Category Archives: academic freedom

An orchestrated attack on a PhD thesis

Judy Wilyman, an outspoken critic of the Australian government’s vaccination policy, undertook a PhD at the University of Wollongong. She graduated in December 2015.

On 11 January, her PhD thesis was posted on the university’s digital repository, Research Online. On the same day, anticipating an attack on Judy and the thesis, I posted a document titled “Judy Wilyman, PhD: how to understand attacks on a research student“, which turned out to be remarkably accurate in characterising the nature of the attack, which commenced within 24 hours.

The attack included a series of biased articles in The Australian by journalist Kylar Loussikian, numerous hostile blogs and tweets, a one-sided Wikipedia page, and a petition. Never before have I heard of such an outpouring of rage over the award of a PhD in Australia.

Loussikian-story

As a sociologist, this phenomenon is fascinating in its assumptions and motivations. I am hardly a neutral observer: I was Judy’s principal supervisor at the University of Wollongong, and quite a bit of the outrage has been directed at me, my supervision and my research. On the other hand, I have considerable inside knowledge, enabling insight about the claims being made.

Given the volume of hostile commentary about Judy’s thesis, it is not possible for me to undertake a comprehensive analysis of it in a short time. Therefore my observations here are preliminary. Rather than try to provide detailed evidence to document my generalisations, I merely illustrate them with a few comments made by signers of the petition against the university and the PhD. Down the track, I hope to provide a more detailed response, including to some of the treatments that address matters of substance.

SAVN attacks

The outrage over Judy becoming Dr Wilyman can best be understood by studying the operations of the group now calling itself Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network or SAVN. Since 2009, SAVN has been attempting to censor and discredit any public criticism of vaccination, using misrepresentation, ridicule, complaints and harassment, as I have documented in a series of articles. SAVN’s agenda has been to cleanse public discourse of dissent about vaccination. Judy Wilyman has been one of SAVN’s many targets.

savn

Judy had been under attack by SAVNers for several years. Therefore, I and others at the University of Wollongong correctly assumed there would be a hostile response to her graduation. Consider two hypotheses for how I and university officials would behave in this situation.

Hypothesis 1. We would push through a sub-standard thesis.

Hypothesis 2. We would take extra care to ensure that the thesis was of requisite quality and that all university processes were followed carefully. This would include sending the thesis to technical experts and choosing external examiners of high standing.

To me, it beggars belief that anyone would believe hypothesis 1, especially given that outsiders lack information about the operation of university processes. Yet in practice it seems that many outsiders, based on limited knowledge, assume that the thesis must be no good, my supervision was inadequate and the university was derelict.

The rush to condemn the thesis and the university can be understood this way: opponents assume it is impossible to undertake a scholarly critique of vaccination policy (or at least impossible for Judy to do so). Therefore, they condemn everyone involved in the process.

Furthermore, opponents do not acknowledge that scholars can differ in their evaluation of evidence and arguments. Instead, in various scientific controversies, including the vaccination debate, dissident experts are subject to attack.

Agenda-setting

Within media studies, there is a well known and widely discussed view that mass media do not tell people what to think, but are quite influential in determining what people think about. The articles by Kylar Loussikian in The Australian apparently were highly influential in getting a lot of readers to think about Judy Wilyman’s PhD. Their agenda was set by the mass media yet, as noted within agenda-setting research, few readers realised their focus of attention had been so influenced.

UoWooWoo

Associated with media agenda-setting is the significance of framing, which is about the perspective from which people see an issue. Loussikian’s articles framed the issue as about shortcomings of a PhD thesis and the credibility of the student, the supervisor, the examiners and the university. This frame was adopted by most (though far from all) commentators.

It is an interesting thought experiment to consider the likely response to a differently framed set of articles about the thesis, in which the central issue was an attack on academic freedom by SAVN over a number of years. However, The Australian was unlikely to adopt this frame. Indeed, a couple of years earlier, an Australian journalist had adopted SAVN’s agenda against Judy.

Assumptions about scholarship

Many of the attackers seem to have assumed that scholarship and criticism of vaccination are incompatible. How else could they justify condemning the university? An alternative view is to support current Australian government vaccination policy while accepting that it can be subject to a scholarly critique.

Respectful-Insolence

SAVNers for years have proclaimed that there is no debate about vaccination, by which they mean that there are no valid objections to the dominant view. To acknowledge that a scholarly critique is possible is to accept there is something to debate. Apparently this possibility is so threatening that it must be met by denigration and abuse.

Looking at the thesis

In “Judy Wilyman, PhD” I anticipated the sorts of attacks that would be made. This was not difficult: I simply listed the methods that had been used previously. Here’s what I wrote in a section titled “What to look for in criticism”:

When people criticise a research student’s work, it is worth checking for tell-tale signs indicating when these are not genuine concerns about quality and probity but instead part of a campaign to denigrate viewpoints they oppose.

  1. They attack the person, not just their work.
  2. They concentrate on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points.
  3. They make no comparisons with other students or theses or with standard practice, but rather make criticisms in isolation or according to their own assumed standards.
  4. They assume that findings contrary to what they believe is correct must be wrong or dangerous or both.

The attacks on Judy’s research exhibit every one of these signs. Her opponents attack her as a person, repeatedly express outrage over certain statements she has made while ignoring the central themes in her work, make no reference to academic freedom or standard practice in university procedures, and simply assume that she must be wrong.

My preliminary observation is that most of the hostile commentary about the thesis exhibits one or more of these signs.

petition

There have been numerous derogatory comments made about Judy, me and the university, most without providing any evidence and many based on misrepresentations of the thesis. Proponents of evidence-based medicine might ponder whether it is legitimate to condemn a thesis without reading it, condemn a supervisor without knowing anything about what happened during the supervision process, and condemn a university without having any information about the operation of university procedures. (Tell-tale sign 1)

Some of the opponents of the thesis have referred to comments made by Judy in other contexts. Likewise, questions have been raised about some of my other research. This is the technique of attacking the person in order to discredit their work. (Tell-tale sign 1)

When raising concerns about a piece of research, the normal scholarly route is to send them to the author, inviting a reply, not to immediately publicise them via journalists. An alternative is to submit them to a scholarly journal for publication, in which case many editors would invite the author to reply.

Alleging there are errors in a piece of work does not on its own challenge the central arguments in the work. For this, addressing those arguments directly is necessary. Very few of the critics of Judy’s thesis have addressed any of its central themes. (Tell-tale sign 2)

The intensive scrutiny of Judy’s thesis on its own does not enable a judgement of its quality, because it is necessary to benchmark against other comparable theses. None of her critics has attempted a similarly intensive scrutiny of any other thesis, much less a set of theses large enough to enable a fair assessment of her work. Experienced examiners have assessed many theses, as supervisors and/or examiners, and are well placed to make the required judgements about quality. This is in stark contrast to outside critics, many of whom lack any experience of thesis supervision or examination. (Tell-tale sign 3)

Why is there such a hue and cry over Judy’s thesis? Many theses tackling controversial topics or taking non-standard positions are published every year. Many of the critics of the thesis apparently believe no thesis proposal critical of vaccination should be accepted at an Australian university, and that for such a thesis to be passed necessarily reflects adversely on the university. The thinking behind this seems to be based on the assumption that criticism of Australian government vaccination policy is dangerous and should be censored. (Tell-tale sign 4)

I care. I believe in freedom of thought and speech, however this unscientific bullshit has to stop. It’s endangering lives — Kate Hillard, Broome, Australia

The net effect of these techniques is striking. A group of campaigners, with a well-established agenda of attacking critics of vaccination, sets out to discredit a thesis. Disdaining accepted scholarly means of critique, they feed material to a journalist. They take sentences from the thesis out of context and assert they are wrong, going public before offering the author an opportunity to reply. They ignore the central themes of the thesis. They show no awareness of scholarly expectations in the field, instead asserting the superiority of their own judgements over those of the examiners. Based on this charade of intellectual critique, they then condemn the thesis, the student, the supervisor and the university in an orchestrated campaign.

The role of expertise

SAVNers and quite a few other commentators state or assume that vaccination policy is a scientific issue, rather than one including a complex mixture of science, ethics and politics. These commentators then jump to the conclusion that only scientific experts are qualified to make judgements about vaccination policy. There is a contradiction in their discourse, though, because few of these commentators themselves have relevant scientific expertise, yet they feel entitled to make pronouncements in support of vaccination. So their assumption is that anyone, with relevant credentials or not, can legitimately support vaccination policy but no one without relevant scientific expertise is entitled to criticise it. They ignore the significance of policy expertise.

Wikipedia-Judy-Wilyman

This is a familiar theme within scientific controversies: critics of the epistemologically dominant view are dismissed because they are not suitably qualified. There is another way to look at policy issues: all citizens should be able to have an input, especially those with a stake in the outcomes. This participatory view about science policy has been well articulated over several decades, but few of those commenting about Australian vaccination policy even seem to recognise it exists.

Many opponents of the thesis and critics of the university have declared this issue is not about academic freedom but about academic standards. This claim would be more convincing if these opponents had ever made scholarly contributions about academic freedom or if they were not making self-interested judgements about their own behaviour. Their actions show their agenda is suppression of dissent.

The SAVN message

What is the implication of SAVN’s campaign against Judy Wilyman? And why do SAVNers and others continue to attack the University of Wollongong despite lacking any concrete evidence of any shortcomings in the university’s processes? There is one underlying message and two audiences. The message is that no university should consider allowing a research student (or at least an outspoken research student) to undertake a study critical of vaccination.

The first audience is the University of Wollongong. The second audience is other universities, which are being warned off critical studies of vaccination, or indeed of any other medical orthodoxy, by the example being set by the attack on the University of Wollongong.

There is also another message, which is along the lines of “Don’t mess with SAVN. We will launch a barrage of abuse, ridicule and complaints, and use our connections with the media and the medical profession, to assail anyone who crosses us.”

The original reason I became involved in the Australian vaccination debate is that I saw SAVN’s agenda as dangerous to free speech. If adopted more widely, SAVN’s approach would stifle discussion on a range of issues.

I am therefore buoyed by the support I’ve received from my colleagues, including senior figures, at the University of Wollongong, who believe in the importance of open debate and of scholarship that challenges conventional wisdom.

It is apparent that academics and universities need to do more to explain what they do and to explain the meaning and significance of academic freedom.

Postscript

See also my other writings about attacks on Judy and her thesis.

An online mobbing

Tom Flanagan was mobbed online. His experience provides several sorts of lessons.

Tom Flanagan
Tom Flanagan

Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist, worked for 45 years at the University of Calgary. He became a prominent public figure, appearing on television and writing columns for newspapers and magazines. He also had experience in the political system, having served as campaign manager for several politicians seeking office.

Along the way, Flanagan made some enemies. Much of his research related to First Nations and their claims over land, and he took a position contrary to activists in the area. Flanagan’s political leanings might be characterised as conservative: he had managed campaigns for conservative politicians.

On 27 February 2013, Flanagan gave a talk at the University of Lethbridge. Unknown to him, some First Nation activists attended and planned to use the talk to discredit him. They secretly recorded his talk and asked him a question about an extraneous topic, about which he had once made a passing comment: child pornography.

In the several hours it took Flanagan to drive home the next morning, a social media storm blew up, leaving his reputation in tatters. An extract of his talk, out of context, had been posted on YouTube with the misleading tagline “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” Before long, he was widely denounced, including by Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, for whom Flanagan had once been campaign manager, by the premier of Alberta, and by numerous mainstream media outlets, with front-page stories.

MacDougall tweet
A hostile tweet

Flanagan soon lost many of the connections he had built up over the years. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cancelled his contract and his own university put out a weak-kneed media release.

Several things about this storm of protest especially annoyed Flanagan. First, he had only made passing comments about child pornography; it wasn’t a topic he had carefully investigated. Second, he had been speaking to an academic audience, in his teacher role in which he tried to stimulate thinking about the topic, but his enemies had treated it as a political opportunity to catch him out and discredit him.

Third, his views on child pornography had been seriously misrepresented. He opposed child pornography, and had only said that penalties for merely viewing it (in Canada, a minimum of several months in prison) might be too stiff. Fourth, those who denounced him and his views had not waited to hear Flanagan’s perspective before rushing to make public comment.

Vulnerability to online mobbing

Mobbing is collective bullying. It’s when a group of people combine to attack a target by abuse, undermining, sidelining, defaming and otherwise causing harm to a person’s morale and reputation. Most commonly, mobbing occurs in workplaces, when a group of workers — usually including the boss, though not always — use verbal and physical methods against a fellow worker. Flanagan experienced a different sort of mobbing. His attackers were online, whereas his colleagues were largely supportive of him.

Flanagan in his book Persona Non Grata (discussed below) says several factors were involved in the online mobbing he experienced. One is that the news cycle has sped up enormously. Before the Internet, it would take a day or two for a story to be taken up widely. Now it can occur in minutes. In the face of a crowd baying for blood, politicians and public bodies did not want to wait a day for claims to be checked out. Instead, they made statements immediately to reduce the potential harm to themselves of being seen as sympathetic to Flanagan’s alleged views.

Another factor is that Flanagan had enemies who were unscrupulous. They set him up with a leading question, made a recording without telling him, produced a clip omitting context, posted it on YouTube with a misleading label and started raising the alert about it. Most people never acquire enemies like this. Flanagan, by being a public commentator who was willing to challenge orthodox views in some areas, was vulnerable.

A third factor in Flanagan’s case was moral panic, which is widespread alarm about an issue out of all proportion to its actual harm. In his book, Flanagan traces the evolution of moral panics over child sexual abuse, including claims about Satanic rituals at US preschools and claims based on recovered memories, in which innocent workers and parents were charged with crimes and some of them imprisoned despite lack of any material evidence. Child pornography, he says, is the latest version of this genre of moral panic. By making comments questioning the severe penalties for viewing child pornography, Flanagan entered territory in which the merest association with a topic can create a stigma.

keep-calm-and-morally-panic

Finally, Flanagan says online mobbing occurs because so few people check out the facts before passing judgement. Hundreds of people who didn’t know Flanagan personally were willing to condemn him without hearing his side of the story. Even worse, some individuals who knew him well, sometimes for many years, condemned him without hearing his side first. The rush to judgement overwhelmed their critical capacity: they assumed he was guilty as charged and apparently were afraid of being seen to support him, so they joined the attack.

Defending

Flanagan says that if he had been expecting an attack and had been closely monitoring social media, he might have been able to organise resistance at the very beginning and prevent the worst consequences. However, his attackers had operated surreptitiously. While driving home, listening to music, he received initial word of the media storm, but was not well placed to mount a concerted response. Anyway, why should someone like him — an academic who had just given a guest lecture at another university — have to be constantly monitoring social media just in case of adverse comments?

When he got home, he discovered the scale and seriousness of the attack and started responding. Luckily, he still had friends and supporters, and he was able to write explanatory articles in several influential publications. Furthermore, his colleagues at the University of Calgary were largely supportive. Flanagan, having been a campaign manager for several political candidates, knew quite a lot about media dynamics and management, far more than some others who have been targets of virtual mobbing. Even so, he felt overwhelmed, noting that a rushed response, while under siege and before he obtained full information, might make things even worse.

One of Flanagan’s sympathisers arranged an opportunity to write a book, and that is what he did. Before the end of the year, he finished writing Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014). Flanagan had written many previous books, so he was quite capable of such a rapid yet considered response.

 persona_non_grata_book_cover.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

Persona Non Grata

Flanagan’s book is a powerful account of his experiences and an indictment of his attackers. One thing that makes the book powerful is his clear, engaging narrative. His treatment is careful and measured, with some degree of outrage to be sure, but more along the lines of being a concerned investigation into a problem about which he has first-hand experience.

By being clear, informative, calm and readable, Persona Non Grata will reach audiences who had never heard about Flanagan before and who would be unsympathetic to his political views. I wrote an article, “When you’re criticised,” on how to respond to attacks, recommending writing a response that is clear, calm and factual, and that is what Flanagan has done in his book.

One of the features of Persona Non Grata is a chapter on penalties for possessing child pornography. As he describes, he had never had more than a passing interest in this topic, but because a false representation of his views was the pretext for mobbing him, he started investigating further. He addresses various arguments and, while expressing his abhorrence at the production of child pornography, and his personal distaste for it, he affirms his previous tentative view that mandatory jail sentences for only possessing or viewing child pornography may be excessive. This is his careful, considered riposte to those who mobbed him.

Academic freedom

In the urgency of the initial online mobbing, the University of Calgary, Flanagan’s long-time employer, issued a statement that was pathetically weak. Flanagan was especially disappointed that an academic institution would put out such a statement without waiting a few extra hours to consult with him. So in Persona Non Grata, Flanagan devotes a chapter to academic freedom.

He gives one of the most cogent accounts of the arguments for academic freedom in the classroom that I have read. Most studies of academic freedom focus on research, inquiry and public comment. Flanagan, in giving attention to teaching, spells out the justification for academics being given the opportunity to teach what they want in the way they want, as well as to speak out on issues of public importance. He is well aware that academics are inhibited and constrained in various ways, and gives good reasons to continue claiming academic freedom as an important contribution to students and society.

Professors have to have room to discover what works well for them, in their discipline, with their personality, with their particular bundle of strengths and weaknesses. Typical undergraduate students at a large university will be exposed to perhaps three dozen instructors in the course of getting a bachelor’s degree. Out of those three dozen, they will probably find a small handful that seemed especially memorable and another handful that seemed like a complete waste of time or worse. But the variety gives all students a chance to find at least a few inspirational professors whose memory can be cherished for a lifetime. If that doesn’t happen, the student has been cheated. (pp. 162–163)

Flanagan tells about some of the students in his classes over the years, and what careers they have entered, many of them taking different political trajectories than Flanagan himself.

Conclusion

Quite a number of individuals have been caught in a whirlwind of online abuse and condemnation, which harms their reputations and careers far out of proportion to their alleged misdemeanours, as astutely described by one of the leading researchers into academic mobbing, Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues. Tom Flanagan has produced the most insightful and readable account available of what it is like to be a target of an online mob. In Persona Non Grata he has shown how to rise above the abuse and respond in a calm, reflective fashion that is the exact opposite of the way he was treated.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Zoë Barker and Ian Miles for helpful feedback on drafts.