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.

Unhealthy skepticism — When a request for evidence sounds like a hostile accusation

How should we ask for verifiable evidence from someone whose claims, if true, make them and others like them more vulnerable? Simple requests for information can easily be perceived as hostile accusations of fraud.

When one public figure is subject to claims of fraud, and those who previously supported them are shamed for not being more skeptical, people with similar claims often get defensive in a form of collateral damage.

The author, Sarah Darmody, has promoted a book about her cancer and received donations to support her, all the while looking vibrant and healthy. Belle Gibson has done the same.

But in the wake of claims Gibson lied about having cancer, Darmody asks how public scrutiny could be expected to be better:

I [Sarah Darmody] spent a year talking about cancer while looking well. No one ever asked to see a letter from my doctor. No one asked where my surgery was performed. No one questioned why I looked so healthy after enduring what amounted to a debilitating double amputation. No one asked who my physiotherapist was. No one suggested that my then strange-sounding malady might be self-serving bollocks. No one asked to see my scars.

So when I read comments that the well-meaning publishers and supporters of Belle Gibson should have been somehow icily vigilant; that Gibson’s apparent health and youth and unusual-sounding diagnoses should have led to immediate fact-checking and distrust, I want to ask, how? How exactly do you say to a young person who tells you that they were ill and are now looking to help others, “Sorry, I just don’t buy it…”?

On one level, Darmody’s question has an easy response: Don’t say that. Asking for specific evidence doesn’t ever need to be phrased as “you’re a fraud”, it can just as easily come as earnest requests for information.

James Randi has shown us the way for decades. Not in his rightly-hostile castigation of people demonstrated to be frauds; I mean, rather, in the moment of asking questions to claimants. You can look through his countless videos where he actually speaks with the people making extraordinary claims. His questions are not phrased accusingly; they overwhelmingly are polite but insistent requests for specific information about the claims.

Sarah Darmody’s question asks something more insightful, though. The Randi mode of making no accusation while asking for verifiable information is easy to phrase in the form of an honest question, but very difficult to address to the person without it being perceived as a challenge, an accusation of bullshit.

So she asks: How do we exercise critical inquiry without making the claimant, no matter what the truth of their claims, defensive and uncooperative? If we don’t actually get verifiable information out of them, that doesn’t tell us anything useful: it can easily mean they are truthful but unwilling to bear a perceived insult. So it’s counter-productive to provoke that reaction when the claims are true.

It is a good question, and one that is at the core of the skeptical mission: learning how to promote critical inquiry and ask people to reserve judgement in the absence of positive evidence, yet at the same time not make people feel impugned by our (typically repeated) requests for verifiable information.

This is essential to the job of the journalist, of course. My position with regard to publishers, reporters, TV hosts, etc. is that those with whom Gibson or Darmody speak should, with all the benefit of their journalistic training, ask hard questions to get verifiable answers, and proportion their support for the claims to the quality of the supporting evidence.

It is the shame of our current media landscape that it cares so little for journalism that they almost never do this; the times when they do are laudable, but they are also rare exceptions.

For the rest of us? I think we would all do well to keep Darmody’s question in mind, and take care to think how our requests for verifiable evidence sound to those who, even if truthful, will be alert for accusations of falsehood.

We can usually find a way to ask without being perceived as hostile, if we acknowledge the context and tone of our question. Learning to do this better can make us better skeptics, because we actually get more specific answers this way.