A storm of controversy erupted back in 2016 when the University of Wollongong granted a Doctorate in Philosophy to antivaccination campaigner Judith Wilyman for a thesis entitled A critical examination of the Australian Government’s rationale for its vaccination policy.
The humanities thesis alleged, among other things, various underhand shenanigans by the pharmaceutical industry and global and Australian regulators while making multiple claims about harmful effects of vaccines, including resurrection of the long-discredited link between vaccines and autism.
It was primarily supervised by professor of cultural studies Brian Martin with the assistance of a colleague from sociology, without any apparent scientific oversight.
The thesis was widely claimed to have misrepresented the evidence on immunisation, as scientists and clinicians around the country rallied to defend the practice and criticise the granting of the PhD.
Academic sanction of unscientific claims can have long-lasting consequences.
According to a report in The Australian, within weeks of the PhD being granted, Dr Wilyman was claiming in her newsletter: “This PhD provides evidence that [not all vaccines are safe] and effective and that the combined schedule of vaccines is doing more harm than good in the population through the increase in chronic illness”.
Nothing should be beyond scholarly question, not even immunisation, but it’s beyond me how a doctoral thesis written, supervised and examined by scholars in the humanities could claim to have provided that kind of scientific evidence.
The ramifications continue.
Last month, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Dr Wilyman had provided an expert witness statement to the Family Court in a dispute between estranged parents over whether their children should be immunised.
Dr Wilyman claimed to be qualified to write the report because she was “an independent person with expertise in public health and the effects of toxins on the human body”.
The government had not provided “hard scientific evidence of safety and efficacy of vaccines because it cannot,” her report said.
If the father was not able to provide such evidence, and the mother did not wish to vaccinate, “then the default position must be not to vaccinate”.
The court may, of course, choose to disregard these “expert” views, relying instead on those of an actual immunisation expert, Professor Peter McIntyre, who has been asked by the children’s father to provide the court with his appraisal of Dr Wilyman’s claims.
Professor McIntyre, the former director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, has previously criticised the awarding of the doctorate to Judith Wilyman.
“It is clear from even cursory examination that Wilyman’s thesis, although raising some legitimate questions about gaps in both the process and transparency of immunisation policy development, is based on a highly selective and poorly informed review of the literature, driven by the imperative to support pre-determined conclusions,” he told the Herald.
Wollongong University “must bear the major responsibility for manifestly inadequate supervision,” he said.
I am not suggesting there is anything intrinsically wrong with a doctoral thesis on immunisation policy being supervised and examined by scholars in the humanities.
But when such a thesis draws on the science of immunisation – which it clearly must – somebody needs to be assessing the accuracy and rigour of the scientific analysis provided, during both the supervision and examination process.
Dr Wilyman would not be the world’s first doctoral candidate to have approached her work from an entrenched ideological position, but a PhD thesis is not a 100 000-word opinion piece.
Like any scholar, she should have been expected to provide quality evidence for her conclusions, evidence that should have been subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny by experts in the field.
The consequence of the apparent failure to do that is that Dr Wilyman now has the enhanced platform for her views provided by an academic title and her resulting claim to be an expert in public health.
Let’s hope the courts display some scientific rigour in assessing that.