Wednesday 11 December 2013

The Danish Minister replies on the Nyborg case


There has been a flurry of pro-forma letters from the Danish Minister for Scientific Dishonesty explaining their processes to researchers who had questioned what they were doing as a government body getting involved in an academic dispute. In their defence they contend that:

Based on the conclusions of the Committees they recommend that the article be withdrawn. But, as you will see, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty have not in any way considered the conclusions drawn by Dr. Nyborg, nor have they ordered him to withdraw the article.

Frankly, this is a bit of a disappointment. It would make a change if governments were so against dishonesty that they ordered dishonest statements to be withdrawn, and commanded the dishonest persons to be lashed to a stone pillar while ravens pecked their eyes out. Is it just me, or is the quality of outrage not what it was? Consider in contrast Jonathan Swift’s own epitaph “where fierce Indignation can no longer pierce his Heart.” Where is the fierce indignation of the Danish Government? I don’t see what the Committee has done to justify their wages. They seem to be the Committee for Innuendo and Pedantry. I am not usually in favour of academics suggesting public policy, but I think they need to increase the savagery of their condemnation.

However, the good news is that, as requested, they have now issued an English translation of their judgment

I have read through it, and it is a long mess. Despite their excuses, of course they are considering Nyborg’s paper, and whether he should have included a co-author who did not want to be included, and whether his reference to the UN data should have included a separate reference to a demographic adjustment and all the rest of it. They did not have the gumption to say to the complaining academics: “Why don’t you just sort this out yourselves?”

It must have crossed the mind of the committee that one of the reasons that people don’t want to be authors of unpopular papers is that they might be dragged before the committee. The more the Committee spreads its baleful influence the more research will have to be done by Anon and Anon and Anon. Things are bad enough when researchers dare not give their names because they fear they will be cut off from research funding. We are supposed to be a community of scholars, not a gang of paid informers.

If a paper has errors, this is something for the academic community to sort out, not a government department. The judgment confirms what we suspected: by a majority verdict he has been condemned on two technical counts. He didn’t make up his data, as others have done. Fraudulent papers are presented, from time to time, and this is a test of our academic standards and methodological awareness. They are eventually detected, and withdrawn. Nyborg gave a reference which, in hindsight, was incomplete, so he wrote to the journal giving further details. This is all very petty.

During all this time Nyborg has been under a shadow. To my certain personal knowledge, a student has told me that although he was recommended to read his paper by a referee, he was not willing to read it while Nyborg and his work was being judged for scientific dishonesty. These endless quasi-judicial  processes are enemies of open debate. It means that some students will be pushed into not being able to judge academic work on its own merits, and will be depending on legal authorities to tell them what to think. Court room science is rarely the best guide to knowledge.

Reluctant as I am to make policy recommendations, why doesn’t the Danish Government just wind up this committee, which is making them look very foolish?


  1. "why doesn’t the Danish Government just wind up this committee, which is making them look very foolish?": because, I dare say, they are proud of being foolish in this particular way.

    Anyway, a good question would be: if this committee was originally set up to nail someone, who was that someone?

  2. Their insistence on a distinction between 'recommend' and 'order' in this context reminds me of Michael Howard: