By Helen Petousis Harris 15/01/2016

“It’s rather like a sociologist who insists that jet aircraft remain aloft only because of a conspiracy between aeronautical engineers and greedy airlines. Perhaps Wollongong already has someone working on such a thesis.”
(Editorial, The Australian)

The antivax rant accepted as a PhD thesis by University of Wollongong is defended by the student’s supervisor Professor Brian Martin. The statements given in this justification serve to illustrate that perhaps Martin is unaware of the facts about infectious diseases, vaccines and immunisation programmes. He argues that Wilyman has revealed four critical points about infectious diseases and immunisation.

First, deaths from infectious diseases had dramatically declined in Australia before the mass introduction of most vaccines, suggesting that vaccination is not the only factor in controlling these diseases.

Strawman argument. It is a well-established fact that clean water and antibiotics have had a profound effect on infectious disease mortality and no one has suggested that vaccination is the only factor in controlling these diseases. Martin (and Wilyman) are trying to give the impression that they are refuting the ‘pro vaccine’ argument, however, this was never an argument put forward by vaccine proponents.

Second, Australian vaccination policies were adopted from a one-size-fits-all set of international recommendations, without consideration of the special ecological conditions in Australia, for example the levels of sanitation and nutrition, and the incidence and severity of diseases.

Nope. Vaccination policies (what vaccines to use, when to give them and to whom) are country specific and based on local epidemiology and available resources. Do you see Australia giving everyone Japanese Encephalitis or yellow fever vaccine on the national programme? No. that is because it is only used in people at risk like travellers. But some countries use these routinely as per recommendations by the WHO. The Australian immunisation schedule is different from the NZ schedule and both are different from the US schedule which is not the same as the UK schedule…and so on.

Third, nearly all research on vaccination is carried out or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in selling vaccines; the conflicts of interest involved in vaccine research can lead to bias in the research design and conclusions drawn.

Really? So what about all the research funded by government health funding agencies, the CDC, regulatory agencies and other contestable funding sources. Just one typical example that Wilyman has ignored, what about the cohort study from Denmark and Sweden looking at autoimmune and neurological events after HPV vaccine that includes almost a million girls.

Funding: This study was supported by a grant from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research and the Danish Medical Research Council. The funding bodies had no role in the study design; the collection, analysis, and interpretation of the data; the writing of the article; and the decision to submit it for publication. All authors are independent from the funding agencies.

I have scrolled though Wilyman’s references, she does not seem interested in literature that assesses vaccine safety or efficacy. But then again her framework is ‘undone research’ so I suppose that would contravene her assumptions, best to just leave them all out!

Fourth, there are important areas of research relevant to vaccination policy that have not been pursued, but should have been; a plausible reason for this “undone science” is that the findings might turn out to be unwelcome to vaccination promoters.

What findings? Wilyman hasn’t done any research. She has not proposed a theory. She has simply regurgitated antivax rhetoric without question – a fact that has already been thoroughly pointed out.

What really leaves me flabbergasted is this statement:

SAVNers and some others apparently believe the only people qualified to comment about vaccination policy are “experts” who have degrees and refereed publications in scientific journals, for example in immunology or epidemiology. A moment’s reflection should reveal the flaw in this claim: being an expert in immunology or epidemiology — usually a narrow aspect of such a field — gives no special insight into vaccination policy, which involves many different areas of knowledge, and includes matters of ethics and politics. If anyone can lay claim to having special knowledge about policy, it is those who have researched policy itself, including critics of the Australian government’s policy such as Judy.

I am fighting the urge to be sarcastic – why would we want pesky experts on immunisation involved here? If we revisit Wilyman’s aim:

…assess the rigour of the claims supporting the efficacy, safety and necessity for the use of an expanding number of vaccines in the Australian Government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP).

Then is it not fair to say that expertise in immunology or epidemiology may actually be a prerequisite?? But ah!, I have had a thought as to why neither Wilyman nor supervisor Martin may think so. It is because of relativism.

Wilyman’s thesis all makes sense if you view it from a relativistic position. Relativism says that all points of view are equally valid and all truth is simply relative to the individual. Using this philosophy I look like Lara Croft – yup, it’s true! I am beginning to like relativism already.

Even better, this makes all moral positions, all religions, all forms of art AND all opinions completely relative just to you. You can decide what is right for yourself and it is equally as right as anyone else’s ‘right’. By this point of reference, all crimes should be assessed based on the viewpoint of the perpetrator, yes?

I conclude that this work is an example of subjective relativism and it ok to have your own facts – perhaps that is a bit like an alternative universe and in Wilyman’s Universe this is the truth.

See other Sciblogs posts on the University of Wollongong thesis here.

Featured image: Flickr CC, European Commission DG ECHO.

0 Responses to “Wilyman’s ‘thesis’ from a relativistic viewpoint?”

  • Martin believes that pharmaceutical companies producing vaccines have a vested interest in ensuring maximum uptake of their products. Vaccines are cheap to produce. Those companies would make a damn sight more money selling drugs to deal with the morbidity induced by VPDs.

    • Indeed. But I guess Martin is right – They most certainly have a vested interest. Our existence with pharma is symbiotic and often in a delicate balance of homeostasis but we need vaccines. They don’t need vaccines to make a profit. Not when there are cardiovascular and erectile dysfunction drugs to peddle every day! Oh yes of course, and antibiotics…and what is a respirator worth? A tetanus jab costs a few dollars. Guess how much three months in intensive care and years of rehabilitation cost?????

  • “First, deaths from infectious diseases had dramatically declined in Australia before the mass introduction of most vaccines, suggesting that vaccination is not the only factor in controlling these diseases.”

    Not to mention that “death” is not a proxy for infections from vaccine preventable illness, nor is it a proxy for “morbidity” or complications of those infectious diseases. The implication is the old anti-vax argument vaccine preventable disease rates were declining anyway using the bait and switch of not looking at recorded epidemics (which would show infection rates were not decreasing from such illnesses as measles) but using what is a modifiable end-point as not only we had better sanitation and clean water available, but better medical care over time including the introduction of anti-biotics to treat such complication as pneumonia from measles.

    It’s not just a strawman, it’s an outright lie. Thanks to all the scibloggers for your takedowns of this, it’s a great resource for those of us that don’t have the time or expertise to really dissect what is wrong with all of this.

  • I keep hoping to hear that this was all just an elaborate hoax!!
    It just sounds far too like the Doctorates from a US Religious so–called “university”

    IF not, then I do think that it is Wollongong University that should be called to account. Heads should roll!!! I am very glad that I did not get my degree from UW, because I would now be utterly ashamed of it.

  • Brian Martin did not say that he agrees with Judy Wilyman’s thesis.
    He described the main arguments in the thesis, but he didn’t say he agreed with them.
    He says “Nor does a supervisor have to agree with a student’s findings.”
    Brian Martin has repeatedly been assumed by critics to agree with Judy Wilyman.
    And he has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t personally have a strong opinion in the vaccination controversy, and that he gets vaccinated himself. He says he wants to defend the AVN because he sees them as underdogs and they have been attacked a lot. He says he is interested in a quality respectful discussion, because he thinks that will result in a better outcome.
    Why not believe him?

    You write
    “Then is it not fair to say that expertise in immunology or epidemiology may actually be a prerequisite?? But ah!, I have had a thought as to why neither Wilyman nor supervisor Martin may think so. It is because of relativism.

    I conclude that this work is an example of subjective relativism”
    What justifies this conclusion?
    Brian Martin says that his interest is in the sociology of controversies – how groups of people interact in controversies. It’s not his business to form a judgement on who’s right in the controversy.

    Brian Martin says
    “When writing in any area, it is good practice to seek comments on drafts from people knowledgeable in the field. I regularly do this in my own research, and Judy does the same. ”
    So he is aware of the need to do this.
    I’ve read part of Judy Wilyman’s thesis. She’s aware of the mainstream position on vaccination, in many cases. But she doesn’t agree with it.
    There are many factual errors in her thesis that various people have pointed out. Also she repeats many bad anti-vax arguments and ignores the counter-arguments. Lots of bias.
    Her thesis should have been free at least of plain factual errors. It needed to be reviewed by a vaccine/immunology expert to remove her plain factual errors and misrepresentations of fact. Apparently the outside expert reviewers were humanities people, not vaccine/immunology experts. That was a major flaw in the process.
    It wasn’t Brian Martin’s job to fact-check her thesis.
    Brian Martin does think that nonexperts can assess scientific research in a sophisticated way. He describes a process of looking for assumptions in scientific research, looking for how scientists frame their ideas, looking for “undone science” – research that should have been done but wasn’t.
    This is a very sophisticated and difficult task, and it’s not clear why Brian Martin thinks a nonexpert can do this well. Especially a very biased nonexpert like Judy Wilyman.
    So what did Brian Martin’s supervision involve? He’s very vague about that. What would be a bad thesis, what would he not allow?
    Maybe Judy Wilyman shouldn’t have been allowed to write a thesis in an area where she has such a strong bias. Maybe she should have been required to analyze some controversy that she’s neutral about.
    The critics should look into what “science and technology studies” are. STS does involve very controversial subjects. A lot of it is subjective, a matter of opinion. So, what are the standards of quality, what does it look like when STS is done well?

  • As a social scientist I am outraged that this thesis was awarded a PhD. Even by the conventions of my discipline it does not past the muster. It is poorly written, and pays no attention to the vast literature regarding public health policy, the sociology of health and illness nor an accurate review of the literature. It contains no original scholarly thought and makes no contribution to the discipline. I am unsure why a academic is a PhD in astrophysics is supervising a social science PhD, but I assure no well-qualified sociologist would pass this (to say nothing of the science). This degree should be immediately revoked.