I’ve pulled three through, and buried two
Since then- and I’m past carin’
Henry Lawson 1899
I would like to make an a priori apology: I am about to make a good number of you feel very old. I am currently one rotation away from becoming an emergency physician, yet in all my years of training I have never shepherded a drooling, toxic child, nestled in a parent’s arms, for a gaseous induction in theatre. My lack of airway experience in the setting of paediatric bacterial epiglottitis is an unanticipated but quite delightful side effect of the introduction of the HiB vaccine to the Australian National Immunisation Schedule in 1993.
Immunisation is one of the great triumphs of the 20th century. If you are ever feeling a little despondent about the human condition, you could always remind yourself that you belong to a species that eliminated smallpox. For this reason I am deeply troubled by a farcical situation currently imploding within academia.
Dr Judy Wilyman is a tireless and determined anti-vaccination campaigner. She is also the proud holder of a brand spanking new PhD from the University of Wollongong School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, for her thesis entitled, “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy.” It is currently available for download from the University of Wollongong Research Online Thesis Collection, replete with the University of Wollongong official logo. It was supervised by Brian Martin, a Professor of Social Sciences.
I have spent the better part of two days neglecting my fully vaccinated children while scouring her thesis, which rounds out at a whopping 390 pages, including appendix, bibliography and a tribute to a who’s who of the global anti-vaccination junk science community. (The only thing missing was a dedication to Andrew Wakefield) Please note this is intended as an opinion piece rather than a true academic critique. (Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, amongst others, is far more qualified than I for that task, and has already done so quite brilliantly). Rest assured I will not be submitting my ‘opinion’ for academic publication.
Her PhD opens with the statement, “Vaccination policies in Australia need to be scrutinised because the use of a medical intervention in the prevention of infectious disease has serious health and social implications.” I agree with Helen Petousis-Harris that this sounds very much like an a priori conclusion. After making a few other quite absurd and incorrect claims regarding international vaccine policy, she concludes her abstract with, “This investigation demonstrates that not all vaccines have been demonstrated to be safe, effective or necessary. It also concludes that the government’s claim that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks cannot be sustained due to gaps in the scientific knowledge resulting from unfunded research and inadequate monitoring of adverse events after vaccination.” Those are big statements that one would think would require some scrutiny of a scientific nature before being accepted for doctorate level publication. Apparently not though.
The kindest way I can describe her thesis is as a wordy opinion piece. A poorly written one. That’s not a crime though, as much as I’d like it to be. The real travesty, however, is that she wades heavily into the scientific fields of immunology, epidemiology and public health, seemingly without any expert scientific review or guidance.
Brian Martin, in his written defence of his student, describes her thesis as “long and detailed.” I cannot argue with him on this point, though I would not consider either of those words as virtues, unless accompanied by another descriptor along the lines of “factually correct.” He also had the following to say, “Some…apparently believe that the only people qualified to comment on vaccination policy are “experts” who have degrees and refereed publications in scientific journals, for example is immunology or epidemiology….Being an expert in immunology or epidemiology gives no special insight into vaccine policy. 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.”
I take his point. But it’s very obvious at even a cursory read that Wilyman strays well beyond the field of policy.
My conclusion: This thesis is the inevitable product of someone with an ideology based agenda, described by director of the National Centre of Immunisation Research and Surveillance for Vaccine Preventable Diseases Peter McIntyre as “not willing to entertain evidence” which contradicted her beliefs, spending the better part of a decade dwelling within an echo-chamber of misinformation. It is an admirably complete assembly of the arguments the global anti-vaccination lobby have been using for years, the majority of them irrelevant, deliberate or unintentional misunderstandings, or just plain wrong. Helen Petousis-Harris referred to it as “a PhD by stealth.” I see it, quite simply, as a junk thesis and a stain upon the university who accepted it.
Up to this point the whole situation is so bad it’s almost funny. Almost. I wasn’t laughing, however, at the official statement from the university in question, laden with platitudes towards academic freedom of thought and lacking any acknowledgement of the genuine concerns of the scientific community. My unease was not soothed with their reassurances of strict ethical and quality standards and I almost fell of my seat when they invoked the “unchallengeable knowledge in the field of study” of the two external examiners. Unchallengeable?? ” Who did they ask? God and Vladimir Putin?
There are two potential scenarios regarding the external review process. One is that neither reviewer had any expertise in epidemiology or immunology. Another is that at least one of them did but still considered her thesis to be of an acceptable standard. I am not sure which is the lesser of two evils. Let’s call it a draw and leave it at that.
I will not pre-empt the findings of a hopefully inevitable investigation into potential academic misconduct, but I will offer a plausible explanation for how such a situation could occur:
- A grossly unsuitable candidate for doctorate level study.
- A slightly rogue supervisor with a passion for dissent and a keen sympathy for the anti-vaccination movement.
- Handpicked external reviewers, perhaps experiencing a touch of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
- An institutional focus on academic freedom resulting in a lackadaisical attitude to academic rigour.
And there you have it. The classic swiss cheese effect.
Judy Wilyman has every right to hold and express these views (And believe me she does. Frequently.). What she doesn’t have the right to do is express them as a competing narrative to
modern science by ignoring any evidence which doesn’t suit her argument, nor be sanctioned to do so by a major Australian university.
Acceptance of such junk, belief-based pseudo-science into mainstream academic literature (albeit via the back door) cheapens all that responsible scientific research stands for, and has very real potential to do harm to the patients we provide clinical care for every day.
They say you pick your battles. This is one I’m prepared to fight.
The above post is solely the personal view of the author.