Sunday 26 April 2015

Nyborg un-Watsoned?


One of the perils of contemporary academia is that your freedom to think is challenged by a pack of wolves telling you what not to think, and savaging you if you do not submit to them.

You may have heard of old sea captain Helmut Nyborg who, after a stint in his youth as a merchant seaman, turned from those honest labours to take up psychology, a nefarious practice full of foul vapours, wild imaginings and internecine warfare.  A falling out occurred between him and colleagues at Aarhus University(world ranking 116) in Denmark, of the sort which happens in academia world wide, in which professors debate over coffee and then return to their departments in a bad temper, and sometimes even write angry letters to each other. This time it was different. Angry that Prof Nyborg had written a paper they did not like, some of his colleagues had him hauled before the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty.

It is not crucial, but you can get some of the historical background here:

Initially I thought this Government Committee was yet another department handing out subsidies in the usual manner: “Here is the money, dear boy, so long as you say that everything is due to the environment”. Grant Giving Bodies is the usual name for these dubious conspirators. However, the Danes do things differently, and there has been a protracted, time wasting, energy sapping Governmental enquiry, which may now, finally, be resolved. The Government capitulated a year ago, and is reconsidering whether they really ought to be interfering in any academic matters. Last to comment this month was the journal that had published his paper, who had set up their own committee of enquiry. Jelte Wicherts, one of the assessors, has circulated the resultant editor’s note.

Think for a moment what this entire process has achieved. Many of you are researchers, already under pressure to publish, but battling with teaching loads and administration. Research time is precious. Imagine what your careers would look like if you were accused of scientific dishonesty by your enemies in academia, and had to stop your work to try to defend yourself, not just against the usual criticisms which are part of scholarly debate, but as part of a process that had been raised to Governmental level, and made students doubt that they should read your work, or have anything to do with you. To my certain personal knowledge a student in the field of intelligence felt that he should not read Nyborg’s paper because he was up before the Committee accused of dishonesty.

Anyway, at the risk of spinning out this drama in the way that his accusers intended, I am simply letting you know that the journal of Personality and Individual Differences has just published an editorial note on his paper, to which I link below.

Finally, what of the paper itself? Nyborg argued that European intelligence will be lowered by two developments: the higher fertility of the less intelligent Europeans, and the increased immigration to Europe of migrants who have higher fertility and lower intelligence. If you can show that this is wrong, then you are bound to get your paper published. Try Personality and Individual Differences for a start.

It is an open question whether a similarly resentful legal process could be started against papers asserting strongly environmentalist hypotheses, for example that smaller brains were due to poverty. Dragging in lawyers and government departments is a silly idea. Why not just have an exchange of letters with the authors, identifying points of agreement and disagreement, and suggesting further lines of research?

Of course, even at what is probably the end of the process, damage has been done to Nyborg. Searches on his name may link to the accusation for some time, and not everyone will read through to the very end of the process. His name will be known, and those of his accusers forgotten, which I suppose may turn out to be no bad thing, but it remains a nuisance.  Nyborg is still doing research, most recently on group differences in intelligence and occupational success. If you want to hear about his research and even buy him a drink when he visits London, let me know.


  1. When I click on the link to the editorial, I get lots of code.

  2. The fraud allegations were always absurd, but having no lesser men than Deary, Loehlin, Revelle, and Wicherts clear him is a nice touch.