Brian Martin and Judy Wilyman: Promoting antivaccine pseudoscience as “dissent”

Yesterday, I wrote about what can only be described as an academic travesty. What riled me up sufficiently to lay a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence on a graduate student named Judy Wilyman, her PhD thesis advisor Brian Martin, and the University of Wollongong was the fact that Wilyman is an antivaccine loon and the University of Wollongong saw fit to bestow a PhD on her for a thesis riddled with antivaccine tropes and pseudoscience. As I pointed out at the time, the University of Wollongong deserves nothing but ridicule and contempt for allowing this travesty to come to pass, but what about Brian Martin? After all, it is the thesis advisor who bears the most responsibility for making sure that the work done by a PhD candidate is academically rigorous (which Wilyman’s work was not). Sure, there’s a thesis committee to whom PhD candidates periodically present their work and who are supposed to give constructive criticism and advice and make sure the candidate’s work is up to snuff.

I can’t bring myself (yet) to go through the entire thesis. It is, after all, 390 pages long, which means I might never find the time to read it all. I don’t know that I really need to, anyway, if what I’ve read thus far is any indication. Truly the burning antivaccine stupid is black hole density, sucking all science and knowledge into its event horizon, never to be seen again. Brian Martin, however, has defended Wilyman’s thesis and her against attacks. I was curious what defense anyone could come up with to justify such a load of pseudoscientific tripe, rife with easily refutable downright incorrect information. So when I read Brian Martin’s defense of this whole fiasco, entitled Judy Wilyman, PhD: how to understand attacks on a research student, I ended up thinking that this topic deserved a followup post addressing his justifications.

Sadly, the very first paragraph of Martin’s article lets the reader know where he’s coming from, and where he’s coming from is not from anywhere resembling science. He starts out noting that “Judy’s thesis is long and detailed.” Well, yes, I’ll give it that, but if the details are nearly all wrong, length is not a virtue. I like to think that I get away with my penchant for logorrhea because my prose is (usually) entertaining and engaging and because I get the facts and science right. So, although I sometimes get complaints about the length of my posts, most of the time no one minds. In contrast, Wilyman’s “long and detailed” thesis is indeed very detailed, but the vast majority of details are either factually incorrect or distorted.

Martin thus begins:

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.

Antivaccine trope: Vaccines didn’t save us, one of the more intellectually dishonest of some very intellectually dishonest antivaccine tropes.

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.

Antivaccine trope: The “sanitation” gambit. The easiest way to refute this trope is to point out that polio and measles ran rampant in the US in the 1950s, even though sanitation was perfectly fine and children were well nourished. It wasn’t until vaccines for these diseases were developed that the incidence plummeted. Also, sanitation doesn’t do much good against diseases whose spread is primarily through the air, like the measles.

Two down. What’s next? Oh, goody:

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.

Pharma shill gambit, reporting for duty, sir!

Then:

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.

Ah, yes. The “inconvenient facts ‘they’ don’t want you to discover” trope. What, pray tell, might these “inconvenient” facts be? That vaccines cause autism, perhaps? Given Martin’s defense of Andrew Wakefield and his characterization of criticism of him as “suppression of vaccination dissent” one has to wonder how much Martin buys into antivaccine pseudoscience. Quite a lot, I suspect.

Here’s the problem. All Martin sees when it comes to antivaccine activists is “dissent.” I suppose such views do represent “dissent” of a sort, but they sure don’t represent well-informed dissent based on facts, logic, and science. Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t seem to distinguish between dissent based on facts, science, and logic and dissent based on pseudoscience and misinformation. Wakefield’s “dissent” was clearly based on the latter. So is Wilyman’s “dissent.” Martin, however, doesn’t seem to recognize this. It’s postmodernism at its worst. There are no “narratives” that are closer to the truth than others. If you believe that, then “telling both sides” becomes paramount and any attempt to censor or shut down pseudoscience is viewed not as a proper enforcement of scientific standards, but an attempt to crush “dissent.” That’s the entire worldview of Brian Martin in a nutshell. Indeed, only a couple of months ago, Martin referred to criticism of Wilyman as the “mobbing of a PhD student“:

Mobbing, or collective bullying, usually develops for a reason, though sometimes it is difficult to identify the original trigger. In Judy’s case, the reason is obvious enough. She debates vaccination in public forums, and there is a group of campaigners who want to silence any public questioning of the official government vaccination policy.

Yep. Martin has played the “bully” card. It’s a favorite card of antivaccinationists. Any criticism of rank pseudoscience is portrayed as “bullying” rather than reasonable criticism.

Speaking of reasonable criticism, let’s look at what Martin considers unreasonable criticism. Basically, he identifies what he considers to be illegitimate attacks thusly:

When people criticise a research student’s work, it is worth checking for tell-tale signs indicating when these are not genuine concerns about quality and probity but instead part of a campaign to denigrate viewpoints they oppose.

  1. They attack the person, not just their work.
  2. They concentrate on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points.
  3. They make no comparisons with other students or theses or with standard practice, but rather make criticisms in isolation or according to their own assumed standards.
  4. They assume that findings contrary to what they believe is correct must be wrong or dangerous or both.

The attacks on Judy’s research exhibit every one of these signs. Her opponents attack her as a person, repeatedly express outrage over certain statements she has made while ignoring the central themes in her work, make no reference to academic freedom or standard practice in university procedures, and simply assume that she must be wrong.

This is such incredible nonsense, not to mention rank hypocrisy. After all, how often have I documented how antivaccine warriors attack the person because they can’t successfully challenge the science? I myself have been at the receiving end of such attacks, most prominently five years ago, when Jake Crosby falsely insinuated that I had undisclosed conflicts of interest, and as a result ai endured a campaign on the part of antivaccine activists to get me fired from my job. It didn’t work (fortunately), but it was a quintessential example of how cranks attack the person and not the science. They can’t attack the science because they don’t have it on their side.

As for the second claim, Martin appears utterly clueless. It is the central points of Wilyman’s thesis that are being criticized—and quite rightly so—based on facts, science, and logic. Similarly, it’s not bias that leads those of us who defend vaccines to conclude that attacks on vaccination like those made by Wilyman are wrong or dangerous or both. They are wrong and dangerous, and we can demonstrate that. We have demonstrated that time and time again.

None of this stops Martin from asserting:

The attacks on Judy Wilyman and her PhD research should be understood as part of a campaign to denigrate and discourage anyone who dares to make public criticisms of standard vaccination policy.

Uh, no. The criticism of Judy Wilyman and her PhD “research” (and I do use the term loosely) derives from her repetition of antivaccine tropes and conspiracy theories. Really, it is just that simple. Sadly, Brian Martin is utterly clueless when it comes to understanding this. If you doubt my assessment, just look at how Martin characterizes criticism of Andrew Wakefield:

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.)

Gee, I can’t help but thinking, Martin says this as though it were a bad thing.

Here’s the problem. Wakefield really is a scientific fraud. Brian Deer has extensively documented this conclusion. Wakefield does have real ignominy. He deserves it. It isn’t a bad thing to point this out, either.

Basically, Martin has a history of being sympathetic to medical cranks. He views crank views as “medical dissent.” Technically, I suppose they are, but not in a good way and certainly not in a useful way. Unfortunately, Brian Martin doesn’t recognize these differences. To him all “dissent” is potentially valid, no matter how pseudoscientific it is. That’s how Judy Wilyman got her PhD.