Science, Technology, and Society | Vol. 3 / No. 11.3

H1N1, Swine Flu, or "That Conspiracy to Market Tamiflu" | Photo: NIAID, CC BY 2.0
H1N1, Swine Flu, or “That Conspiracy to Market Tamiflu” | Photo: NIAID, CC BY 2.0

As many of you know, I’m an avid proponent of non-scientists engaging with science. Sometimes that means engaging directly with scientific research and sometimes it means asking experts for help when you don’t understand. A lot of the time it means getting things wrong and eating humble pie. But even so, to understand our world you have to try to engage with it — whether you have a science degree or not.

The reason I’m saying this once again is because Judy Wilyman is back in the news. Wilyman is a famous (read: infamous) anti-vaxxer with an axe to grind, and she’s getting a PhD from the University of Wollongong in Australia. Her thesis apparently includes a great deal of conspiracy thinking — for instance claiming that the 2009 swine flu epidemic was “declared by a secret WHO committee that had ties to pharmaceutical companies” as a way of drumming up profits — and other kinds of anti-vaccine arguments we’ve heard before. “The diseases for which vaccines are recommended have not been demonstrated to be a serious risk to the majority of children in Australia,” she writes (for instance) neglecting the fact that nobody says that the measles (for one) is “a serious risk to the majority of children” (though it might be) but rather that it’s a serious risk to a much, much larger number of children than is in any way, shape, or form necessary because vaccines exist and are safe. And the university is giving her a doctorate for this.

And whenever something this stupid happens, people start asking aloud why non-scientists are even allowed to study science-related things. I had a nice discussion about this over at the Mostly Science facebook page (you should go like it, they’re good people) and thought I’d extrapolate on it here a bit.

What bothers me about Wilyman isn’t that she’s a non-scientists studying scientific things. What bothers me — I mean, aside from the fact that she’s spreading anti-vaccination propaganda thinly veiled beneath an academic veneer — what bothers me is that she’s doing it so poorly, and with so little critical evaluation, that it’s giving scientifically-interested non-scientists a terrible name.

Wilyman is in Wollongong’s department of Science, Technology, and Society. It’s an interdisciplinary department specifically to allow non-scientists to work on scientific topics, such as how (for instance) vaccination and politics are interacting. It’s a great idea. You don’t need to be a medical doctor to be able to study that. BUT.

You DO need to be held to an appropriately high standard. You can’t go around citing old studies that haven’t found a link between HPV and cervical cancer when there are many more recent ones that do show that link. You can’t on the surface go around pretending to be agnostic on the vaccine “issue” when you actively promote the most insane whackadoo things I’ve ever heard someone say about vaccines. (Seriously: Tenpenny mentions David Icke in her ramblings, and it’s not to say “Icke is a madman who believes shapeshifting lizard people are taking over the world’s top positions.”)

And if you run such a program, you cannot allow it to be dragged through the mud by letting this kind of thing go unchallenged.

But her supervisor is Brian Martin, who seems to firmly believe in the “teach the controversy” mindset, publishing an article back in 2010 (in something called “Living Wisdom” ) about the attacks on the anti-science Anti-Vaccine Network in Australia — namely how they shouldn’t be attacked and how they can defend themselves. Sigh. I’m sure he feels he’s doing the world a service by not immediately discrediting Wilyman for her views, but ye gods man. This is not helpful.

So Wollongong: have someone external go over her thesis. Even to a layperson it appears quite troubling. And if it ever reaches a point where it no longer contains outdated information, half-truths, and conspiracy theories, then maybe consider accepting it. It’s one thing to “uphold the principle of academic freedom for staff and students,” but it’s another thing to accept research that’s patently wrong. So please, reconsider. Otherwise you’re giving yourself (and all science-interested non-scientists) a bad name.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.