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The Wollongong antivaccination PhD thesis: an informal assessment of its social science content

The University of Wollongong appears to have awarded a PhD for a thesis to that argues against the health benefits of vaccination. Written by a person named Judy Wilyman and entitled A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy, it’s already garnered a lot of criticism for being antivaccine-pseudoscience. As many have pointed out, this thesis wasn’t submitted for a PhD in any natural science field (let alone one that might require actual medical knowledge about vaccines), but under the University of Wollongong’s humanities banner. It’s the responsibility of the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, to be exact.

There is actually a tradition of studying science itself as a social practice rather than a philosophy or method of gathering knowledge. Actually, there are several. There’s the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), which later merged with general technology studies, to become Science and Technology Studies (STS), and there’s also a field calling itself the political sociology of science, which I’ll get to shortly.

There’s been some controversy over studying scientific practice in this way, as the research framework for these studies often implicitly or explicitly claims that the truth claims of science are relative, or at least not as divorced from social context as proponents of science usually claim. I really hope that the publication of this PhD thesis doesn’t suggest that any social inquiry into science should automatically be disregarded..

While I do think it’s important to demonstrate errors that Wilyman makes around the state of scientific knowledge regarding vaccination, I also think it important, for the sake of the integrity of the field of social science and the humanities generally, to determine whether this thesis lives up to that field of knowledge’s standards as well. As a humanities/social inquiry student, it’s in my own self-interest.My own, admittedly far from well-educated, assessment of thesis is that it fails those standards.

Though it isn’t really my area of expertise, I’ve tried to trace down some of the sources this thesis used, specifically from the academic literature around social study of science, to see how well it was used. Most this seems to show up in chapter 8 of the thesis, where Wilyman offers a definition of ‘unsound science’. This concept comes from peer-reviewed literature. But from my reading of that literature, Wilyman is using the concept incorrectly.

As pointed out by others, several of the books Wilyman relies on are not of an academic standard: they are polemics rather than well-argued assessments. I won’t address those. In chapter 8, sources that do have academic credibility in the social study of science include Hess (2007;2009), Gross (2007), and Frickel et al. (2010). Together, these sources articulate the concept of ‘undone science’ that Wilyman uses to claim that scientific research on vaccination has been compromised. I think she’s misusing it.

The term ‘undone science’ comes from a newish field of study, called the political sociology of science. According to Hess (2009, p. 309), this field of study “draws attention to the politics of research agendas and the ways in which choices about scientific knowledge are outcomes of broader societal conflicts and coalitions involving not only research communities but also governments, industries and social movements”. The approach doesn’t embrace the utter scientific relativism of, say, the Strong Programme of SSK, but it does insist that scientists’ decisions about what should be researched, and why, can’t be divorced from “unscientific” influences like availability of research funding, and opportunities for recognition and prestige from peers. Scientific progress, in this framework, isn’t linear. It’s opportunistic. And there are areas of research, entire fields of potential scientific inquiry, that not only aren’t pursued due to the existing political incentives around actual scientific practice, but are presumed explicitly not worth pursuing. This is ‘undone science’.

I need to stress another aspect of this concept of undone science as it appears in the literature, precisely because Wilyman doesn’t mention it at all. Fricken et al (2010, p. 444) describe undone science as “areas of research that are left unfunded, incomplete, or generally ignored, but that social movements or civil society organizations often identify as worthy of more research” (emphasis added). Hess (2007, p. 22) similarly treats ‘undone science’ as primarily an issue brought to light by social organisations: “from the perspectives of..activists and reform-oriented innovators, the science that should get done does not get done because there are structures that keep it from getting done”.

There’s a certain amount of relativism in these statements. What they are not saying is that there’s an objective, universally understandable idea of “science”, which universally serves the public interest, but which gets distorted by institutional interests. Rather, is says that the entire field of science is internally divided by “relations of co-operation and conflict among advocates of different conceptual frameworks, research methods and problem areas” (Hess 2007, p. 27) and externally ‘aligned’, influenced but also able to influence, policy makers and research funders (Hess 2007, p. 44), all while under the scrutiny of exernal actors such as civil society movements (Hess 2007, p. 43). The relationship between all these stakeholders is considered fairly complex, and ripe for empirical study.

All this nuance is utterly lost in Wilyman’s work. She describes undone science as simply “research that is not conducted because institutional barriers are constructed in the political process to prevent it from being done” (Wilyman 2015, p. 195). Her model of undone science is one in which it only appears if “political barriers arise” because “the interests of political, economic and industrial leaders synergise to control the direction of funding for scientific research” (Wilyman 2015, p. 196). This, she claims “occurs at the expense of public interest science”. She presumes that this alleged collusion between government, industry and academia leads to public policy which “select[s] against some areas of science” (Wilyman 2015, p. 198). She then quotes Hess (2007, p. 21) out of context to suggest that because “most politicians do not have an in-depth understanding of scientific issues..the legitimacy of political outcomes therefore depends upon the values inherent in the production of science and in the use of science that has been accepted by all stakeholders” (Wilyman 2015, p. 196).

Hess did indeed point out that policymakers lack scientific knowledge. But he pointed this out to show how it was possible for scientists to escape from constraints on the autonomy of scientific practice. While those who fund research can fund it on the basis of what the funders rather than the scientists want, funders’ lack of technical proficiency means that “they can, to a certain degree, be told what they want” (Hess 2007, p. 44). And rather than an ideal of science which gets perverted to create ‘undone science’, as part of general problem of “selective science”, the political sociology of science approach seems to treats scientific practice as always partially agonistic, and in which there is always some form of undone science in existence.

The case studies of Fricken et al. (2010) seem to bear this out. In their description of a dispute between industry and NGO groups about the viability of a “chlorine sunset”, they illustrate the “paradigms” of research of both the industry groups and the NGOs. Both contain identifiable ‘undone science’, which tend to reflect one another. Illustrating the potential use of such an approach, the paradigms at issue (“risk” vs “challenger”) describe  the political claims made by each group about how research should be performed. The claims at issue are political, not scientific, because they are based on the assumption of what will be found by research before any research has begun: one group assumes that testing of individual chlorine compounds for environmental impact is enough, the other assumes that the class of chemicals as a whole is problematic, and needs to be restricted until each individual one is proven safe. Such a political question is likely intractable, but including the dimension of ‘undone science’ may help clarify it somewhat.

Further, in contrast to Wilyman’s characterisation of a “synergy” of powerful institutional actors ganging up to work against the public interest of the, er, public, Fricken et al (2010) point out that civil society groups can and do act as a break on specific areas of scientific research. An area of research where they found scientists refusing to engage in research, precisely because of the pressure from outside groups, was research involving animal testing. Many scientists, according to the case study they examined, deliberately steered well clear because of the “terrorist” activities of animal rights activists that they feared they would experience. Fricken et al. suggested that stem cell research is similarly steered away from by some scientists due to the activities of right-to-life advocates.

All this is to say that undone science as an academic concept relies on a lot of paradigmatic assumptions about science that Wilyman does not adopt and directly contradicts. The interesting possible relations between partially co-operative and partially antagonistic, partially determined and partially autonomous, elite social groups and science practicioners, is reduced to a morality play between the virtuous public interest that pristine (not “selective”) science serves and the evil profit motives served by villainous governments and industries, and their totally subjugated scientist lackeys. She makes use of Hess’ claim that “funding claims what can be done and what will be done as well as what remains undone”, but utterly ignores his warning that “this argument can turn into a simplistic, externalist form of economic determinism” (Hess 2007, p. 32). In Wilyman’s thesis, that’s more or less exactly what happened.

It would be interesting to assess Wilyman’s own work by the standards of political sociology of science. It’s not my field, though: any errors in the above are mine, not the respectable academic authors I’ve quoted. I would like to point out, however, what seems to be the fundamental political orientation that undergirds Wilyman’s whole project. It appears on the last page of the conclusion: “Healthy communities are achieved by increasing individual autonomy, that is, the individual’s right to choose how they care for their own bodies in the prevention of disease. This prevents indoctrination and it must be respected and promoted in public health policies that ensure better health is the primary outcome of these policies” (Wilyman 2015, p. 308).

Wilyman’s axiomatic assumption is that health is achieved first and foremost by retaining personal autonomy. It isn’t achieved by, say, valuing health expertise and the knowledge associated with it. The political value of freedom comes before everything else, and the exercise of this freedom – by refusing to participate in building up herd immunity through mass vaccination, for example – can axiomatically never be unhealthy for others. Any science that says otherwise must be wrong.

References

Frickel, S., Gibbon, S., Howard, J., Kempner, J., Ottinger, G., Hess, D.J., 2010, ‘Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting’ Science Technology Human Values 35, 444–473. doi:10.1177/0162243909345836
Gross, M., 2007, ‘The Unknown in Process: Dynamic connections of Ignorance, NonKnowledge, and Related Concepts’, Current Sociology, 55: 5: 742-59
Hess, D.J., 2007, Alternative pathways in science and industry: activism, innovation, and the environment in an era of globalization, Urban and industrial environments, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Hess, D.J., 2009. ‘The Potentials and Limitations of Civil Society Research: Getting Undone Science Done.’ Sociological Inquiry 79, 306–327. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00292.x

Wilyman, J., 2015, ‘A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, 2015. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/4541,accessed 15 Jan 2016

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