A few days ago, The Australian published an article about a doctoral thesis by Judy Wilyman. Within minutes, there was national (even international) outrage that the University of Wollongong would award a doctorate to anti-vaccination pseudoscience. STEM nerds skimmed through the thesis to find the most egregious comments, while the University of Wollongong released a statement reaffirming their support for academic freedom.
Now I’m an extremely fast reader and even I struggled to find enough time to read through the thesis in question until now. How a scandal of this magnitude could erupt in such a short timeframe strikes me as odd.
But it shouldn’t have. It turns out that there’s a weird context to the debate and people were ready and waiting with their hot takes… Let us journey now into the world of the Wilyman Controversy.
Anti-vaccers are completely nuts. Completely. It’s not even worth debating how nuts they are because they are incapable of understanding how nuts they are. Meanwhile, the self-appointed guardians of science communication are similarly nuts. Open up Facebook and scroll down three pages until you see the first meme about vaccinations. If it’s pro-vaccination, write: ‘But I heard that vaccinations might cause autism.’ Conversely, if it’s anti-vaccination, write: ‘But I heard that we no longer die of polio because of vaccinations.’
Within an hour, your inbox will be destroyed.
People are red hot keen to perform an identity. I don’t have a degree in medicine but I trust my doctor. So when he says I need to update my vaccinations or whatever, I agree with him. I actually don’t care. He could inject me with a carcinogenic autism cocktail and I’d have no freaking idea. I don’t care. He’s the expert and I’m not. If, on the other hand, he tried to give me advice on my subject matters, I’d tell him to jump in a fire. Dude knows nothing about my stuff. He doesn’t have to. He just needs to stab me full of experimental toxins because it’s his job.
But when it comes to vaccinations, people lose their freaking minds. Two people with identical expertise in the subject (none) go absolutely goddamn ballistic about the subject.
Wilyman had earned the ire of Internet guardians of science communication (like old mate Chrys Stevenson, of ‘Australian atheists are discriminated against like African Americans‘ fame) because she’s a woman expressing an unacceptable opinion about vaccinations. And they’ve been targeting her for a while. When she was awarded a masters degree in science for research into whether vaccination was controlling whooping cough in Australia, she was accused of academic misconduct by two outsiders in 2014. Every time she made a media appearance, the science blogs cranked out think piece after think piece about her.
So when the thesis was published, nobody really needed to read the thesis in order to know that she was wrong.
Wilyman’s thesis is in policy studies. What were the motivations for the Australian Government’s vaccination policy, were they good motivations, and what could be improved? Her thesis is marred by many — very many — tangents into the validity of studies into vaccination itself.
A lot of her points are correct. There are a lot of rent-seekers in the medical industry. Every time an outbreak of some disease erupts, companies lobby the Minister for Health to stockpile their products in case of an epidemic. Sometimes, it’s indirect lobbying — through researchers who’ve shown an interest in the disease, for example — and, other times, it’s just overt. No Minister for Health wants to be in the job when the population is decimated by Unusindecemitis after all.
And we know that there are perverse incentives in medical research. Mice go missing. Results aren’t reproducible. People’s careers depend on ‘wins’, so they bury losses.
Where Wilyman’s thesis is very good, she analyses the idea of scientific authority, the rhetoric that we should just ‘trust the science’ without really discussing the limitations of the science, or the interpretations of the science.
Unfortunately, it’s these same strengths that cause her to fall into weird — very weird — conspiracy theories about the real reasons why WHO encourages vaccination, for example.
Ultimately, the problem is that she doesn’t stick in her own lane. Her private views on the validity of vaccination themselves leak into the good discussions of the topics. For example, I think the thesis would have been better written by somebody who was pro-vaccination (or, at least, vaccination-neutral). That way, there would have been a clearer analysis of the policies and policy drivers. It would also have encouraged a better use of sources, and prompted the use of a better theoretical framework (‘undone science’ did not hold up well).
I do not think it was the sort of thesis of which the University of Wollongong would be proud. There are clearly problems with the Australian PhD, but this really shows a gap in the mechanisms by which a researcher can be awarded a doctorate.
But it also shows the problem that we’ve got with the public discussion of research: write what we want to see written or we’ll burn the place down. The Australian’s editorial even tried to blame this outcome on ‘relevance deprivation’ within the humanities. This wasn’t an opportunity for the science communication goons to kick the doors in; instead, this was a discussion about the quality of research in policy studies and how decision makers are using scientific evidence to push various agenda.
Everybody looked pretty stupid in this.