Kylar Loussikian’s article, aided by efforts by pro-vaccination campaigners, triggered an enormous response. The online version of his article attracted hundreds of comments. A few bloggers wrote hostile commentaries about the thesis. There was an online petition against the thesis, signed by over 2000 people. The university’s Twitter account was overwhelmed by hostile comments … [please read below the rest of the article].
Martin, Brian. 2019. “Uptake of a Conspiracy Theory Attribution.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (6): 16-30. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4cP.
The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Kylar Loussikian’s article, aided by efforts by pro-vaccination campaigners, triggered an enormous response. The online version of his article attracted hundreds of comments. A few bloggers wrote hostile commentaries about the thesis. There was an online petition against the thesis, signed by over 2000 people. The university’s Twitter account was overwhelmed by hostile comments. Sixty-five academics in science and medicine at the university issued a statement endorsing vaccination. A Wikipedia entry about the controversy was set up, and changes were made to the university’s Wikipedia entry and to mine.
The controversy generated intense interest in the thesis itself. In the first month it was downloaded more than 5,000 times, an exceptional number compared to other theses.
The issue here is the reception of a CTA. People offering an opinion about the thesis, and in particular about the CTA, could look for themselves at the thesis and make a judgement about the CTA and about the topics the thesis addressed.
In examining the response to the CTA, several criteria will be used to assess uptake. If some or all of the following criteria are satisfied, it is plausible to say that the CTA has been accepted without scrutiny.
- The alleged conspiracy theory is not examined, but rather assumed to be absurd.
- The CTA is assumed to discredit the entire thesis (and possibly also the supervisors, examiners and university).
- There is no mention of the content of the thesis or its arguments.
The next issue is where to look for evidence of CTA uptake or resistance to the CTA. There are many sources of publicly available information, among them:
- subsequent articles by Kylar Loussikian
- people quoted in Loussikian’s articles
- mass media stories by other journalists
- comments by bloggers
- the petition against the thesis
- new and altered Wikipedia entries
- articles in scholarly journals
I examined each of these sources of evidence. However, I did not analyse online comments on Loussikian’s articles because they are behind a paywall. Although the volume of material is large, the findings are consistent, so it is possible to make judgements without difficulty. In the following sub-sections, exemplary or representative examples are provided from several of these sources.
Articles by Kylar Loussikian
Loussikian’s initial article, published in The Australian on 13 January 2016, triggered the cascade of the CTA. Loussikian wrote numerous subsequent articles and comments about Wilyman’s thesis published in The Australian. Despite being aware of my summary of the thesis (Martin, 2016a) posted on 11 January and my critical examination of his initial article (Martin, 2016b) posted on 3 March 2016, Loussikian in half a dozen articles in The Australian (20 January, 27 January, 23 March, 11 May, 23 June and 27 July) repeated the same angle on the CTA.
The following year, he worked for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper and wrote a story mentioning the CTA in passing: “Dr Brooks was supervised at Wollongong by Brian Martin, who gained notoriety after overseeing another thesis which claimed the World Health Organisation was colluding with pharmaceutical companies to spruik vaccines.” (Loussikian 2017).
In 2018, Loussikian, writing for Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper, wrote a story about Wilyman with the same CTA: “Dr Wilyman, who was controversially awarded a humanities PhD by the University of Wollongoing for a thesis which argued the World Health Organisation colluded with pharmaceutical companies in a conspiracy to spruik unneeded vaccinations, has no academic qualifications in medicine.” (Loussikian, 2018). Note that in these latter two articles there is no mention of the swine flu pandemic: the CTA is presented as apparently referring to all vaccines.
Authority Figures Quoted in Loussikian’s articles
In Loussikian’s original article, he quoted Professor John Dwyer saying, “The candidate has endorsed a conspiracy theory ….” Dwyer did not at the time or subsequently publish any assessment of the thesis with evidence to back up his quoted claim.
Mass Media Stories by other Journalists
Loussikian was the primary promulgator of the CTA. No other journalist wrote a story based on an independent investigation of the CTA. In 2017, Julie Hare wrote an article in The Australian about Wilyman, saying her PhD thesis “warned that global agencies including the World Health Organisation were colluding with the pharmaceuticals industry to inappropriately push vaccination” (Hare, 2017). In 2018, Jane Hansen wrote an article published in the Sunday Telegraph stating, “Her thesis argued vaccination was a conspiracy” (Hansen, 2018), a much more sweeping misrepresentation.
A Blog Post
David Gorski writes a blog under the name Orac. On 13 January 2016—the same day as Loussikian’s initial article—he published a long post attacking the thesis, Wilyman, me and the university. He said, among other things, that the thesis is “a collection of antivaccine talking points and conspiracy theories, tied together with pseudoscience and borderline, if not outright, germ theory denial” (Gorski 2016).
A few days after Loussikian’s 13 January 2016 article, an online petition was launched (Fein 2016). It contained a long preamble, including quotes from a story on SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), which in turn referred to Loussikian’s article: “Judy Wilyman submitted a PhD thesis under the UOW Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts that argued Australia’s vaccination policy was taking its cue from WHO and the pharmaceutical industry that are conspiring to promote vaccinations, The Australian reported.” The petition called on the Australian government’s “Department of Education and Training to take immediate disciplinary action against the University of Wollongong” and for the “Department of Health to issue unequivocal condemnation of this travesty.” The petition gave numerous links to further reading, including to the thesis, Wilyman’s website and some of my writings, thereby enabling readers to follow up a diversity of views.
It was possible for signers to add “reasons for signing.” Most of these followed the cues in the preamble and condemned the thesis, Wilyman, her supervisors and the university, some with strong language: “pseudoscience” was one of the milder epithets. Only 30 signers, a small minority of those who gave reasons, mentioned the CTA, and they were uniformly negative.
Maureen Butterworth: “I hate conspiracy theories.”
James Ridgeway: “I am concerned that an educational institution is allowing a PhD candidate to publish a thesis that is essentially based on conspiracy theories.”
James Fuller: “The ‘theory’ behind it says it is a depopulation (Agenda 21) conspiracy …”
Dawn Lindsay: “Terms like ‘conspiracy’ have no place in a PhD thesis.”
Cheree Skinner: “It terrifies me that an individual can publish a thesis based on conspiracy theories with absolutely no basis in fact!”
Joce J: “I don’t understand how a PhD on a conspiracy theory can be good scientific practice.”
Allyson Lees: “I’m horrified that anyone could accept this thesis as well researched and evidenced. How could it possibly be when the whole thing is based solely on conspiracy theories that have been debunked time and again?”
Jay Kanta: “The student uses conspiracy theories and invalid sources to back up her claims.”
Ken Dally: “This thesis totally ignores overwhelming scientific evidence and ventures into extreme conspiracy theory fantasy.”
Ri Scarborough: “This collection of conspiracy theories is not a PhD thesis, it is an insult to academia.”
These comments indicate that these signers assume CTAs are inherently discrediting. Furthermore, some commenters assume that the entire thesis was based on conspiracy theories.
A day after Loussikian’s 13 January 2016 article appeared, a new Wikipedia entry was created, “Judith Wilyman PhD controversy.” (In February 2019 it was renamed “Judith Wilyman.”) The entry contains restatements of the claim that Wilyman’s thesis contains a conspiracy theory. Early in the entry is this sentence: “The thesis came under heavy criticism from multiple directions, including medical professionals, due to claims within the thesis, including advancing a conspiracy theory whereby the World Health Organization (WHO) and the pharmaceutical industry supposedly conspire to promote vaccinations in the absence of evidence of safety and efficacy” (Wikipedia 2019, 15 March 2019 version, reference notes omitted). Note that this statement does not restrict the CTA to the swine flu pandemic, instead referring to a broader conspiracy, applying to vaccinations in general.
Wikipedia is governed by a complex set of rules. One of them is “No original research”: entries are supposed to rely on secondary sources. Therefore, for “Judith Wilyman,” Wikipedia editors are not supposed to assess the CTA by examination of Wilyman’s thesis.
Another Wikipedia rule concerns reliable sources. In general, media stories and blogs are considered less reliable sources than peer reviewed books and articles. However, most of the sources for the entry “Judith Wilyman” are media stories and blog posts. Elsewhere (Martin 2018a), I have analysed the rewriting of my own Wikipedia entry shortly after Loussikian’s first article appeared.
Articles in a Scientific Journal
Two highly published and well-established scientists, David Durrheim and Alison Jones, wrote a commentary for the scientific journal Vaccine entitled “Public health and the necessary limits to academic freedom?” In it, they called for a reconsideration of academic freedom when public health is implicated, based on two cases, one of them being Wilyman’s thesis. Elsewhere I have analysed their article in some detail (Martin, 2016c); here I look only at their reference to conspiracy theories. They write:
A central tenet of this work [Wilyman PhD thesis] was an unsubstantiated claim that the World Health Organisation and the pharmaceutical industry were conspiring to promote vaccinations in the absence of evidence of safety and efficacy . She alleged that these parties had “orchestrated hysteria” relating to a global swine influenza pandemic in 2009 (Durrheim and Jones, 2016, p. 2467).
It seems that Durrheim and Jones had not read the thesis carefully, otherwise they would not refer to a claim about a WHO-industry connection as a “central tenet” of the thesis, nor that this claim was “unsubstantiated” given several pages of discussion. The citation  refers to Wilyman’s thesis, however with an incorrect URL. They do not give a page reference to “orchestrated hysteria,” a phrase that does not appear in the thesis. Durrheim and Jones do give an accurate citation to Loussikian’s 13 January 2016 article in The Australian, suggesting that they adopted the allegations in Loussikian’s article without making an independent assessment.
In 2019, a very different critical treatment of Wilyman’s thesis was published, also in Vaccine (Wiley et al., 2019). This paper summarised the themes in the thesis, gave reasons why the thesis is wrong, and enumerated and illustrated several alleged methodological flaws. This scholarly analysis, the first to subject the thesis to careful systematic scrutiny, nowhere mentions a conspiracy theory. Yet some commentators, in reporting on the Wiley et al. critique in Vaccine, repeated the CTA, illustrating a continued lack of examination of the claims involved (Campbell, 2019; Hare, 2019). Wilyman (2019), on her website (https://vaccinationdecisions.net), responded to Wiley et al.’s critique.
A Transparent Case of CTA
The CTA about Wilyman’s thesis provides a remarkably transparent case study. Its initial articulation is clear: Loussikian’s 13 January 2016 article in The Australian. The uptake of the CTA can be traced through a variety of outlets, several of which have been examined here: Loussikian’s further articles, a quoted scientist, other mass media stories, a blog post, comments on a petition, Wikipedia entries, and articles in a scientific journal.
Among these responses, not a single individual assessed the CTA by inspecting the thesis and making a judgement about whether it endorsed a conspiracy theory. Nor did anyone attempt to judge whether the arguments in the thesis about the 2009 swine flu pandemic were well supported. Instead, the CTA propagated without scrutiny. No one commented that conspiracies do exist, but that calling of the pandemic was not a conspiracy. No one noted that an article in the BMJ had presented the same argument about pandemics, or that the WHO had dismissed this argument by calling it a conspiracy theory. The CTA was treated as a package whose contents were either accepted or rejected but never inspected.
The treatment of this CTA conforms with several observations by scholars who analyse conspiracy theories. Hagen (2018) notes that conspiracy theories are commonly assumed to be sweeping—large in extent—and involve evildoers, and argues against these presumptions. These presumptions are apparent in a number of the CTAs concerning Wilyman’s thesis, including that it endorsed a conspiracy between the WHO and pharmaceutical companies involving vaccination in general (not just the 2009 swine flu pandemic) and that the entire thesis was premised on a conspiracy, as in Hansen’s (2018) statement that “Her thesis argued vaccination was a conspiracy.”
Harambam (2017) noted the parallels between academic analyses and conspiracy theories, for example that both involve powerful groups operating out of the public eye. This helps to explain how an academic analysis of vaccination policy-making can so easily be labelled a conspiracy theory. In this labelling, though, the stereotypes associated with “conspiracy theory” come into play, so the attribution becomes derogatory, indeed potentially discrediting.
There are several ways to understand the lack of scrutiny of this particular CTA, including information cascades, confirmation bias, Google-knowing and polarisation of the vaccination controversy.
An information cascade involves individuals accepting a claim just because others have accepted it: the more who join the bandwagon, the more popular it becomes (Sunstein 2014). Those caught in the cascade make their judgement based on what others have said and the fact that many others have made the same judgement. Several elements of the CTA uptake are compatible with an information cascade, including the petition signers, online comments on newspaper articles (not analysed here), and statements by other journalists.
Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek information that supports their existing views and to discount contrary information (Nickerso 1998). Given that most Australians support vaccination, this may make them receptive to a claim that discredits a vaccine critic.
Lynch (2016) argues that the pervasiveness of the Internet means that people are increasingly likely to respond to new items of information without critical examination, something he calls Google-knowing. This way of processing information draws on what Kahneman (2011) calls System 1, the fast and intuitive component of the mind, rather than System 2, the slow and rational component.
One bias in System 1 is overconfidence based on limited information, a heuristic called WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) that militates against spending the time and energy required to investigate a statement. Palmer (2018, 8), in a study of ordinary people who appeared in the newspaper stories with sizeable audiences, found that, “Subjects imagined that those large audiences not only saw the coverage but also believed it. Based on their subsequent interactions with people who had seen them in the news, this usually proved to be true.” This is compatible with Lynch’s idea of Google-knowing.
The spread of the CTA about Wilyman’s thesis was undoubtedly aided by the polarisation of the Australian vaccination debate. In polarised controversies, there are incentives on each side to adopt a coherent package of evidence and arguments, and to admit to no reservations or concerns, because these might be used by opponents (Martin 1991, 37–55). Hence, when derogatory statements are made about opponents in such a debate, there is little incentive to examine them closely, much less to admit any mistake. Supporters of vaccination who had doubts about the CTA would have been reluctant to speak in public because they would have been seen as aiding Wilyman.
Finally, for years members of the group Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network had been trying to silence any public criticism of vaccination (Martin 2018b). As part of this censorship campaign, they had been attacking Wilyman and her thesis for several years (Martin 2017). Plausibly, their efforts laid the groundwork for Loussikian’s articles and added impetus in spreading the CTA.
There is an intriguing irony that emerges from some of the comments about Wilyman’s thesis. Many of those subscribing to the CTA say or imply, in addition, that her supervisors, her thesis examiners and/or university officials intentionally supported a sub-standard thesis. In this allegation, they are essentially endorsing a conspiracy theory—but with no evidence to back it up aside from the granting of a PhD to Wilyman.
Conspiracy Theories as a Layperson’s Lens on Science
Conspiracy theories provide a useful means of seeing how laypeople assess certain types of claims about science. Here, a closely related and understudied issue is addressed: the uptake of claims that a particular work involves a conspiracy theory. This is, in other words, a conspiracy theory attribution (CTA). If, as argued by some scholars, a conspiracy theory needs to be assessed before being rejected, so likewise does a CTA. The question then is whether this actually occurs.
A natural experiment occurred with a CTA newly launched on 13 January 2016 concerning the PhD thesis by Judy Wilyman, for whom I was principal supervisor. This CTA obtained wide currency among commenters on newspaper articles, signers of a petition, and various others. Significantly, not a single person commenting publicly about the CTA showed any evidence of having examined whether the thesis subscribed to a conspiracy theory, if so whether there was any merit in the claims about conspiracy, or whether the attributed conspiracy theory was central to the thesis. This example shows how a CTA can propagate in the absence of careful assessment of the evidence.
Possible factors in the uncritical uptake of the CTA are information cascades, confirmation bias, Google-knowing, the polarisation of the Australian vaccination debate, and pro-vaccination campaigners seeking to discredit Wilyman. Plausibly, the campaigners set the stage for and aided the dissemination of the CTA, which then spread without scrutiny with the help of an information cascade, confirmation bias and Google-knowing, while the polarisation of the vaccination debate discouraged examination of the CTA.
Further studies would be needed to determine whether other CTAs receive scrutiny or are accepted uncritically. An initial hypothesis could be that CTAs that support the dominant viewpoint are less likely to be scrutinised than those that challenge it.
From a practical perspective, the challenge is how to encourage people to critically examine claims, especially when all the needed information is available in the public domain. For this, it might be better to jettison the label “conspiracy theory,” which is more often applied as a discrediting judgement than a neutral description.
I obtained valuable comments on drafts from Kurtis Hagen and Samantha Vanderslott, and confirmation from John Dwyer and Michael Patrick Lynch that I had accurately represented their views.
Contact details: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, firstname.lastname@example.org
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