Brian Martin again: Criticizing Judy Wilyman’s antivaccine thesis is suppression of dissent

One of the cool things about being a longtime blogger in the skeptical world with a reasonably high profile is that I’ve met, either virtually or in person at various skeptic conferences, a wide variety of people from all over the world. One place in particular that has a vibrant skeptic movement is, of course, Australia, and I’ve been happy to meet skeptics such as Rachael Dunlop, Jo Benhamu, Richard Saunders, Eren Segev, and several others. I know that, whenever I finally manage to make that trip to Australia that I’ve been meaning to make for years, there will be people I know to meet up with. (The same is true of London; sadly I didn’t manage to meet up with nearly the number of people that I wanted to when I was there in September.) Certainly, I admire their effectiveness. For instance, Stop the AVN (SAVN) has been very effective in countering the lies and misinformation of Australian antivaccine activists Meryl Dorey and her Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), which was forced to be renamed Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, which to me is the Aussie equivalent of our National Vaccine Information Center, Generation Rescue, and The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, all rolled up into one. Oddly enough, some of my most read blog posts have been about Australian pseudoscience fans; indeed, my most read post of all time was one I wrote about Jess Ainscough (a.k.a. The Wellness Warrior) after her death. The damned thing garnered over 100,000 unique visits in a single day. No other post I’ve written in eleven years has ever come close to that burst of traffic!

Last week, Australian scientists and skeptics were outraged when the University of Wollongong accepted a PhD thesis from an antivaccine activist affiliated with the AVN named Judy Wilyman. I expressed my displeasure, explaining why her thesis was a steaming, stinking, pile of BS. As I said at the time, the University of Wollongong had granted a PhD in antivaccine pseudoscience. Of course, I was by no means alone in my criticism. Allison Campbell criticized it. So did PZ Myers. So did Helen Harris. The list goes on. Not surprisingly, there was pushback. Let’s just say that Brian Martin, Wilyman’s thesis advisor, was not at all pleased, so much so that he issued a statement defending his student. His statement, couched in defending “dissent” and invoking academic freedom (without, it should be noted, any seeming concern for academic rigor) was every bit as much of a stinking, slimy piece of BS as his student’s thesis was.

I’ll give Martin credit, though. He doesn’t give up. When he digs himself into a deep hole, he just can’t resist continuing to dig. For example, the latest broadside against Wilyman’s thesis came from John Cunningham, an orthopedic surgeon and spokesperson for SAVN, who wrote an op-ed in The Australian entitled Wollongong should never have accepted Judy Wilyman’s thesis. In it, he makes a point similar to what I and other bloggers have been making:

A thesis critical of vaccination may be acceptable if based on a solid understanding of the subject matter. A document based on a mountain of erroneous understandings and flawed conclusions is simply not valid.

It may be better labelled as a work of fiction. It is a thesis written about a fairytale version of vaccination, better suited to the backwater websites of anti-vaccinationists. If the university finds that to be an acceptable standard for the award of its highest degree, that is strange behaviour for an organisation attempting to raise its reputation.

The University of Wollongong has failed several times over. In my view Wilyman did not have adequate supervision from a person qualified to consider and remedy her lack of scientific appreciation of vaccination. Her supervisor admits to taking a passive role in her study and seems to have neglected to prevent her committing fundamental errors. He should not be permitted to use students as a means to push his own erroneous “whistleblower” wagon.

The University of Wollongong has failed its current and past PhD graduates. By demonstrating how low its standards are in accepting a thesis, it has increased the likelihood of other PhDs being tarred with the same brush.

Exactly. Wilyman’s thesis was so full of misinformation that there is no reasonable way that it could be characterized as anything resembling academically rigorous. Yes, I know it was a thesis in the humanities, but that’s no excuse. A certain commenter here takes me to task when I pontificate about topics having to do with the humanities or social sciences and he thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about; the shoe’s on the other foot here. As Cunningham says, I wouldn’t object to a thesis critical of vaccination policy, but that criticism needs to meet two criteria. First, it must correctly and fairly represent the state of current vaccination policy. Second, its criticisms must be rooted in science and evidence. Wilyman’s thesis fails miserably on both counts.

Unfortunately, Cunningham’s excellent article was paired with an op-ed by Brian Martin once again defending his young Padawan. I hate it when newspapers insist on this “tell both sides” trope regarding issues of science, but The Australian did just that, letting Brian Martin publish his own op-ed entitled Hysteria over Judy Wilyman’s PhD: academic freedom under attack.

Ah, yes, you can see right away the tack defenders of Wilyman’s thesis are taking. They’re characterizing her critics as “hysterical” (this will come into play later) and then wrapping themselves in the mantle of “academic freedom,” again without worrying overmuch about academic rigor. Let’s see where Martin is coming from:

I was the principal supervisor for Judy Wilyman, who recently received her PhD from the University of Wollongong. The reaction to news of her graduation, much of it bordering on hysteria, suggests that understanding of and commitment to academic freedom in Australia is more tenuous than I had imagined.

This is, as are many of Martin’s statements on this matter, a rather massive mischaracterization of the criticism directed at Wollongong over Wilyman’s thesis. For one thing, academic freedom ≠ freedom from criticism. Nor does it mean freedom from academic standards. Calls for Wollongong to rescind Wilyman’s thesis were not based on censorship. They were based on just how bad Wilyman’s thesis was when it comes to facts, science, and analysis of policy. They’re not. Don’t believe me? Get a load of this bit from her thesis:

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.

Two points come to mind. First, in the case of vaccine-preventable diseases, perhaps Wilyman could describe what factors other than the infectious agent cause the disease. More importantly, I always find it so very, very cute when an antivaccinationist “discovers” that there are host factors that can determine the host susceptibility to disease. Gee, it’s as though no one ever thought of that before! Oh, wait… Scientists have considered such factors for many decades.

Then there’s this:

The concept that the control of infectious diseases is purely medical is incorrect because infectious agents are linked to many industries and professions involved with fermentation, agriculture and the environment (Pelling 2002 p16).

Huh? This is meaningless drivel attacking a straw man, at least if Wilyman means what I think she means, namely that “medical” = vaccines. Of course, doctors, public health officials, and scientists have been, as always, way ahead of cranks like Wilyman.

But enough of the crank Wilyman. Let’s get back to the crank named Martin and where he’s coming from:

In the late 1970s, I first began studying suppression of dissent, cataloguing cases in which environmental researchers or teachers were targeted.

In the following decades I studied attacks on dissent in a number of scientific controversies, including nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation.

The usual pattern is that someone with qualifications or credibility threatens common beliefs or vested interests through their research or public comment, and then comes under attack.

Methods include public denunciation, censorship of publications, denial of research grants, expulsion from professional associations and dismissal.

The reason for targeting technical experts is they puncture the apparent unanimity of expert opinion in a controversy. Citizen campaigners are usually left alone.

With this background, I became aware of attacks on dissent in the Australian vaccination controversy.

With this background, I became aware of attacks on dissent in the Australian vaccination controversy.

What I find amusing about this tirade is that nowhere does Martin see to consider where professional and scientific standards fit into the picture. For example, it is not “censorship” to refuse to publish garbage, nor is it “censorship” to retract a paper whose data has been so seriously called into question that it’s far more likely than not that its results can’t even come close to being trusted. It’s enforcing scientific standards. It is not “censorship” to decline to fund grants that are not rooted in rigorous science or to reject manuscripts that do not present scientifically valid findings. That’s just peer review, and peer review is not the same thing as censorship. Nor is public denunciation of someone (like, for example, Andrew Wakefield) who has so egregiously violated scientific standards. It’s housekeeping. No, it’s cleaning house.

Of course, the amusing thing is this. Martin has a strange definition of “technical expert” if he thinks that the criticisms of Wilyman’s thesis fall under any of these categories or that she is being attacked because she’s a “technical expert” that has to be discredited and silenced. She is nothing of the sort. Martin knows that. So I wondered: If he knows that, given that her thesis was not in the sciences, Wilyman isn’t like, for instance, Andrew Wakefield, Mark Geier, Christopher Shaw, or other physicians and scientists who’ve lost their way and gone antivaccine, why did he start by describing the findings of his “research” over the years? And why did he mention that “citizen campaigners” are usually left alone, when that is clearly incorrect, as the example of Jenny McCarthy, Barbara Loe Fisher, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and any number of “citizen” antivaccinationists with no scientific background illustrates easily?

As a prelude to this, apparently:

The most prominent vaccine-critical group in Australia was the AVN, the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network. In 2010, an opponent group, SAVN, Stop the Australian (Anti) Vaccination Network, set itself the task of destroying the AVN, using a variety of techniques, including unsupported claims, verbal abuse and numerous complaints to official bodies.

This is a highly dishonest and biased accounting of the situation. First of all, knowing a few of the members of SAVN, I know that the SAVN does not traffick in unsupported claims; rather it is the AVN for which unsupported claims is its life blood. The SAVN exists to counter those claims. As for “verbal abuse,” here’s the thing. Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from criticism or freedom from consequences due to exercising freedom of speech. Moreover, if you want verbal nastiness, Meryl Dorey is your woman, as is apparently Judy Wilyman. Neither of them found it to be going too low to harass the parents of a baby who had died of pertussis who had become the very “citizen campaigners” that, in Wilyman’s fantasy world, are usually left alone. Apparently, such activities are to Martin legitimate “dissent.”

Martin then paints himself and his young Padawan turned to the dark side—no, strike that; she had turned to the dark side long before she ever met Martin—as a victim, a martyr on the pyre of academic freedom and free speech. She is nothing of the sort. He even goes on to repeat his disingenuous criteria for criticism that is ideological and not about academic rigor that he used before. Get a load of this:

First, they attack the person, not just their work.

Writes the man who’s just spent most of his article attacking SAVN without addressing any of its specific criticisms.

Second, they concentrate on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points.

Which is of course, a fetid load of dingo’s kidneys. As I discussed, and as several other bloggers have discussed, the flaws in Wilyman’s thesis are not “small details.” They are entire narratives about science, history, and policy. Her central points are demonstrably erroneous; her discussion of history is quite biased; and her recounting of the science, whenever she bothers to recount science, consists of the most blatant of antivaccine talking points and pseudoscience.

Third, 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.

Um, no. Much of the criticism has been based on how this thesis is so lacking in anything resembling academic rigor that accepting it falls outside of standard practice. Even if Martin had a point here, so what? When “standard practice” fails so miserably, it is quite proper to criticize it for having permitted such a travesty!

Fourth, they assume that findings contrary to what they believe is correct must be wrong or dangerous, or both.

No, critics have pointed out that Wilyman’s “findings” are incorrect. Belief has nothing to do with it. It is amusing how Martin tries to represent criticism of Wilyman’s egregious errors in science and fact as nothing more than an ideological disagreement. Moreover, antivaccine propaganda is both wrong and dangerous. It risks reversing hard-won advances in public health. I realize that Martin seems to value protecting what he views as “dissent” as freedom of speech and academic freedom, but not all dissent is created equal. I believe in freedom of speech at least as much as Martin, so much so that I’ve defended the rights of Holocaust deniers to spew their noxious beliefs, but I’ve also spent a lot of time refuting those noxious beliefs. Once again, freedom of speech does not equal freedom from criticism, and noxious beliefs should be challenged.

Yet, Martin disingenuously goes on:

Within a day of her thesis becoming available online, opponents had taken a few sentences out of context and used them to create a misleading narrative, meanwhile ignoring the central themes in her thesis.

Opponents, following SAVN’s line that open criticism of vaccination policy should be censored, have condemned the thesis, questioned my supervision and the expertise of the thesis examiners, and condemned the university for allowing the thesis to proceed.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this critic hadn’t even seen the SAVN’s response when first wrote about the travesty that is Wilyman’s thesis. No doubt Martin will, if he sees this post, dismiss it because I mention that I know a couple of the members of SAVN. Let’s just put it this way. I’ve been refuting antivaccine pseudoscience regularly for well over a decade now, beginning long before the SAVN even existed. It is, however, rather conveniently paranoid for purposes of conspiracy theories, for Martin to attribute all criticism of his student as either coming from or inspired by SAVN.

Finally Martin concludes:

I believe it is worthwhile for vaccination issues to be publicly discussed, without censorship of dissident views. SAVN and others apparently believe otherwise.

I am proud that the University of Wollongong has taken such a strong stand in support of academic freedom.

Now hop on that pyre, you martyr you, wrapped in the cloak of free speech!

One last time: Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from criticism. It is not the SAVN that doesn’t believe that it is worthwhile for vaccination issues to be publicly discussed. It is Martin and Wilyman, who apparently believe that speech suddenly becomes bulletproof if the person speaking it is against the mainstream and can claim the mantle of a “dissident.”