the other candidate, protested. They have been on very poor terms ever since. Incredibly, this guy was one of the three members of the committee. The other two are also on public record as being hostile to him. Publication rates for two of them are 0 and 0, and 32 for the other one, so he is hardly up against stellar scholars.

More of a back story? Helmuth thinks we are going to the dogs in a hand cart, and that we are showing dysgenic fertility in the sense of reverse Darwinian selection. All this is possible, and the impact on nations depends on assumptions about birth rates and intelligence in the next decades, but it is not a popular story in some quarters. 

More back story? Helmuth is unusual in psychology, in that he had a period in his life when he had a real job. He was a sailor on merchant ships, and on the long sea journeys began to catch up on an education he had never had as a young man. He went into psychology and made a new career for himself, initially in the perception of the rod and frame illusion and later in more general behavioural differences. He still has some of the blunt manners of a man who gets things done. I would let him captain my ship through pirate waters, but I would not elect him to be Chairman of the Diplomatic Committee for the Management of Academic Sensibilities and Polite Evasions (and Innovation).

Is there even more of a back story?  This has the stink of a common room feud. Has your institution ever had such a thing? Of course not, but surely if you are being tried for your academic life you deserve to appear before an unbiased set of assessors, and have full legal representation, and not be judged by accusers who have strongly opposed positions in their politics and world outlook, and have personal animosities to boot.

So, there are two people you need to contact to get their side of the story and to send emails of comment.

One is a professor who has retired from his university, and continues to publish work in psychometry, who would like your support, and who wants to show you his defence. Here is his website which lists his publications: The Wikipedia entry on him is frequently hacked by his critics, so is not reliable.

Prof Helmuth Nyborg

The other is a politician, to whom you might like to write, urging him first to publish the judgment in English, the international language of science, so that we can read this extraordinary Court judgment; but most of all to urge him to let academics sort out their differences in academic journals, where claim and counter-claim can be evaluated in the usual fashion.

Morten Østergaard, Minister for Research, Innovation, and Higher Education, Denmark

Odd world, isn’t it!


  1. While not directly relevant, it reminded me of the letter Pinker wrote in his defense a couple of years ago:

    I am writing to protest the shocking and disgraceful treatment of Dr. Helmuth Nyborg following publication of his report on possible gender differences in average IQ scores. Dr. Nyborg may be mistaken, but the issue he is addressing is a factual one, and can only be evaluated by an open examination of the evidence. To “investigate” him, shut down his research, or otherwise harass him because his findings are politically incorrect is unworthy of an institution dedicated to the understanding of reality. It is reminiscent of the persecution of Galileo, the crippling of Soviet science and agriculture under Lysenko, and the attempt of the American religious right wing to inhibit the teaching of evolution in the schools.  
    No one has the right to legislate the truth. It can only be discovered by free inquiry, and that includes investigations that may make people uncomfortable. This is the foundation of liberal society, and it is threatened by attempts to interfere with Dr. Nyborg and his research. If he is incorrect, that will be established by a community of scholars who examine his evidence and arguments and criticize them in open forums of debate, not by the exercise of force to prevent him from pursuing his research. These are the tactics of a police state, and bring shame on any institution that uses them.

    Giving him a Nobel prize for literature was not Dawkins' worst idea.

  2. Pinker has put it so well that I did not reference him immediately. I do not want everyone saying "Pinker has said it, so I have no need to write".

  3. "Odd world, isn’t it!" Not if you've read 1984. Anyway, the revolution has no need of savants.

    Oh well, the Danes have ruined civilisation before; I suppose they were bound to have a second go eventually.

    Broad comedy apart, I'll think about writing too. The only time I've ever done the like was once when I wrote to the USSR to protest about mistreatment of a distinguished chap in my field. There's a precedent that Denmark could take pride in, eh?

  4. Good for you Dr Thompson in standing up against the dark forces of reaction!

  5. All translations mine, as literal as I could make them. Might not be perfect; my legalese isn’t very good.

    Here is the letter sent to Nyborg, which includes the committees' decision and how they arrived at it: It is written in Danish. He was accused of six violations, found guilty of two.

    You can skip the accusers part in the beginning, their argument is only presented in general terms, so it is impossible for the reader to make an informed decision about anything. It reads like one half of a he said/she said. The political stance of the accusers is painfully obvious, they even include the guilt by association fallacy.

    The accusers have six complaints, and all seem niggling. It seems like the most severe was still only of the kind that might make a paper warrant a revision before publication.

    He was found guilty of not including an economist, from whom he bought data, as a co-author, nor source. However, the committee concedes that Nyborg offered the economist who provided him with data co-authorship. Two of the committee members speculated that said economist might not want to be associated with the paper in any way and therefore was left out by Nyborg. Still, three won against two and Nyborg was found guilty of falsely claiming sole authorship.

    The second point he was found guilty of left me confused- it seems like the kind of thing you could accuse almost every single biology/bio-informatics paper in Nature and Science of (perhaps the standards are higher in other fields?). Namely, that it was not possible to check the quality of, nor reproduce the scientific investigation from the references/additional data and that all possible adjustments made were not accounted for.

    One of the UN reports Nyborg refers to does not seem to exist online (anymore), and the closest thing I could find was

    Indeed, the committees’ expert commentator on the point is a sociologist who was not able to find the link, but instead had to google to find similar statistics, which supposedly does not include all the information Nyborg claimed. Of course, she seemingly found a different report, so it is not strange that they were not identical. The committee does not mention what the results would be if you were to use those numbers instead, but still conclude that Nyborg mislead his readers. This seemingly trifling point is what leads the committee to conclude that Nyborg has committed a serious breach of good scientific practice.

    The letter ends with reminding Nyborg that the decision is final.

  6. If the description of Nyborg's supposed mistakes is accurate, this judgment without appeal is not only Orwellian but also Kafkaesque. By the standards used by the committee, just about any researcher could be condemned as dishonest because of inadvertent errors and omissions that anyone with a substantial cv will have in some of his or her publications.

  7. What is the overall, long-term effect on Nyborg's ability to do research?

    1. I wonder if this whole controversy is delaying the publication of Richard Lynn's festschrift which Nyborg is editing and is supposed to be released at an unspecified time this month, but is still unavailable for pre-order. The paper that led to this investigation/witch-hunt was The Decay of Western Civilization: Double Relaxed Darwinian Selection, which was originally published in a special issue of Personality and Individual Differences dedicated to Richard Lynn. I'd guess a significant chunk of festschrift is republished articles from that PAID issue. Republishing Nyborg's article after it was condemned as plagiarized and fraudulent, and resulted in his emeratus status being taken away is likely problematic, and may result in further censure from the Committees on Scientific Dishonesty.


    2. Not much. He is already pensioned. He has no academic access though, and they won't give it to him. However, I have given him mine, so he has access again now.

  8. American Renassaince has just published an article by Helmuth Nyborg on the The DCSD inquiry:


  9. It sounds so SOVIET UNION. I'm giving up on the West's chances for long term survival. They've brought in millions of immigrants from wildly different ethnicities and religions. People are getting fed up. Nationalist parties are gaining steam. The "elites" must be in a state of panic that their multicultural dream will be as big a failure as their last big favorite, communism.

    They're getting more and more authoritarian in the UK (whose news I can read). Panic is in the air.

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