Denmark court clears controversial psychologist of misconduct charges

Helmuth Nyborg

A Danish court has determined that psychologist Helmuth Nyborg did not commit misconduct in a controversial 2011 paper which predicted an influx of immigrants into Denmark would lower the population’s average IQ by the latter part of this century.

The ruling, reported by the Danish newspaper Politiken, overturns a previous finding of misconduct by the the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). It’s yet another example of scientists bringing academic disputes to the courthouse — just last year, a Danish court overturned another misconduct ruling by the DCSD against physiologist Bente Klarlund Pedersen.

The 2011 paper by Nyborg, “The Decay of Western Civilization: Double Relaxed Darwinian Selection,” appeared in Personality and Individual Differences, and quickly aroused concerns in a group of Danish scientists. The main charges: That the article denied authorship to another author, and misused a reference.

As first reported in the Danish press, an inquiry by the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) concluded in 2013 that:

The DCSD found 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.

However, Nyborg took that verdict to court, which recently ruled in his favor, saying the DCSD should also pay him more than 200,000 kr (approximately $25,000 USD). The DCSD, for its part, said that it will study the judgment and decide whether there is a reason to file a challenge, according to Politiken.

Last year, the journal released a lengthy editor’s note about the article, explaining that it had performed its own investigation of these specific charges:

(1) Did the Article plagiarize data, figures or text previously authored by Ebbe Vig?

(2) Has information of co-authorship by Ebbe Vig been deliberately withheld?

(3) Did the author commit research fraud/data manipulation by citing the following link as a source for the UN’s birth data: _2007_table.pdf and referring to it in the Article?

(4) Did the author commit research fraud/data manipulation by using a population model not commonly used in demographics?

(One member of the investigative committee: Jelte Wicherts, who’s written for us in the past.)

That enquiry committee cleared Nyborg of all charges, according to the editor’s note:

Conclusions of the enquiry committee:

(1) No. There are insufficient grounds to conclude that Nyborg plagiarized text, figures, and results from Ebbe Vig.

(2) Yes. However, because Ebbe Vig supposedly declined the offer to become co-author of the Article, the Committee finds that H. Nyborg can be excused for not naming him as co-author. Through this Editorial Note we aim, however, to acknowledge the substantial contribution of Ebbe Vig to the Article. Ebbe Vig has been paid by H. Nyborg for collating the data, devising the annuity model, describing the methods, and correcting an early draft of the method section of the Article.

(3) No. It is clear that the UN reference is erroneous, but the reporting of the reference may well have been due to honest error. The use of the contested figure of 9.6 may also have been caused by error due to insufficient documentation of methods and the data file. It is likely that further errors will be found upon further scrutiny of the raw data. A correction has been provided by the authors and is included as Appendix 1 to this Editorial Note.

(4) No. Differences in opinion on the use of a particular method are part of scholastic debates and cannot be seen as data fraud/data manipulation.

The editor’s note concludes with a correction to one of the figures.

The 2011 paper has been cited 17 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

Nyborg, formerly of Aarhus University (and an Olympic canoeist), has been investigated by the DCSD before, after publishing an article in the same journal which purported to show that men on average have higher IQs than women, and that the difference is biological. In that case — which Nyborg called part of a “global witch hunt” against academics interested in question of IQ, sex and race — the DCSD did not find grounds for action.

The DCSD has faced criticism in the past: In 2013, Pederson’s attorney responded to the organization’s finding of misconduct against her by submitting a 52-page letter, in which she argued the inquiry constituted:

…an entirely unreasonably strict evaluation of errors or omissions in the information about test subjects provided in two (possibly three) articles. Such evaluation is completely inconsistent with the caution that otherwise characterises and should characterise the evaluation of whether certain circumstances constitute scientific dishonesty.

A 2015 Nature news story about the Pedersen verdict quotes Daniele Fanelli, whose work we have covered frequently, suggesting more misconduct battles will be waged in the courthouse:

Daniele Fanelli, a research misconduct expert at Stanford University in California, expects courts to play a more prominent role in deciding such cases in the future. Prosecutions of scientists are on the rise, and many countries are drafting legislation specifically addressing misconduct. “I think we should expect that some of these individuals accused of scientific misconduct will fight back.”

Indeed, we’ve we’ve been seeing it happen already — earlier this year, an Ontario court quashed one of the misconduct findings against two researchers. Some people who fight back are unsuccessful, such as Harvard stem cell researcher Piero Anversa who sued Harvard over reputation damage, or XMRV-chronic fatigue syndrome researcher Judy Mikovits, who sued the Whittemore-Peterson Institute for conspiring against her with law enforcement; in both cases, judges dismissed the suits. Mario Saad sued the American Diabetes Association to prevent its flagship journal Diabetes from retracting four of his papers; as we reported last week, those papers have all been retracted.

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5 thoughts on “Denmark court clears controversial psychologist of misconduct charges”

  1. This guy wrote a paper about “the decay of Western civilization,” and the biggest problem is whether his references stack up?

    1. His model required the use of one kind of fertility data and his source had another kind. He had forgotten to include details about a conversion in the paper. When he was made aware of this, he submitted an errata to the journal as is proper for this kind of minor error. See the editor’s note.

    2. I don´t know the first thing about psychology and have not read the paper. The headline of the comment, however, seemed staggering to me and read the posting.

      The phrase “The decline of western civilization” (!?) could not possibly be in the title of a scientific paper. Perhaps in an article taken from the yellow press or in a work of fiction, and even then!

      To predict in the abstract that “the genotypic IQ decline will ruin the economic and social infrastructure needed for quality education, welfare, democracy and civilization” is a preposterous opinion and an impossibility to test objectively. I agree with Feo Takahari above, a small error in the list of references is the least of the problems. This guy sounds like taken straight from the Millennium trilogy, and is not on the side of Lisbeth!

  2. “which predicted an influx of immigrants into Denmark would lower the population’s average IQ by the latter part of this century.”

    I must confess I have not read the article in question – and I guess that the above statement may be taken out of context but (as I understand it) IQ (in the generally held sense of the word) is intrinsic and “outside” educational level. Does this mean the author is implying that the immigrants are less intelligent than people from Denmark?
    As it happens I have read that IQ (as based upon the tests) can be cultural dependent – and can “increase” the more times an IQ test is taken (so increases with practice of doing the tests – not a measure of someone’s intrinsic intelligence).
    Should the above statement read “an influx of immigrants into Denmark would lower the population’s average [educational level] by the latter part of this century”.
    This of course is a completely different meaning than the original statement and may even be true if a large number of immigrants are arriving from places where the educational system is poor or non-existent.
    Perhaps someone who has read the paper could enlighten me on how the author determined what IQ was and what data he based that statement on.

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