A few years ago several of us at Sciblogs took objection to one of the trashiest theses we’ve seen. (Which we, naturally enough, trashed.) Now there’s a review of the thesis published in the scientific journal, Vaccine. The review looks a thorough job… and the conclusions don’t look good. Essentially the author’s review of Wilyman’s anti-vaccine thesis review says “fail”.
Politely. But definitely fail.
It’s open-access: anyone can read it.
A review of the review
If I had a criticism of the review it would be it’s too kind. Scientific journals use very polite language, so a conclusion like,
This thesis is notable for its lack of evidence of systematic liter- ature review. Despite its extensive claims, there is no primary research, but there is abundant evidence of strong bias in selecting the literature cited and sometimes outright misrepresentation of facts.
is damning. This basically says this stuff is utter bunkum.
They read the whole thesis—hard work, not something I’d volunteer for! The reviewers are well-qualified to critique the thesis.
The major criticism
A major over-arching criticism is that thesis was not the critical analysis it presented itself to be. The thesis was,
presented as ‘‘A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy”. A critical analysis should consider the merits and faults of an issue and be conducted in a way that is not designed to find only evidence for the writer’s pre-determined conclusions. […]
[…] This thesis does not include methods for assessing the literature, does not discuss aspects of identified studies which may contradict one another, or attempt to establish the quality of relevant studies. Rather, the references used are highly selective, only citing a small number of the available epidemiological studies and clinical trial reports, all of which are interpreted to support conclusions which appear predetermined.
I’m reminded of my own criticism of a report for New Zealand’s Green Party, which with similar shortcomings.
Like Bruning’s review for Steffan Browning
This lack of systematic review is the same objection I offered to the ‘review’ Steffan Browning commissioned for glyphosate. As I wrote at the time,
The report is basically a bought opinion piece, that Steffan Browning knows ahead of time will agree with his views because he’s asked it to.
Extraordinarily (or extraordinarily stupidly), the NZ Green Party are presenting this as evidence-based policy.
Green Party MP Steffan Browning is infamous in NZ for his call to treat Ebola with homeopathy. He eventually lost his natural health brief for his trouble. And interesting footnote is how valedictory speech skewed seemingly off-script. It started sensibly enough thanking people, then diverged to reclaiming things he had publicly stood down on. These included saying treating Ebola with homeopathy was an option. The Speaker of the House finally ended it, saying he’d run out of time.
Browning’s commissioned review of glyphosate has the same fault of drawing together articles favouring a preset focus or goal. The outcome is equally biased. As I wrote,
Evidence-based policy should start with defined questions to be addressed, obtain all evidence related to the questions, filter this evidence for relevance and quality, and finally determine what conclusions can be drawn. It needs to be done by someone with sufficient expertise to aweigh the evidence, and to assess the soundness and suitability of the research.
Wilyman’s thesis, like Bruning’s work for Browning, looks politically motivated rather than evidential.
How does stuff like that get accepted as a PhD thesis? As far as I know there still isn’t an explanation.
Other articles at Code for life
About the featured image
Mary Wortley Montagu, 1789–1762, was a woman of literature (and seemingly leisure). She was also famous for her advocacy for variolation. Variolation or inoculation was an early predecessor of vaccination. Hers is an interesting story I may return to sometime.
Source: Wikipedia, public domain. Artist credits: S. Hollyer after J. B. Wandesforde. (Image cropped.)