Following some official responses from the University of Wollongong on the Judy Wilyman affair (see my previous post), I’d like to make some further comment.
It’s interesting that when University of Wollongong academic, Matthew Berryman, first approached the university’s ethics committee about anti-vaccination campaigner, Judy Wilyman, they effectively said, “Nothing to do with us!”
“Unless someone has made an application to carry out research using the HREC review process, this kind of thing isn’t something the committee deals with.”
So, unless one has asked the ethics committee to get involved in their work, there is no ethical overview? Remarkable!
And then, all of those who had written to the U of W started getting the same form letter back:
“Articles and associated comments published by Judy Wilyman on the internet, on vaccination issues, are her own personal views and not those of the University.”
“The University of Wollongong strongly supports the rights of academic freedom for people to openly express their points of view.”
Now, the first comment may be defensible if, say, Wilyman was doing a PhD on Aboriginal artefacts in Central Queensland while making public statements on vaccines. Clearly, the two are unrelated. But Wilyman’s thesis is “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy” hardly unrelated to her public comments against vaccination.
But wait, there’s more! Wilyman, herself, associates her public comments on vaccination with her status as a PhD candidate. As Reasonable Hank and I have both pointed out, her letter to the Australian Human Rights Commission is signed, “Judy Wilyman, PhD Candidate”. Why would she add this title if she did not want to send a message to the AHRC that she has ‘expertise’ in the field.
You can see on this website where Wilyman is giving her ‘opinion’ of vaccination, she clearly identifies herself as Judy Wilyman (PhD Candidate Environmental Health Policy at University of Wollongong).
Commenters on that website have a go at her for her habit of using the made up title of “PhD researcher” in order to give more weight to her opinions.
Futher, when Wilyman gave a public anti-vaccination lecture in Perth in 2010, she said:
“If vaccination was based on science then the media would not have to work so hard to suppress the information. You will notice the media reports rely on discrediting individuals and organisations and running fear campaigns to encourage parents to vaccinate. Did they mention in the papers that myself and [redacted] are both PhD researchers? “
Her point is that her comments should not be dismissed because of her status as a PhD ‘researcher’. You can hear her making this comment in the first few moments of this MP3 file.
Wilyman clearly makes no distinction between her academic research and her anti-vaccination campaigning. In fact, she takes great effort to conflate them. Although the above comment was made when she was enrolled at Murdoch, not Wollongong, it still speaks to the fact that Wilyman, herself, sees her anti-vaccination stance and her status as a PhD candidate not only as intertwined, but complementary. She shamelessly exploits her status as a PhD candidate in order to give her arguments weight.
While she was enrolled at Murdoch University, Wilyman produced an advertising poster for her anti-vax talk – including the Murdoch logo! You can see her admission here. The university was not pleased at this misuse of their logo, to say the least! A lawyer’s email sent to Dr Rachael Dunlop explained that the university had spent ‘considerable time and energy in having the poster removed from (anti-vaccination websites)” and that they “cannot allow the poster entitled “Coercive and Mandatory Immunisation” bearing the MURDOCH university marks (name and logo)” to remain in public view. What more evidence is needed that Wilyman has a history of harnessing the credibility of the university to which she is attached to bolster her own wacky views?
Wilyman brought Murdoch into disrepute by blurring the line between her PhD candidature and her anti-vaccination advocacy and now she is doing the same at Wollongong with her wild conspiracy theories.
At Wollongong she is supervised by Brian Martin who also seems to have a dog in the anti-vaccination fight. He can be seen here defending the Australian [anti] Vaccination Network, operated by Meryl Dorey.
Martin sees himself as defending ‘whistle-blowers’. But neither the AVN nor Judy Wilyman are legitimate whistle-blowers. They are dangerous conspiracy theorists whose misinformed ideology has real potential to endanger children’s lives.
It is worth noting that Wilyman’s views have no traction whatsoever in the mainstream scientific community. For example, the anti-vaccination views expressed in Perth by Dorey and Wilyman were dismissed by Australia’s ‘most esteemed health professional’, Professor Fiona Stanley as “so misinformed it is scary”, “not fair”, “bizarre” and “absolutely erroneous”.
Whose expertise should Australians trust most?
Academic freedom is important. But the adjective ‘academic’ is a vital part of the equation. Academics should not be free to use their positions to pedal absolute unsubstantiated bullshit. Academics should certainly have the freedom to pursue research where the evidence leads them. But the key word here is evidence, not ideology. Of course, there is a level of interpretation of data in all academic work, but the interpretation must be based on a framework of solid evidence. This is the duty of care academics (and students) have to the public; and universities should enforce that.
Let me pause here for a personal perspective. I began my Honours thesis with the hypothesis that a revival of Celtic identification amongst Australian-born citizens was linked to a young, left-wing, socially radical movement. My research showed exactly the opposite – that it was primarily an older and deeply conservative cohort who were choosing to identify as ‘Celtic’ as a defence against multiculturalism. I had to change my view because that is where the evidence led. There was no point being precious about my grand theory – it simply didn’t stand up! Of course, I was free to make interpretations about why there was a conservative move towards ethnic identification, but the work had to stand on a foundation of reputable evidence. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I was entitled to my own opinions, but not my own facts!
I would contend that Wilyman’s work, which so clearly conflicts with expert scientific consensus, appears not to be built on any such solid framework. Perhaps if Professor Stanley or Professor Ian Fraser – someone with the appropriate experience and qualifications – said that vaccination was potentially harmful, they could truly be viewed as a ‘whistle-blower’. But Wilyman is not qualified to make this assessment and it seems Professor Martin is not much interested in holding her feet to the fire when it comes to scientific evidence from credible sources or responsible interpretation of the data. American skeptic, Brian Dunning (following Irving Langmuir) has usefully described the approach we see from Wilyman as ‘pathological science‘: ‘research characterized more by obsession than by results.’
Just because someone is doing an Arts degree, doesn’t mean you can just make stuff up! Scientific method must be followed and interpretations must flow from credible source material.
But why is this a matter of public concern? Harking back to my previous analogy, if Wilyman was challenging the scientific community over whether an artefact found in Central Australia was 40,000 or 60,000 years old, it would make little difference to most ordinary Australians. But Wilyman has chosen to challenge a vaccination program which demonstrably saves lives. Moreover, where that vaccination program is undermined it demonstrably costs lives. That makes it crucial that both Wilyman and her university take responsibility for her public pronouncements.
UNICEF estimates that, in 2008, 1.7 million children died from vaccine preventable diseases. They note, further that:
- Immunization has saved over 20 million lives in the last two decades.
- More than 100 million infants are immunized each year, saving 2-3 million lives annually.
This is what Wilyman is arguing against – not just in her university thesis, but publicly. Does Wilyman (who does not yet even have a PhD) know more than UNICEF?
Moreover, Wilyman deliberately flaunts her position as a PhD Candidate or, as she likes to style herself ‘PhD researcher’ in order to give weight to what one of Australia’s most prominent medical academics, Fiona Stanley, has termed ‘misinformed’ and ‘bizarre’ theories.
This matters, because Wilyman’s misinformation potentially costs children’s lives.
In continuing her candidature, the University of Wollongong is providing Ms Wilyman with a status which makes her appear plausible to the general public and, as we have seen above, Wilyman exploits that to the ‘nth’ degree.
This is not an argument about academic freedom. It’s an argument about academic responsibility. Wollongong University must act.
If Wilyman’s interminable candidature ever does come to an end and she is awarded a PhD by any Australian university, I pledge that I will obtain a copy of her thesis – even if I have to get on a bus to Wollongong and physically photocopy the UofW library copy. I will then draw on my considerable network of medical, scientific and academic contacts to help me undertake a ‘critical analysis’ of Ms Wilyman’s work and believe me, if it does not meet a reasonable standard of academic evidence I shall be doing all that I can to bring this to the media’s attention as a failure of whatever university she may graduate from. Fair warning.
See also: On academic freedom and ethics by Dr Matthew Berryman on complexitydaemon
Yet another example of how Wilyman exploits her PhD candidature to peddle her conspiracy theories: PhD Candidate Exposes Vaccine Horror from The Second Sight
“Ms Wilyman signs herself “PhD Researcher, Murdoch University”. It would seem she wishes to claim the imprimatur of her university enrolment to support her claims. Ms Wilman (PhD Researcher) is also, of course, the cohost of Meryl Dorey’s recent Perth Antivaccination Rally at the State Library.”
A closer look at Professor Brian Martin’s role is usefully provided by Losing in the Lucky Country: Wollongong Uni, Brian Martin and Judy Wilyman – How far is too far?
“So now we must ask more about our devotee to suppression of dissent, Dr. Brian Martin, who inserted himself in the defence of the AVN. How far is too far? Why did he attack the real whistleblower, Ken McLeod, and in doing so wrench the hearts of the McCaffery family? The whistle was blown on a cruel charity fraudster, a scam artist, a fear monger and one who had made a long living from donations gathered from members with the promise of urgent action to solve manufactured dissent.
The AVN took in $1.8 million between 2004 and 2010. It’s estimated they owe over $155,000 in unprinted magazines for which they have already been paid the subscription fees. This blog is dotted with the fraud making the AVN many tens of thousands more and numerous scams to keep fear running. Does Brian Martin seriously defend and enable such conduct with the defence of academic neutrality?
Brian Martin publishes using his title at University of Wollongong and his UOW email address. So again, how far is too far for this university to turn a blind eye to sickness, degradation and incredibly the corruption that yields a profit for the AVN? Research and academia at the University of Wollongong appear synonymous with antivaccination schemes.
At what point does dissent become denial? Or rather, why should denial ever be labelled dissent? How can a PhD supervisor support denial and antisocial tactics in the name of education? “ [read more]