Stripping a PhD in response to scientific and academic debate is not the solution, writes Michael Brull.
A little while ago, Judy Wilyman’s doctoral thesis was accepted by the University of Wollongong. Now with PhD, she will title herself a doctor, in recognition of her academic achievement. For some at least, this will increase the respectability of her advocacy, now that she has fancy new credentials for the arguments she set out in her dissertation.
This has alarmed many. This is because Wilyman is sceptical of the value of vaccinations.
Take for example, Helen Petousis-Harris. Her web page identifies her background as “predominantly biological sciences, and she did her PhD in Vaccinology, specifically around vaccine reactions. She has worked at the Immunisation Advisory Centre at the University of Auckland since 1998 where she has developed a passion for all things vaccine. Currently Helen has an appointment as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care and her teaching is largely around vaccination.”
She analysed the abstract of Wilyman’s dissertation. Her conclusion: “It is [a]litany of deceitful reveries. How it could possibly pass as a piece of Doctoral level work is inexplicable and it has made no contribution to knowledge. Shame on you University of Wollongong.”
Other scientific reviews were no more flattering. And a wave of academics at the University of Wollongong reacted too. As reported at the Australian Medical Association, “Sixty-five senior medical and health researchers including Professor of Public Health Dr Heather Yeatman, Dean of Medicine Professor Ian Wilson, and Professor Alison Jones, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health, have jointly signed a public statement backing the evidence supporting vaccination and its importance in preventing disease.”
Meanwhile, “Professor Peter McIntyre, director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance and an advisor to the WHO, told The Australian that he had offered to advise Wilyman but withdrew his offer as she was “not willing to entertain” evidence which contradicted her beliefs.”
As far as I can tell, there are zero relevant experts who think Wilyman’s PhD has even the vaguest connection to what the relevant science actually shows. The dissertation is an embarrassment to the University of Wollongong, and the academic standards it supposedly upholds.
The dissertation, however, raises two interesting questions. The first is how it came to pass that this dissertation was able to gain acceptance. The second question is what is the appropriate response is to the dissertation.
As to how it was accepted, SBS explains that according to the requirements of UOW PhDs, “The requirements include that there be at least two external examiners who are from different countries and they do not have a relationship with the students’ supervisors and not affiliated with the university in question.” So it seems the blame can be shared around. If this protocol was followed, there were two external examiners who were adequately impressed by Wilyman’s purported scholarship. It is not on the public record who those two people are.
However, Wilyman’s supervisor is. His name is Brian Martin, and he is a professor of social sciences. He has a PhD in theoretical physics. He posted an essay in which he came to Wilyman’s defence against her many critics. Martin presents Wilyman’s dissertation as addressing question of policy, not purely questions of science:
“[Stop the Australian Anti-Vaccination Network] and some others apparently believe the only people qualified to comment about vaccination policy are “experts” who have degrees and refereed publications in scientific journals, for example in immunology or epidemiology. A moment’s reflection should reveal the flaw in this claim: being an expert in immunology or epidemiology — usually a narrow aspect of such a field — gives no special insight into vaccination policy, which involves many different areas of knowledge, and includes matters of ethics and politics. If anyone can lay claim to having special knowledge about policy, it is those who have researched policy itself, including critics of the Australian government’s policy such as Judy.”
So what issues of policy does the dissertation address? This is Martin’s summary:
“It makes four main critical points in relation to Australian government vaccination policy. First, deaths from infectious diseases had dramatically declined in Australia before the mass introduction of most vaccines, suggesting that vaccination is not the only factor in controlling these diseases. Second, Australian vaccination policies were adopted from a one-size-fits-all set of international recommendations, without consideration of the special ecological conditions in Australia, for example the levels of sanitation and nutrition, and the incidence and severity of diseases. Third, nearly all research on vaccination is carried out or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in selling vaccines; the conflicts of interest involved in vaccine research can lead to bias in the research design and conclusions drawn. Fourth, there are important areas of research relevant to vaccination policy that have not been pursued, but should have been; a plausible reason for this “undone science” is that the findings might turn out to be unwelcome to vaccination promoters.”
In fact, these questions are issues of both politics and science. The first is an empirical question, subject to scientific research. So is the second, though if its premises were established, then a policy question would arise. The third is indeed a policy question requiring no special expertise to investigate. The fourth is mixed.
Perhaps some areas of research aren’t being pursued – Wilyman would not be the first to observe that scientific research is biased towards wealthy or powerful interests. That this “undone science” would be unwelcome to vaccination promoters is again an empirical question.
Given that the focus of the dissertation, according to its lone defender, seems to mostly be scientific questions, one might think that the appropriate field to conduct this study in is one of the hard sciences where her findings could be subjected to rigorous and informed peer review.
Instead, Wilyman’s dissertation was conducted through UOW’s social sciences.
This seems like the most effective way to avoid serious scientific scrutiny of her claims. Her external examiners may have rapidly found themselves out of their depth in dealing with questions of vaccination science.
So how does Wilyman present herself? Her website is called “Vaccination Decisions”. She presents herself as a dispassionate scientist, who has studied the issue since 1993. Her critics, however, are not scientific, and are “consumer lobby groups”:
“During the last decade I have attempted to debate my academic research but the media will not report the other side of the vaccination debate with credibility. Whilst attempting to debate my research in public forums since 2010 I have been attacked by consumer lobby groups, in particular the Australian Skeptics and the ‘Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN)’. These consumer groups are not scientific organisations and many subscribers of this group have used false and misleading statements to disparage my reputation and reduce my credibility in public debates.”
Thus, it sounds like her motives are pure, unlike her critics, who it seems are simply mercenary thugs. Wilyman doesn’t even explain that she is anti-vaccination, whilst her critics are in favour of them.
What are her qualifications?
“I have a Bachelor of Science degree and I have practised as a science teacher for 20 years. In 2004 I began researching this public health issue at the University of Wollongong (UOW). I completed a Master of Science degree (Population Health) in the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences in 2007. This included a research project analysing the Australian Government’s Policy on Whooping Cough. In 2007 I continued my research with a PhD.
In 2008 – 2010 I transferred to the Environmental Science Department at Murdoch University to research and lecture in environmental health issues. I transferred back to Wollongong University in 2011 to complete my PhD investigating the Australian government’s reasons for its current National Immunisation Program (NIP). My PhD includes an examination of the science in the government’s vaccination policy and a critique of the influences in the decision to use an increasing number of vaccines in children.”
So, she sounds pretty scientific. And her PhD purportedly examines the science. Whilst Wilyman complains her critics aren’t scientific, she forgets to mention at that point that neither was the field in which her PhD was examined (it is later listed as “School of Humanities and Social Sciences”). We will return to the question of her Masters Degree.
Soon she gets to her position:
“In the 1990’s I became aware of the significant increase in chronic illness that was occurring in children. By 2004, 41 per cent of children (0 -14 years of age) had a chronic illness 1. The diseases that have been increasing since the late 80’s include allergies, anaphylaxis, ADHD, autism, coeliac disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases (e.g. arthritis and diabetes). The medical journals and animal studies link the ingredients of vaccines as a cause of these diseases. Although the increase in these diseases correlates to the increasing use of vaccines, the government has not funded research that would prove or disprove this plausible link. The Australian government claims it is a coincidence that these diseases have increased with the increasing use of vaccines but does not provide scientific-evidence to support this statement.”
That’s a pretty impressive list of diseases that vaccinations supposedly cause. Traditionally, when a scientist makes a breakthrough, and has a contribution to make in the sciences, they present their findings to a journal, so that it can be peer reviewed. Wilyman does not appear to have chosen to do this for some reason.
Anyway, Wilyman has dismissed her critics as “funded by industry interests” (I wonder how she’ll respond to this article). Critics at Mamamia don’t have relevant qualifications either (is her PhD a relevant qualification?).
Then I got to the part of her website that was most interesting.
“The Australian government appoints Ministers of Health who do not have qualifications in health and it has a duty of care to ensure that all science on the cause of autism is included in vaccination policy-decisions. Ministers should not be making pledges for public health policy on lobby group websites. There are many scientific articles that indicate vaccines are a valid cause of autism, for example, these articles 1 , 2, 3, 4 and 5, yet the government has not addressed these articles in the discussion of vaccination policy on the Immunise Australia Program (IAP) website.”
I have included her links in the quote above. What are these “scientific articles” proving “vaccines are a valid cause of autism”? Note: none are scientific articles; that is, essays by scientists published in scientific journals. They are all websites – like this one, which is just a commentary on a hearing in the US.
One is an essay, in PDF format. It is titled “An Essay on the Environmental and Genetic Causes of Autism and the link to Vaccines”, and is by Mark Allan Sircus. I googled him, and naturally, he has a website.
When I saw that he treats cancer with marijuana, I naturally was interested in this pleasant sounding treatment. Sircus “practices and preaches Natural Oncology, an integrative medicine that… utilizes natural substances like magnesium, iodine, sodium bicarbonate and medical marijuana together with far-infrared heat treatments and oxygen therapies.”
So then I googled Natural Oncology. The first result was The Natural Oncology Institute, Vincent Gammill. Gammill is Wilyman’s favourite scientist. So who is Gammill? A 69-year-old man who told police he had “no formal education beyond high school, but then ‘remembered’ he had obtained a doctor of science degree sometime in the 1990s.”
Gammill then founded the Natural Oncology Institute. He was arrested by police after a 50-year-old woman complained that he treated her breast cancer with expired meds and a bag of dirt, for the princely sum of $2000.
Police proceeded to charge him with “practicing medicine without a license, dependent adult abuse and furnishing dangerous drugs without a license.”
His “patient” reported him after trying a concoction he showed her how to make, which caused a “burning sensation in her stomach”, according to police.
Anyway, though Sircus apparently practices the same type of Natural Oncology as its quack founder, I haven’t found any evidence that he’s been arrested for treating cancer with dirt. I suppose it isn’t entirely surprising that his paper wasn’t published in a peer reviewed journal.
Wilyman, for her part, lists her various publications at The Conversation. These include Medical Veritas: The Journal of Truth in Health Science.
When a journal has the word “truth” in it, you just know a conspiratorial mindset is lurking. Sure enough, it appears to be home to more anti-vaccine quacks.
Let us return to Wilyman’s Master of Science Degree from the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences in 2007.
As Wilyman noted, this included her analysis of vaccination policy. In 2014 two medical experts lodged a complaint about her thesis, though it appears nothing has come of this. You can get a sense of its high-minded presentation of quackery from this paragraph:
“The ecological evidence is showing a significant increase in chronic illness in children. This includes the increasing incidence of diabetes mellitus, leukaemia, food allergies, asthma, epilepsy, behavioural and intellectual disabilities and autism (AIHW, 2004). Refer Appendix 6. Whilst this increase in disease has occurred in children at the same time as vaccination use has increased it is not evidence for a causal link. However, the biological plausibility of vaccines as a cause of these diseases is demonstrated in animal studies, the clinical evidence from adverse reactions to vaccines and the volume of reports from parents claiming their child’s development changed after vaccination (Kirby D, 2005).”
So what next?
Regardless of what one thinks of Wilyman’s dissertation, any ex post facto policy designed to strip her of her PhD or Masters degree will be wrong as a matter of principle, and as a matter of policy.
Certainly, there are some who think that Wollongong can’t just stand by and let Wilyman have her PhD. The Australian editorialised that “this is a battle between life and death, and Wollongong has put itself on the wrong side”.
It is hard not to point out that one might equally suggest that the issue of climate change is a “battle between life and death” – yet the Australian has shown considerably less interest in campaigning on proper recognition of this issue.
Yet it was not just the Oz. A petition was launched against Wilyman’s PhD, acquiring 2,100 signatures. The petition announced that “Action is urgently required to address gross academic misconduct”. It called on the government to take “immediate disciplinary action” against the University of Wollongong, complaining that “federal funding of such dangerous myth-making is unconscionable.”
This kind of attitude pervades some of the critics of Wilyman’s work. For example, blogger Chrys Stevenson wrote, “Free speech is all very well. But, when propaganda and misinformation from uneducated rabble-rousers endangers the lives of children and vulnerable people, I think we can rightly argue free speech must have limits.”
Or to turn to the petition, which warns that the University’s acceptance of Wilyman’s work “demonstrates an anti-scientific culture at the University of Wollongong that is inimical to scholarship”.
For those who have studied in the humanities, there are indeed academics who partake in an “anti-scientific culture”. For example, there are postmodernists, social constructionists and so on who believe that science is all a social construct, an oppressive domain of white men which isn’t to be taken too seriously.
However distasteful one finds these views, the opinion that the humanities should reflect a particular viewpoint in an argument is an opinion that the humanities should not include intellectual diversity.
The point of intellectual inquiry is that it should be free. If there are sins in the academic work of Wilyman, they may be found in dishonest footnotes, or improper external examiners. The fact that her opinions are unorthodox or distasteful to many is not, in itself, grounds for her degree to be taken from her.
Those who think that the government should step in to settle this dispute between Wilyman and her critics are the ones who subscribe to a fundamentally “anti-scientific culture” which is “inimical to scholarship”.
The sciences are not built around policing of consensus and expulsion of dissenters. They are built around uncertainty, and progress is made by dissenters successfully persuading their peers that a new paradigm can better explain the way the world works.
If Wilyman’s work is left to the scientific community, I have little doubt they will filter her out, just as they do other anti-vax and unscientific cranks.
As it stands, it is clear to any lay person with the ability to Google that the overwhelming preponderance of scientific experts disagree with Wilyman, and in fact regard her scientific expertise as nil.
Attempts to discipline the university, or strip her of her PhD will only legitimise her opinions.
Rather than being a marginal quack with strange views, she will become a persecuted martyr, bravely defending her beliefs in the face of intimidation. The argument will shift from the evidence and the experts to whether someone in the humanities should be able to argue for a view that other people don’t like.
“What are they afraid of,” the anti-vaxxers will cry. “We just want an open debate”.
It is natural to want to combat the pernicious nonsense of people like Wilyman with the quickest, most powerful tool available. Yet this kind of attack on academic freedom would have very dangerous implications.
And ultimately, it is the wrong tool to counter the claims of anti-vaxxers. Ultimately, what is needed is persuasion, not coercion.