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freedom of opinion has its place, but this phd thesis goes too far

One of today's big stories, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, is of the University of Wollongong's decision to award a PhD to a thesis that promotes a strongly anti-vaccination take on the policies and science relating to immunisation. Fellow NZ scibloggers Helen Petousis Harris and Grant Jacobs have already commented on it, and over on Respectful Insolence Orac has his usual thorough take on the issue.

The University of Wollongong has defended the awarding of the PhD to this particular thesis:

The university says it accepted a PhD thesis from a controversial anti-vaccine advocate on the basis that universities promote freedom of thought and it adhered to international standard protocol.

"As a leading research-intensive university, the University of Wollongong values intellectual openness, freedom of opinion, diversity of ideas, equity, and mutual respect," a spokesperson from the University of Wollongong said in an official statement.

"UOW does not restrict the subjects into which research may be undertaken just because they involve public controversy or because individuals or groups oppose the topic or the findings."

The spokesperson provided a form that outlines the requirements that must be met in order for a PhD to be accepted and which they said the university complied. "UOW ensures research is undertaken according to strict ethical and quality standards," they said.

And therein lies the rub. Universities do value diversity and freedom of opinion (it would be a sad state of affairs if they did not), but that opinion should be evidence-based. Academic freedom (another phrase aired in this and similar contexts) is not the freedom to say whatever one likes, whenever one likes, without considering the quality of the opinions being expressed.

New Zealand's Academic Audit Unit has discussed this concept at some length. It notes that academic freedom is an important contribution to the community. And for that reason, again, it's important that the opinions expressed under the aegis of academic freedom are accurate and research-based - because if they are otherwise there is the potential to do real harm in the community.

I am not flying a kite here. Helen has already commented on how the views expressed in this thesis, as exemplified by (but in no way restricted to) the abstract, are not based on current best practice and understanding around vaccination. But the thesis is highly likely to be held up by organisations such as the 'Australian Vaccination Network' and the 'Vaccine Resistance Movement' as evidence that vaccines are not only useless but in fact bad for us. If this then results in a drop in vaccination rates, then vaccine-preventable diseases will increase in frequency in the community: this is just what happened in the UK after the publication of the now-retracted report that linked MMR vaccination with autism.

The authors of the AAU monograph go on to note the links between that critic and conscience role in universities and the quality of the research (& teaching) done at the institutions. And this is, I think, the key here: those opinions which we express should be underpinned by good-quality research. In the case of the thesis discussed here, the quality of that research, and the degree to which it was scrutinised by both the supervisory panel and the external examiners, must - as Helen, Orac, and others have already shown - be called into question.

One pressing question is whether the thesis was subject to expert scientific scrutiny in both the development and examination phases. This is because a considerable portion of it discusses not policy but issues of actual science (Chapters 7 through 10), and as Helen's said, quite a bit of that discussion is not based on the modern mainstream scientific literature. For example, as Orac's already noted, the thesis claims that there is a plausible link between vaccination and the development of autism. No such link has been demonstrated, but it's a frequent claim on many antivaccination websites and social media pages. And sadly, it appears that even the offer of scienfitic review and commentary was rejected:

John Dwyer, emeritus professor of medicine and president of the group Friends of Science in Medicine, says Ms Wilyman has challenged well-established concepts in science without the data to support her conclusions. Peter McIntyre, director of the National Centre of Immunisation Research and a WHO adviser, said he had offered to discuss the research with Ms Wilyman but found her “not willing to entertain” evidence contrary to her views.

And then there's the statement that vaccine-preventable diseases have not been shown to be a serious risk to the majority of children in Australia. This runs against the actual historical evidence. I suppose that between 10 & 20 cases of paralytic polio per 100,000, the figures reached during epidemics, don't sound all that much, but that doesn't include non-paralytic forms of the disease. Children under 5 are at greater risk than anyone else. Or pertussis (whooping cough): Australia had around 10,000 cases in 2009. Most cases of this disease are in children under 10, and every year infants die from it; those too young to be immunised are at particular risk, and rely on herd immunity. And let's not forget measles: this remains a significant cause of death in young children, on a global basis, and is easily spread across open borders.

All this information is readily available and it's staggering that it was glossed over in this way, or went unchallenged during the writing and examination of the thesis. Freedom of opinion is one thing; freedom to ignore or misrepresent information that doesn't fit one's narrative, in the development of a PhD thesis, is something else.

EDIT: Orac has added a further commentary, hot off the press.

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She flat out states that smallpox could only be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. No evidence, just states it as fact.

In her Masters she’s got a table where 137 kids presented with pertussis, and 37 of them were immunised. She concludes: “The statistics indicate that one-third of fully vaccinated children still got infected with pertussis.”

Something is badly wrong at the UoW. If I was a PhD candidate I'd be looking for another university.

Beggars belief that the pertussis thing wasn't picked up on examination of the Masters. Although I suppose that if it didn't go to anyone in the science fields it might have been missed.

Eh, that Masters is from the School of Health Sciences. If there are direct factual errors in that, I’d be concerned. At least in the case of her Humanities work we can suspect gaming the system to avoid critical review.

Since when has "academic freedom" been equated with "I can make stuff up and not be challenged about it"? One of the key things about doing a PhD is that you should be able to defend your work. Do they not have an oral exam for PhD's in Australian universities?

@ Grant - tempting to see if the Masters is available on-line.

@ Michael: apparently not, if the comments in various on-line fora are anything to go by.

It's not as if the University of Woolongong wasn't aware of Wilyman's propensity for misrepresentation.

This complaint was sent to them 18 months ago and ignored.

This Facebook page has been established to assemble evidence for the inevitable Inquiry,please contribute.

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Recent Comments

  • Ken McLeod : It's not as if the University of Woolongong wasn't aware read more
  • Alison Campbell: @ Michael: apparently not, if the comments in various on-line read more
  • Alison Campbell: @ Grant - tempting to see if the Masters is read more
  • Michael Edmonds: Since when has "academic freedom" been equated with "I can read more
  • Grant: Eh, that Masters is from the School of Health Sciences. read more
  • Alison Campbell: Beggars belief that the pertussis thing wasn't picked up on read more
  • Magpie: She flat out states that smallpox could only be transmitted read more