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What is a PhD worth?

In late 2015 the University of Wollongong accepted a PhD thesis titled "A critical analysis of the Australian government's rationale for its vaccination policy", written by Judy Wilyman. She will now be awarded a doctorate.

There are three players in the drama - Dr Wilyman, Professor Brian Martin who supervised the process, and the University of Wollongong which awarded the degree.

I should start off by countering one of the criticisms that have been made of the thesis - that the research was conducted in a Humanities department. This is actually irrelevant. (He would say that, wouldn't he? He has a BA.) It is perfectly legitimate to investigate science from outside the world of science, and in fact most of the most famous and well-known philosophers of science were not themselves scientists. The real criticism is that the thesis is not of the academic quality expected for the granting of a doctorate from a legitimate university.

Let's look at the three players individually.

Dr Judy Wilyman spent a decade working on this. I have read the thesis, well, most of it anyway (at 390 pages it is only slightly shorter than my paperback copy of Darwin's The Origin Of Species), but the standard of "research" can probably be summed up by the fact that the second sentence in the abstract repeats one of the standard diversions used by anti-vaccination campaigners worldwide: "Deaths and illnesses to infectious diseases were significantly reduced due to environmental and lifestyle reforms prior to the widespread use of most vaccines in the mid-20th century". Dr Wilyman is and always has been an opponent of vaccines, and the thesis is merely a regurgitation of the nonsense we have been hearing forever, including conspiracy theories such as that the Australian government vaccination policy is informed by a conspiracy between the WHO and Big Pharma. We knew what she was going to say even before we had a chance to read it.

The "Publications in support of this thesis" include a link to a television show which quoted Ms Wilyman, with authorship attributed to Ms Wilyman (the actual author was journalist Anna Salleh), a paper in the journal Medical Veritas (a publication which is vehemently opposed to vaccination), a presentation at a conference run by an organisation which has run another conference specifically devoted to the dangers of radiation from mobile phones, and a couple of papers published in a journal produced by an Australian college of alternative medicine. (I couldn't find out too much about the college because their website was blocked by my antivirus program for trying to install malware on my computer.) As I said, I didn't have to read far into the thesis before encountering red flags.

Professor Brian Martin reacted to criticism of the thesis not by addressing the substance of the criticism but by accusing all critics of being bullies and crying "freedom of speech". These seem to be special of interests of his lately, and a previous paper he wrote about people bullying the Australian Vaccination Network was submitted as evidence in at least two court hearings. (In both cases the magistrate ruled that it was inadmissible.) On the day that acceptance of the PhD thesis was announced he pre-emptively published a paper accusing anybody who might have something bad to say about the thesis of doing so with an ulterior motive. It is usually the job of the candidate to defend a doctoral thesis, not the supervising academic, and in any case any defence should be based on the quality of the work. By rebutting all criticism as simply being examples of bullying, Professor Martin is diverting the conversation away from where it should be going. As supervisor, he should have made a major contribution to the quality of the work but it seems that even he can't defend it.

Yes, academic freedom requires that unpopular or disruptive views must be freely expressed, but that doesn't mean that anything goes and that opinions and prejudices can be presented as fact without supporting evidence or when any evidence is presented that it is selected by a firm and consistent application of confirmation bias. Freedom of speech might be the fundamental freedom, but it doesn't mean you can just make stuff up and call it research.

The University of Wollongong is included because by allowing this thesis to be accepted it has tarnished the qualifications of everyone who has received a higher degree from the institution in the past and those who will do so in the future. The value of any qualification is inextricably linked to the standards set by and the reputation of the issuing institution, and the publicity surrounding this case could lead to employers reasonably questioning whether a degree from the University of Wollongong has any value at all.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the March 2016 edition of Australasian Science

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