From deep in the heart of the “organized campaign” against Judy Wilyman’s antivaccine PhD thesis

Politicians and activists know that one of the most effective ways to discredit critics is to try to portray them as (1) being in the pay of someone else, such as a big corporation, or (2) part of an “organized” effort to criticize them, or (3) preferably both. That’s why antivaccine cranks are so fast to deploy the “pharma shill gambit” and cranks like Sharyl Attkisson like to accuse their critics of “astroturfing.” Of course, astroturfing, which is the practice of trying to make a public relations campaign promoting a message appear to originate organically from the grassroots rather than from a controlling source like a political campaign or corporation, does exist and is a problem. If astroturfing didn’t exist, this particular accusation wouldn’t be so effective in persuading believers that criticism of their belief is all one big conspiracy. However, when accusations of “astroturfing” are leveled against bloggers and skeptics criticizing pseudoscience, they’re almost always false.

Sometimes, one doesn’t have to go so far as to make the accusation of “astroturfing.” Sometimes, it’s enough just to accuse those criticizing you of being part of an “organized campaign,” which is basically very similar to an accusation of astroturfing but doesn’t require that there be a paymaster. Then, if you claim that this “organized campaign” originates from a group or organization that you detest (and, presumably, your followers also detest), it’s a powerful tool to keep any valid criticism from entering your followers’ minds and possibly making them think about their beliefs.

I bring this up because those of us who have been critical of the University of Wollongong in Australia for granting a PhD to an antivaccine campaigner named Judy Wilyman, who is affiliated with Meryl Dorey and the Australian Vaccination (Skeptics) Network, have just been subject to such a rhetorical attack from—who else?—Wilyman’s thesis advisor Brian Martin. Recall that in January it was announced that Wilyman’s thesis, A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy, had been accepted by the University of Wollongong, or, as I put it, that the University of Wollongong had issued a PhD in antivaccine pseudoscience. I did not say that lightly, because I had actually perused Wilyman’s thesis and found many obvious errors in fact and interpretation, many of which were nothing more than warmed over antivaccine talking points with which regular readers of this blog have become well familiar. I wasn’t alone, either. Alison Campbell also agreed that Wilyman’s thesis was lacking in academic rigor. It didn’t take long for Martin to leap to Wilyman’s defense by characterizing criticism of the university for granting Wilyman a PhD as the “suppression of dissent” again and again.

Well, Martin is at it again, with another post on his website, this one entitled An orchestrated attack on a PhD thesis. Yes, the title of his post tells you why I introduced my post the way I did. Another reason that Martin’s article caught my attention is that it used a screenshot of one of my three previous posts on the topic, basically accusing me of being part of the “orchestrated” attack. And who’s orchestrating this attack, in Martin’s view? Take a guess.

That’s right. Martin accuses Australian pro-science group Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) of being behind the whole nefariously “orchestrated” attack on Wilyman, the University of Wollongong, and, of course, himself. Hilariously, while doing so Martin posits a false dichotomy:

Judy had been under attack by SAVNers for several years. Therefore, I and others at the University of Wollongong correctly assumed there would be a hostile response to her graduation. Consider two hypotheses for how I and university officials would behave in this situation.

Hypothesis 1. We would push through a sub-standard thesis.

Hypothesis 2. We would take extra care to ensure that the thesis was of requisite quality and that all university processes were followed carefully. This would include sending the thesis to technical experts and choosing external examiners of high standing.

To me, it beggars belief that anyone would believe hypothesis 1, especially given that outsiders lack information about the operation of university processes. Yet in practice it seems that many outsiders, based on limited knowledge, assume that the thesis must be no good, my supervision was inadequate and the university was derelict.

The rush to condemn the thesis and the university can be understood this way: opponents assume it is impossible to undertake a scholarly critique of vaccination policy (or at least impossible for Judy to do so). Therefore, they condemn everyone involved in the process.

Actually, there’s a straw man there, too. No one—and I mean no one, least of all SAVN—claims that it is impossible to undertake a scholarly critique of vaccination policy. No one. Admittedly, SAVN did, of course, seriously question whether it was possible for Wilyman to do so—and with good reason, it turns out, based on the final product that she produced. After all, is it really so unreasonable to question whether someone who has a long history of spewing antivaccine misinformation for years was capable of an objective, scholarly treatment of Australian vaccination policy? Again, it is not, and, based on the finished product produced by Wilyman under Martin’s guidance, the SAVN was quite justified in its concern.

As for the two hypotheses, this is a bit of a false dichotomy. Although it is not unreasonable to wonder whether Martin would push through a substandard thesis—after all, Wilyman’s thesis was, by any reasonable academic standard, very substandard—another hypothesis that could explain what happened was that the University of Wollongong had a system that allowed a substandard thesis like Wilyman’s to slip through. In any event, Hypothesis 2 just cracks me up. Is Martin really claiming that he took extra care to make sure that the thesis was of requisite quality? Based on the finished product, it is to laugh. I suppose he might honestly believe that he did this, but if that’s the case that says more about his cluelessness than anything. Of course, no one is questioning whether all university processes were followed. Unfortunately, it appears that they were. It’s the university processes that allowed such a piece of crap to pass muster that skeptics question, not whether the thesis made it through all the requisite university processes. In fact, the University of Wollongong must agree that there could be something wrong with its processes, as it has undertaken a review of its processes. Unfortunately, that review won’t assess current or past PhDs, which means Wilyman’s thesis is exempt from this review.

Of course, everyone who’s critically read Wilyman’s thesis can’t help but ask: Who were these “technical experts and external examiners of high standing” who signed off on Wilyman’s thesis? Certainly I did. Unfortunately, neither the University, Wilyman, nor Martin is telling. Nor does there appear to be any way to force any of them to reveal who the reviewers were who signed off on this monstrosity. I note that this is in marked contrast to the US, at least where I got my PhD and the two universities at which I’ve been faculty during the course of my career thus far, where the thesis committee signs off on the thesis, which is publicly published. If Martin wants to really convince people that Wilyman’s thesis was critiqued by real experts, he has but to release their names. He does not, and that tells me all I need to know about his claim. It is puffery, nothing more.

In his latest screed, Martin trods a lot of the same ground that he’s trod before. For instance, he regurgitates the same four “tell-tale signs indicating when these [criticisms] are not genuine concerns about quality and probity but instead part of a campaign to denigrate viewpoints they oppose.” I’ve dealt with these twice before and see no need to deal with them again here other than to express exasperation at how Martin keeps repeating them and failing to show that any of them apply in this situation, particularly #2 (“they concentrate on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points”). No, no, no, no! Critics all pointed out that Wilyman’s central points were bollocks (as my British and Australian friends would say) and a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys (as I like to say). They also explained why. Moreover, these “small details” matter if they are used to support those central points. Getting them so egregiously wrong casts doubt on the central points.

OK, I’ll stop now. I said I wouldn’t cover the same ground again, but that #2 just annoys the hell out of me, as Marin is either deluded or lying when he claims Wilyman’s critics do that. (Take your pick.)

Amusingly, Martin is oh-so-unhappy that Wilyman’s critics have been so academically uncivil as to express their concerns in public. I mean, how very unsporting of them:

When raising concerns about a piece of research, the normal scholarly route is to send them to the author, inviting a reply, not to immediately publicise them via journalists. An alternative is to submit them to a scholarly journal for publication, in which case many editors would invite the author to reply.

Alleging there are errors in a piece of work does not on its own challenge the central arguments in the work. For this, addressing those arguments directly is necessary. Very few of the critics of Judy’s thesis have addressed any of its central themes. (Tell-tale sign 2)

Ack! #2 again! No, no, no, no. Wilyman’s central themes have been addressed. Repeatedly. Moreover, when there are so many basic errors in science and fact in a thesis, naturally the central themes must be called into question. How many times do I have to repeat this?

As for Martin’s indignation that Wilyman’s critics didn’t send their criticisms to the author to invite a reply or publish them in a scholarly journal, I make two observations. First, how does he know that there won’t be submissions to scholarly journals? It’s only been three weeks since the thesis acceptance was announced, which is a mighty short time frame to write any sort of academic paper. Second, why on earth does he think anyone should write to Wilyman (or him) when she (as well as he) has made it abundantly clear how she responds to criticism. No, Martin is just trying to pre-emptively dismiss his critics, as he does here as well:

Many opponents of the thesis and critics of the university have declared this issue is not about academic freedom but about academic standards. This claim would be more convincing if these opponents had ever made scholarly contributions about academic freedom or if they were not making self-interested judgements about their own behaviour. Their actions show their agenda is suppression of dissent.

That’s right. According to Martin, if you haven’t made a scholarly contribution regarding academic freedom, then STFU. Who’s trying to suppress freedom of speech now? This bit is particularly hilarious in light of his wanting to have it both ways:

This is a familiar theme within scientific controversies: critics of the epistemologically dominant view are dismissed because they are not suitably qualified. There is another way to look at policy issues: all citizens should be able to have an input, especially those with a stake in the outcomes. This participatory view about science policy has been well articulated over several decades, but few of those commenting about Australian vaccination policy even seem to recognise it exists.

In other words, expertise doesn’t matter if you’re Wilyman or someone criticizing the “epistemologically dominant view,” because “all citizens should be able to have an input.” Of course, Martin is being disingenuous (quelle surprise!) in that his is a view that applies to public discourse, not to the granting of a PhD thesis and that, when it’s convenient to him, he invokes lack of perceived expertise as a reason to tar his opponents as being ideologically motivated. He does it again here:

The intensive scrutiny of Judy’s thesis on its own does not enable a judgement of its quality, because it is necessary to benchmark against other comparable theses. None of her critics has attempted a similarly intensive scrutiny of any other thesis, much less a set of theses large enough to enable a fair assessment of her work. Experienced examiners have assessed many theses, as supervisors and/or examiners, and are well placed to make the required judgements about quality. This is in stark contrast to outside critics, many of whom lack any experience of thesis supervision or examination. (Tell-tale sign 3)

Well, I have been on several thesis committees; so I do not lack experience of thesis supervision or examination. I know what makes a good thesis. No doubt Martin’s response to that if he sees this (and I suspect he will given that he used a screenshot of one of my previous posts) would be that my expertise is in the sciences, not the humanities. That is true, but irrelevant in this case. Why? It’s because, even not having judged theses from the humanities, I know that, whatever the conclusion of a thesis is, regardless of academic discipline, it should be backed by sound research, a fair and accurate citing of previous work, and logical arguments. Wilyman’s thesis fails egregiously in all of these areas.

Finally, Martin concludes:

It is apparent that academics and universities need to do more to explain what they do and to explain the meaning and significance of academic freedom.

I’d tend to agree. We as academics in particular need to explain that “academic freedom” should not be a cover to promulgate any half-baked conspiracy theory bolstered by pseudoscience that best suits the preconceived beliefs of an academic. Nor should a thesis rooted in these things be considered acceptable by any university anywhere.

Thus endeth my part of the “organized campaign” against Brian Martin and Judy Wilyman. That’s sarcasm, Prof. Martin, in case you don’t realize it.