Why Wollongong’s abdication of responsibility for Wilyman won’t wash

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!”

Their excuse:

“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.

Chrys Stevenson

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?

An excerpt:

“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]

25 thoughts on “Why Wollongong’s abdication of responsibility for Wilyman won’t wash

  1. [...] Post navigation ← Time to think about dying …. Why Wollongong’s abdication of responsibility for Wilyman won’t wash → [...]

  2. Martin says:

    According to my email response, Judy Wilyman’s PhD candidacy is through the faculty of arts. While I don’t consider this to be a lower form of higher education by any stretch, it hardly qualifies her in the medical sciences or to claim some deep understanding of vaccines that, say, and immunologist or virologist would – people who have real PhDs and the like.

  3. CrazyHorse says:

    “The University of Wollongong strongly supports the rights of academic freedom for people to openly express their points of view.”

    It is very wrong for The University of Wollongong to say this when the point of view being expressed, by a person touting themselves as a PhD candidate of theirs, is quite contrary to huge bodies of work in well-established academic scientific fields, such as the well-established subsets of medical science that immunology and infectious diseases are.

    Universities are obliged to have balanced and reasonable discourse about fields of academic endeavour from their PhD candidates in those fields of academic endeavour.

    It is unethical and immoral for The University of Wollongong to skirt that. Their administration is liable – Their V-C is liable, as is their Board, and the person who wrote it!

  4. mochuck says:

    Perhaps we need more academics to weigh in on this issue. People like Dr Julie Leask (who DOES have a PhD), Professor Robert Booy and Professor Peter McIntyre all from NCIRS (National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance)

  5. Duke says:

    Another great piece Chrys. Staunch and rational as always. Your promise to review this thesis in the event that it ever sees the light of day could be a great lesson in intellectual accountability for Ms Wilyman. Pity there doesn’t seem to be much institutional accountability going in a UoW. Academic freedom is an important value but it needs to be tempered by and applied within a context of rational inquiry. Where an individual uses the mantle and gravitas of academe to prosecute an ideological, rather than empirically based, argument of this kind (essentially an argument related to public policy settings which must be predicated on the best scientific evidence available)), then the contest of ideas is degraded and the impression is created that facts and opinions are interchangeable. This disturbing trend needs to be tackled head-on wherever it is encountered and I commend you once again for doing the tackling on this occasion.

  6. shellity says:

    In my first year of a communications degree (which I didn’t end up pursuing) I turned in a badly researched, badly reasoned, badly composed essay on pop culture its cyclical nature, as manifested in specific music and movies. To wit: Why Madonna Is A Bit Like Marilyn Monroe.

    My journalism tutor rightly failed me and as part of his explanation said (paraphrased), “That’s not what we’re teaching here. Don’t bother turning in rubbish like that again”.

    I hope the standards in the Arts Faculty of UoW are the same.

  7. Guy says:

    I am an acdemic with a PhD. I mostly do research in psychology although I dabble a bit in research inot other areas. For me, academic freedom means that I can do research into whatever I want. Of course, the way for me to do better quality research would be to focus on what I have expertise in, so while I could do research into solar power I’m better off deploying my time researching psychology topics that I am familiar with.

    Academic freedom does NOT mean: (1) that I can do that research to a poor standard (on not “free” to do it in whatever way a whim might take me without reference to good methods and good thinking, I am employed to do my research competently, if I don’t I don’t expect to stay employed), or (2) that I can freely assert strong opinions on things I know little about (as a private citizen not identifed with the university I COULD do this, but as a trained researcher if there’s something I don’t know a lot about my default position is to ask lots of questions not hold strong opinions until I have informed myself), or (3) that I am free to maintain an opinion in the face of a clear logical and evidential case that the opinion is wrong (people are “free” to be beligerant or deliberately ignorant, but they are not free of the consequence of this, which is that they should not be taken seriously).

  8. Guy says:

    You may be interest in UoW’s Code of Conduct – particularly section 7 relating to academic freedom and to public comment. it appears to me that Ms Wilyman is in breach of these:

    http://www.uow.edu.au/about/policy/UOW058667.html#P218_18498

  9. doug Steley says:

    Excellent explanation of a pitiful situation, it sounds very much like a gutless university administration to frightened to take on a renegade academic and student.

    I received a standard form reply from Prof Raper to my questions.

    Below is my reply to her reply, perhaps she may actually answer my simple questions this time :-)

    I live in hope ! I can only recommend contacting the university and voicing displeasure at their actions ( or inactions )

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Dear Professor Raper

    Thank you for your reply

    Can you just confirm for me that it is acceptable to your university for one of your students harass grieving parents and to specifically name their child in a publication saying that all available medical evidence is incorrect and the view of an arts student is correct on a matter of medical diagnosis ?

    I support academic freedom to publish research and opinions based on fact that can be verified by collected data, I do not support anyone’s right to make stuff up and claim it to be true without supporting evidence.

    Perhaps you would be kind enough to ask Ms Wilyman to provide the evidence she is basing her claims on.

    yours sincerly

    =================================================

    Email and phone contacts ( be polite but ask questions and expect to be given decent answers )

    Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)
    Prof Judy Raper
    Email: jraper@uow.edu.au

    Executive Assistant to Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)
    Tracy Panton
    Ph: (02) 4221 3915 tpanton@uow.edu.au

    Dean of Research
    Prof. Tim Marchant
    E-mail: tim@uow.edu.http://www.uow.edu.au/index.html

    Administrative Assistant to Dean of Research
    Ms Joell Murray
    Ph: (02) 4221 5990 joell_murray@uow.edu.a

    Ethics Manager
    Libby McMahon
    Ph: (02) 4221 4457
    Email: elizabeth_mcmahon@uow.edu.au
    Ethics Officers
    Ms Maret Oser-Tamm
    Ph: (02) 4221 5014
    Email: maret@uow.edu.au
    Ms Penny Potter
    Ph: (02) 4221 3350
    Email: pennyp@uow.edu.au
    Ethics Assistants
    Ms Sabine Holz (Mon, Tues, Wed)
    Ph: (02) 4221 3773
    Email: sholz@uow.edu.au
    Ms Cheryl Jecht (Wed, Thurs, Fri)
    Ph: (02) 4221 8074
    Email: cjecht@uow.edu.au

    TRY THIS

  10. Stuart MacLeod says:

    Please … if she is ever awarded a PhD … I would be honoured to pay for your bus trip there and back … might even spring for a plane ticket … to speed up the process.

  11. Gus Barnard says:

    Fantastic article yet again. Thankyou Chrys for the information. I loved the end too! :D

  12. Abbie Noiraude says:

    The last paragraph; breathtaking.
    Chrys Stevenson; My hero!

  13. Added today – a closer look at Wilyman’s supervisor, Professor Brian Martin who, apparently, subscribes to the AVN.

    An excerpt from Losing in the Lucky Country: Wollongong Uni, Brian Martin and Judy Wilyman – How far is too far?
    http://luckylosing.com/2012/06/07/wollongong-uni-dr-brian-martin-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 here - http://luckylosing.com/2012/06/07/wollongong-uni-dr-brian-martin-judy-wilyman-how-far-is-too-far/ ]

  14. Louella says:

    More brilliant work…just brilliant.

  15. Chris says:

    I wonder how many people in AVN vaccinate their pets but not their kids

  16. [...] Why Wollongong’s abdication of responsibility for Wilyman won’t wash [...]

  17. […] second, Why Wollongong’s abdication of responsibility for Wilyman won’t wash, criticises Wollongong University for their failure to censure Wilyman for unethical […]

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