I remember my PhD thesis.
In particular, I remember the years of work that went into it. I remember being grilled (with good, constructive intent) by my thesis committee a couple of times a year as I worked on it. I remember the many, many hours spend writing it. And, above all, I remember the hour-long seminar I had to give, followed by a couple of hours defending my thesis. The PhD thesis defense is usually the most stressful thing that PhD candidates go through on the path to earning their degree. Certainly it was for me.
Of course, the PhD thesis defense does contain a bit of an element of Kabuki theater, very stylized, with the outcome seldom in doubt. It is, after all, the responsibility of the thesis advisor and the thesis committee not to let the PhD candidate defend until they deem him ready. I learned this during graduate school when a PhD candidate in our department actually failed his thesis defense. His failure was a massive shock to the department, a profound humiliation. Much time and soul searching were spent trying to figure out how this could have happened and to prevent it from happening again. Kabuki or no Kabuki, none of this is to say that a thesis defense is ever a done deal; it’s just that failures are relatively rare by design, mainly because candidates who aren’t prepared are seldom allowed to defend. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In any case, I can’t help but think my thesis committee was a bit more anal, a bit more rigorous, a bit more insistent that I dotted every i and crossed every t in my research before signing off on letting me defend. I also note that I was a much less skilled (and much more nervous) public speaker back then; so even despite my committee’s efforts my successful defense of my thesis was far from assured.
I bring all this up mainly because I’ve just learned of a PhD candidate who really, really needed to have some very uncomfortable questions asked by her thesis committee and at her thesis seminar and defense, questions that apparently were not asked. [Note added: I’m informed in the comments that Australian universities don’t do the traditional public thesis defense done in the US and Europe, but rather the thesis has to be read by two experts external to the University and the supervisor gets to make the call. Ugh.] Most supervisors take that responsibility carefully. Some, however, apparently do not. I’m referring to the case of Judy Wilyman, a prominent antivaccine loon from Down Under, whose PhD thesis has apparently been accepted by University of Wollongong:
The University of Wollongong has accepted a PhD thesis from a prominent anti-vaccination activist that warns that global agencies such as the World Health Organisation are colluding with the pharmaceutical industry in a massive conspiracy to spruik immunisation.
Judy Wilyman, the convener of Vaccination Decisions and Vaccination Choice, submitted the thesis late last year, concluding Australia’s vaccination policy was not a result of independent assessment but the work of pharmaceutical industry pressure on the WHO.
The WHO convened a “secret emergency committee” funded by drug firms to “orchestrate” hysteria relating to a global swine flu pandemic in 2009, Ms Wilyman said in her thesis.
“The swine flu pandemic of 2009 was declared by a secret WHO committee that had ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to make excessive profits from the pandemic,” she wrote.
Several medical researchers and public health advocates have slammed the PhD thesis — to be awarded through the university’s School of Humanities — with some calling for it to be sent to the university’s academic board for review.
Whoa. That’s some high grade, super stinky antivaccine BS, more suitable for a cesspit or cow pasture than a PhD thesis at a reputable university. Don’t believe me? Read Wilyman’s PhD thesis for yourself! It’s entitled A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy and is anything but that. Rather, it’s a collection of antivaccine talking points and conspiracy theories, tied together with pseudoscience and borderline, if not outright, germ theory denial.
I had never heard of Wilyman before, surprisingly enough. I don’t know all the Australian antivaccinationists, any more than I’d expect that Australians would know all our local antivaccinationists in the US. There are just so many of them. It didn’t take long to figure out that Wilyman runs an antivaccine website called Vaccine Decisions, which is chock full of antivaccine misinformation. For instance, in its section, Vaccines and Autism, Wily makes the assertion that vaccines are a plausible cause of autism (they’re not). She regurgitates insinuations about the conspiracies, falsely claiming that the IOM was biased in selecting studies that favored rejecting a causal link between vaccines and autism, playing the Poul Thorsen card, and calling for the unicorn-like antivaccine priority “vaxed/unvaxed” study.
I wondered what was going on here. I particularly wondered in light of some of the quotes from Wily’s thesis, for instance (click to embiggen):
Each and every one of these statements is easily demonstrably false. Many of them are pure conspiracy mongering. Indeed, so bad is this thesis (which is available online now) that I’m seriously considering doing more posts on it. In the meantime, for a taste Luke Weston has been posting excerpts on Twitter. For instance, in her thesis she claims that the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was an “orchestrated” pandemic:
Wilyman thesis: an "orchestrated pandemic". Should start writing airport conspiracy novels. pic.twitter.com/kPNyh4RfkV
— Luke Weston (@lukeweston) January 13, 2016
She also asserts that the WHO is controlled by the interests and corporations of the World Bank:
Wilyman thesis: World Health Organisation is "controlled by the interests of corporations and the World Bank". pic.twitter.com/mVLIWA2MY6
— Luke Weston (@lukeweston) January 13, 2016
Even worse, she seems to have a problem with germ theory:
Wilyman thesis: so those "scientists" came along with their "evidence" and their "germ theory" and all that rubbish. pic.twitter.com/h6XKZg5qjK
— Luke Weston (@lukeweston) January 13, 2016
And she even writes:
Judy Wilyman thesis: "risk of cervical cancer death is zero" in 12-year-olds, as an argument against HPV vaccination pic.twitter.com/aD510CyIO1
— Luke Weston (@lukeweston) January 13, 2016
Now that’s such burning stupid that not only could it be seen from space in low earth orbit but all the way from Jupiter. At least.
Let’s expand the quote on Germ theory from Wilyman’s thesis:
Infectious diseases have traditionally been referred to as a public health problem however from the 1990’s onwards the term environmental health became popular. These terms have similar meanings so I have introduced this chapter with a definition of these terms. In many countries government public health policies had a change of focus in the mid-20th century. This change was a move from strategies founded on a multifactorial theory of disease causation (ecological medicine) to the germ theory that underpins western medicine. The western medical model of health is founded on the concept of ‘scientific medicine’, which includes evidence-based practice, and infectious diseases were re-defined in the second half of the 20th century as a problem that could be addressed with a medical intervention. This was due to the progress in etiological theories based on microbiology. In contrast, the decline in infectious diseases in the first part of the century was brought about through political, social and economic interventions in behaviour and the environment: termed social or ecological medicine.
Later in that chapter, Wilyman writes:
For many decades, this model has been revered as one of the fundamental public health concepts of disease causality and the best method for determining the cause of infectious diseases (Friis and Sellers 2004 p398). The model illustrates that disease is caused by an interaction between the agent (the pathogenic organism), the host and the environment. More recently scientists have recognized that this is a complex interaction between many variables. Whilst an agent must be present for an infection to occur it is known that not all interactions will progress to disease (Friis and Sellers 2004). Infections can be ‘subclinical’ which means they do not produce any signs or symptoms, but they still confer immunity to future exposure (Friis and Sellers 2004 p402; McKeown 1979 p46). There are also many outcomes from infection including complete recovery, permanent disability, disfigurement and death. Many diseases are self-limiting and complete recovery can be expected in the majority of cases (Friis and Sellers 2004 p402). The likelihood of an infectious agent causing clinical signs and symptoms of disease is described as its ‘pathogenicity’. This characteristic and many others differ from one infectious agent to the next. Therefore the ability of an agent to cause disease in any environment is dependent upon the interaction of many variables within the ecological context in which it is found. It is commonly recognised that this diversity in health outcomes after individuals have been exposed to an infectious agent is not highlighted in the germ theory of disease that is adopted in western scientific medicine. These diverse health outcomes are a result of differences in the host’s immunology, physiology, social and emotional environment as well as differences in the ecological and agent characteristics (Doyal and Doyal 1984 p97; Friis and Sellers 2004; Gilbert 2004). In contrast, the germ theory describes disease as being caused by the infectious agent and resulting from internal biological changes. This simplified theory, termed a reductionist theory, is a central belief of the scientific medical model (SMM) and it lends itself to using a vaccine to prevent disease from infectious agents. A more detailed description of the germ theory is provided later in this chapter.
I can hardly wait.
It’s almost as though Wilyman doesn’t realize that her version of germ theory is what’s simplistic. Almost. Scientists understand that there are differences in susceptibility to different agents. Scientists understand that infections can be more complex than just “microbe + host = same kind of disease.” Scientists know that the immune response is complex. They know it far more than Wilyman does. They also know that She seems to be acting as though she alone has made some great discovery that those nasty reductionist scientists have missed. She hasn’t.
Wilyman has a long history of antivaccine activism in Australia. One of her most (in)famously nasty incidents occurred when a 32-day old infant named Dana McCaffery died of pertussis. In response, Wilyman, along with Meryl Dorey (the grand dame of the Australian antivaccine movement, in essence the Australian counterpart of our own disgraceful Barbara Loe Fisher) claimed that Australia’s campaigns for vaccination are based on promoting the whooping cough vaccine on anecdotal evidence (in particular, Dana McCaffery’s death) and the mantra of “seeing sick babies gasping for air.” The harassment of the McCafferys by antivaccine loons, including Wilyman, got so bad that David and Toni McCaffery, Dana’s parents, responded on Facebook with a blistering rebuke.
I haven’t (yet) read Wilyman’s entire thesis. I’m not sure if I can manage to force myself to power through it. However, what I’ve read so far reveals a level of ignorance and burning stupid so profoundly painful for anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of vaccine science and skepticism that it’s hard for me to figure out how even a humanities department could let such a travesty pass for a PhD thesis. the University of Wollongong should be utterly ashamed, and should be shamed far and wide throughout the blogosphere. It is an embarrassment. I wondered how any self-respecting university could allow such a thesis to pass or even admit such a woefully clueless antiscience PhD student. Hilariously, I found an article from three year ago about Wilyman entitled University stands by anti-vaccine student in which a spokesperson from the University of Wollongong defended her:
Vice-chancellor Paul Wellings refused to comment on Ms Wilyman’s ongoing candidature, but a university spokesman said the institution stood by Ms Wilyman because her personal views did not inform her work.
“Any ‘conspiracy’ theories she may have are independent of her relationship with the University of Wollongong. Her PhD has to meet the rigorous standards set by the university,” he said.
Oh, me. At the time, that was a fair defense: Wilyman’s personal views shouldn’t matter as long as her thesis is held to rigorous academic standards. Knowing what we know now, I have to laugh to keep from crying. In light of Wilyman’s thesis being accepted, the reassurances of the University of Wollongong that Wilyman would be held to rigorous standards have been revealed for the humongous pile of fetid dingo’s kidneys that they were. Its claim was either a lie or a delusion on the part of the university administration. Take your pick.
Given that, I wondered who her thesis advisor, Brian Martin, who is described in The Australian article as “a professor of social sciences at the university with a long history of supporting controversial PhD candidates.” It occurred to me that what the story really should say, if Wilyman is representative of these “controversial candidates” is cranks because Wilyman is a crank par excellence.
Of course, Martin appears to be the perfect thesis advisor for an antivaccine crank like Judy Wilyman. Just take a look at his publications on scientific issues. For instance, his publications on vaccines include titles like On the suppression of vaccination dissent, which includes a portrayal of Andrew Wakefield as a sympathetic figure whose views were unjustly “suppressed” thusly:
Unlike most of his peers, Wakefield has been subject to a degradation ceremony, a ritualistic denunciation casting him out of the company of honest researchers (Thérèse and Martin, 2010). By degrading Wakefield’s reputation, vaccination is symbolically vindicated and the credibility of any criticism undermined. Supporters of vaccination have repeatedly used the example of Wakefield to suggest that criticism of vaccination is misguided (e.g., Grant, 2011: 105-124; Offit, 2010). The logic of using Wakefield’s ignominy as an argument in defense of vaccination is not replicated in the case of a single biomedical scientist who supports standard views. Considering that bias and conflict of interest are endemic to pharmaceutical-company-sponsored research, it is striking that no supporter of orthodoxy concludes that this discredits support for pharmaceutical drugs generally. (Some critics draw this conclusion.)
“The logic of using Wakefield’s ignominy as an argument in defense of vaccination is not replicated in the case of a single biomedical scientist who supports standard views”? Not exactly. Wakefield’s ignominy came about as his result of doing research bought and paid for by a lawyer wanting to sue vaccine companies for causing autism and his scientific fraud, not because he claimed that MMR vaccination was correlated with an increased incidence of autism. Martin also can’t help but add a healthy helping of anti-big pharma conspiracy mongering to the mix.
Overall, what I see in Martin’s work, after perusing some of it, is a man who doesn’t really care if the science is correct or not. He focuses on “orthodoxy” silencing “alternative views,” not understanding that it matters whether those views are rooted in evidence and science or not. It matters very much. Meanwhile, he portrays the efforts of Stop the AVN to counter the antivaccine message of the AVN as an unfair suppression, an exercise in power. He’s so enamored of quackery that another of his students was Michael Primero, associated with Medical Veritas, a self-described journal of “truth in health science” that alleged the Rockefeller Foundation had declared a war on consciousness through the imposition of musical tuning standards.
It’s utter bullshit, of course, as is his defense of his graduate student, Judy Wilyman, to any criticism of whom he counterattacks vociferously.
I understand that one of the key aspects of academic freedom is the freedom to explore controversial views. I also understand that the humanities are different from the sciences However, respect for controversial views and the freedom to explore them as part of a PhD thesis does not absolve the thesis advisor or university of the obligation to its students and reputation to make sure that any thesis consisting of examining such views is based in the highest academic standards and rooted in evidence. When the humanities critically examine science, the science must be represented correctly and based on evidence. Wilyman’s thesis clearly fails this test embarrassingly. The University of Wollongong and Judy Wilyman’s thesis advisor Brian Martin have utterly failed in this, preferring to allow Wilyman to use her thesis as a means of lending academic legitimacy to her pseudoscientific antivaccine crank views. In essence, the University of Wollongong allowed an antivaccine activist to use it as a means of getting a PhD rooted in antivaccine pseudoscience.