11 January 2016
Judy Wilyman received her PhD from the University of Wollongong last month. The title of her thesis is “A critical examination of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy.” She and her research have been under attack for several years, in a sustained assault on academic freedom. I have been principal supervisor for Judy’s thesis. This is my account of the underlying issues.
Judy’s thesis is long and detailed. It makes four main critical points in relation to Australian government vaccination policy. First, deaths from infectious diseases had dramatically declined in Australia before the mass introduction of most vaccines, suggesting that vaccination is not the only factor in controlling these diseases. Second, Australian vaccination policies were adopted from a one-size-fits-all set of international recommendations, without consideration of the special ecological conditions in Australia, for example the levels of sanitation and nutrition, and the incidence and severity of diseases. Third, nearly all research on vaccination is carried out or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in selling vaccines; the conflicts of interest involved in vaccine research can lead to bias in the research design and conclusions drawn. Fourth, there are important areas of research relevant to vaccination policy that have not been pursued, but should have been; a plausible reason for this “undone science” is that the findings might turn out to be unwelcome to vaccination promoters.
In the wider spectrum of academic research, Judy's thesis is not unusual. I have supervised quite a few PhD theses on controversial topics, including nuclear reactors and radioisotopes, IUDs, antidepressants and public health, and the Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease. In the field called science and technology studies (STS), there is a long tradition of studying controversial developments in science and technology using intellectual tools from history, philosophy, sociology, politics, economics and/or psychology, depending on the topic. Such studies do not involve experimentation; they do include a critical examination of scientific research, including claims about scientific knowledge. Those interested in this field can look at its premier journals, Social Studies of Science and Science, Technology, & Human Values, as well as numerous books and articles in a host of other journals.
Judy’s thesis has come to public attention because of a group called Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network (SAVN). This citizens’ group was set up in 2009 with the express purpose of discrediting and destroying the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), a citizens’ group supporting free choice by parents about their children’s vaccination and critical of standard government vaccination policy. Methods used by SAVN have included abusive comments, complaints to official bodies, and attempts to block public talks by AVN figures. The SAVNers seek to censor any public comment critical of vaccination, setting themselves as arbiters for what it is permissible to say. SAVN’s campaign against the AVN has been documented in a number of articles.
SAVNers have also targeted anyone openly critical of vaccination. Because of her public statements on the vaccination issue, Judy has been one of their targets. As well as challenging and ridiculing Judy’s statements, SAVNers have made derogatory comments about Judy herself. One of SAVN’s standard tactics has been to attack the person.
SAVN has extended its attack on Judy to her PhD candidature. It is one thing to criticise public statements; it is another to try to pressure a university to stop a student’s research. The campaign against Judy’s PhD studies has included abusive comments on SAVN’s Facebook page and on individual blogs by SAVNers, hostile stories in the mass media, and complaints to the university. SAVNers have attacked Judy’s candidature, criticised me as her supervisor, and criticised the university for allowing her to undertake her studies.
This is a clear and direct attack on academic freedom. I have studied issues of intellectual freedom for many years; never have I heard of a campaign against a research student more relentless and abusive than the one against Judy.
It is extraordinary that for years SAVNers have been declaiming against Judy’s thesis before it was finished and without having read it.
SAVNers and some others apparently believe the only people qualified to comment about vaccination policy are “experts” who have degrees and refereed publications in scientific journals, for example in immunology or epidemiology. A moment’s reflection should reveal the flaw in this claim: being an expert in immunology or epidemiology — usually a narrow aspect of such a field — gives no special insight into vaccination policy, which involves many different areas of knowledge, and includes matters of ethics and politics. 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.
SAVNers disqualify themselves as experts by criticising an unfinished work they have not even read.
Some SAVNers have claimed I am not qualified to supervise a thesis on vaccination policy because I have no specialist scientific credentials in the field. (My PhD is in theoretical physics.) It is apparent that these SAVNers insult me as a means of trying to discredit Judy's work.
In the field of science and technology studies, there is no requirement that students or supervisors have research records in the scientific fields being analysed; this is social analysis of science, which is different from doing scientific research.
When writing in any area, it is good practice to seek comments on drafts from people knowledgeable in the field. I regularly do this in my own research, and Judy does the same.
Supervisors are not expected to be authorities on every aspect of a student’s thesis. At some point in every PhD, a good student moves into original areas. The supervisor is a guide, not a teacher who knows all the answers. Nor does a supervisor have to agree with a student’s findings. The primary task of a supervisor is to assist a student in developing research skills and in producing high-quality research.
Quality control is provided through several processes. One is the scrutiny by the student, the principal supervisor and the associate supervisor. A second is feedback from additional readers of thesis drafts. A third is feedback from referees for papers submitted by the student to scholarly journals. Fourth is the examination process for theses.
At the University of Wollongong, there are robust processes for examination of theses. These were followed in the usual way in Judy’s case. Examiners are chosen for their high standing in the field and for their independence of both the student and the supervisors. I have written elsewhere about the process of selecting examiners.
Some SAVNers have criticised the university for accepting Judy as a research student and for providing the support that enabled her to obtain a PhD. Either these critics have little understanding about university processes or their aim is censorship. None has indicated that they have supervised research students. This suggests that their attacks on the university are based on an ideological opposition to any researcher being allowed to make criticisms of vaccination.
When people criticise a research student’s work, it is worth checking for tell-tale signs indicating when these are not genuine concerns about quality and probity but instead part of a campaign to denigrate viewpoints they oppose.
1. They attack the person, not just their work.
2. They concentrate on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points.
3. They make no comparisons with other students or theses or with standard practice, but rather make criticisms in isolation or according to their own assumed standards.
4. They assume that findings contrary to what they believe is correct must be wrong or dangerous or both.
The attacks on Judy’s research exhibit every one of these signs. Her opponents attack her as a person, repeatedly express outrage over certain statements she has made while ignoring the central themes in her work, make no reference to academic freedom or standard practice in university procedures, and simply assume that she must be wrong.
The attacks on Judy Wilyman and her PhD research should be understood as part of a campaign to denigrate and discourage anyone who dares to make public criticisms of standard vaccination policy.
3. Its original name was Stop the Australian Vaccination Network.
4. In 2014, the AVN was forced to change its name, and changed it to Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, also with the abbreviation AVN.