Wollongong in the wrong: How a university failed science

Universities in Australia are under increasing danger of being a comfortable home for dangerous anti-science loony ideas, authored by quacks granted the title “Doctor” by the university. The latest is an extensive anti-vaccination screed by Judith Wilyman, dressed up as a PhD thesis and published by the University of Wollongong. That university has failed in its public duties to science, specifically by posting a science research student with a thesis supervisor who would not sufficiently vet the scientific claims.

Wilyman’s 2015 thesis paper is a weighty tome, at over 390 pages. Yet among its many claims of global conspiracies, claims of the inefficacy of vaccines, and challenges to established germ theory, it devotes none to substantiating those with data or other credible evidence.

The propagation of harmful nonsense is not new territory for Wilyman. Her anti-vaccination website is teeming with dangerous anti-vaccine misinformation. It promotes unfounded fear of government vaccination programs, the medical establishment, and worldwide charity and health organisations.

Nor is the University of Wollongong a new forum for Wilyman’s crackpot anti-science views. In 2007 they granted her a PhD in Master of Science in Population Health, and proceeded to publish (in 2011, in July 2013, in August 2013) her opinions on vaccination programs.

Despite Wilyman’s PhD being in a science field, and despite these publications casting fears about the science of vaccination, they were given the imprimatur of University of Wollongong’s school of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Clearly, and perhaps unsurprisingly given their inappropriate field of publication, they were not subject to any review by anyone qualified in the field of vaccination and public health.

That a noted anti-vaccination campaigner would seek the authority of science for those views is not shocking. What should be shocking, and is to the detriment of public understanding of science generally and public health specifically, is that the University of Wollongong grants these dangerous opinions the veneer of scientific authority. They grant Wilyman the title “Master of Science”, and publish a lengthy PhD thesis promoting her easily-falsified claims.

The thesis supervisor for the 2015 paper, Brian Martin, is well known to Wollongong University as someone who has supervised many past papers without fulfilling the duty to check their scientific claims. His public position on the reactions to Wilyman’s 2015 thesis fails to address the substantive complaints: that the paper contains numerous scientific errors that are easily discovered by experts in the field of vaccination and public health, yet was approved by Martin regardless.

If the University of Wollongong wants its students to have credible qualifications, it must publicly commit to never assign research students to crackpots like Brian Martin who demonstrate no regard for scientific truth. It must exercise – and demonstrate publicly its ongoing exercise of – procedures of critical and skeptical enquiry into any thesis or publication, by known experts in the fields addressed.

That has clearly not been done in the case of Wilyman’s paper, and the University of Wollongong’s reputation is rightly tarred as a result. Worse, the University’s negligent publication of dangerous falsehoods actively undercuts public respect for academic qualifications, and science in general.

Next meet-up: SitP 2015-03-23

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 23 March, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mount View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Roger Ebert, A Quintessence of Dust

Roger Ebert, film critic, has died at the age of 70. Image: Roger Ebert / WikiMedia Commons?

Roger Ebert, film critic, has died at the age of 70.
Image: Roger Ebert / WikiMedia Commons

Pulitzer prize winning film critic Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70, according to his long-time employer, The Chicago Sun-Times. While Ebert will be most well known for his prolific and engaging film reviews it is worth noting he also wrote many articles extolling science and skepticism.

In 2009, in an article warning that “new agers and creationists” have no place in politics, he wrote:

Yet they assure everyone they are “a typical Gemini,” were royalty in a previous lifetime, have a personal spirit guide, and have been told they will develop a serious disease but will recover from it. I rarely hear anyone share that they were a toilet cleaner in a previous lifetime and have a year to live at the most.

– New Agers and Creationists should not be President

Roger wrote extensively about evolution, pseudoscience and religion. Often, his writing could almost be confused for that of James Randi:

As a person who firmly disbelieves in woo-woo, I couldn’t believe he would subscribe to such flim-flammery, but I dutifully obtained the “Jungian tarot deck,” in which the ancient symbols of the tarot are seen as manifestations of our collective unconscious.

– A Dangerous Method

But in my opinion, probably one of Ebert’s finest writings was written in 2011, on the magnitude and beauty of the Universe. It’s a long read, but it’s strikingly eloquent and captivating.

I read articles about astronomy and physics. It doesn’t matter to me how much I understand. Their buried message is always the same: Somewhere out there, or somewhere deep inside, there are mysteries of which we perceive only vague shadows, and there are possibly more mysteries within those shadows, continuing indefinitely.

I urge you to read A Quintessence of Dust. Reading Ebert’s wandering thoughts through wonder, evolution, life, death and eventually art is a humbling and inspiring experience. This article, I believe, is a perfect tribute to a remarkable writer, critic, and journalist. As well as a powerful example of the inspirational power of science.

Creationist stakes $10,000 on contest between Bible and evolution

A scene showing humans and dinosaurs together at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Image: WikiMedia Commons.

A scene showing humans and dinosaurs together at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
Image: WikiMedia Commons.

From The Guardian:

A California creationist is offering a $10,000 challenge to anyone who can prove in front of a judge that science contradicts the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

A majority of scientists disavow creationism, but a June 2012 Gallup poll showed that 46% of Americans believed in a literal interpretation of the biblical version of creation. Legislation to allow students to be taught religious versions of the creation of life is currently being considered in four states.

Read the full article here.

I always recommend against reading the comments (to prevent brain explosions) but I think this comment sums the situation up brilliantly:

MissSchlegel: "He has a PhD in kinesiology..." Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.