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.