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Is Oxford responsible for an anti-vaxxer?

Angela Eichhorst discusses the dangers of Naomi Wolf's inaccuracies from her scholarship to her Twitter account, and the role of institutions in holding people to account.

CW: Sexual assault, homophobia, eating disorders.

In 2015, the American feminist scholar, Naomi Wolf, received her doctorate from the University of Oxford’s English Department. Wolf’s 2015 dissertation formed the backbone of her book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, to be published in 2019. However, the book never reached American shelves; Outrages was recalled for “corrections,” according to Wolf’s US publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Outrages’ factual inaccuracies first publicly came to light during a BBC Radio 3 interview with Dr Matthew Sweet, just four weeks before its expected publication. Wolf alleged that the 1857 Obscene Publications Act led to “several dozen men[‘s]” executions for sodomy, however, Sweet pointed out that Wolf had misinterpreted Old Bailey court records when she thought that “[Death Recorded]” signified the defendant’s execution rather than a judge-granted pardon. Death Recorded, first used in 1823, was the opposite of an execution because it allowed the judge to “record a sentence of death, as he was legally required to do, while at the same time indicating his intention to pardon the convict” said Robert (Bob) Shoemaker, a 19th Century history professor from the University of Sheffield. 

Historian Richard Ward said that Wolf committed a “pretty basic error,” adding that “if all the people who were mentioned in the Old Bailey records as [Death Recorded] were subsequently executed, there would have been a bloodbath on the gallows.” 

Furthermore, Sweet pointed out that Wolf’s argument, that the UK’s 1857 law targeted “consensual male couples,” was based on far from consensual examples. 14-year-old Thomas Silver was not executed for an expression of LGBTQ+ love, as Wolf claimed in Outrages, but instead, due to leniency from the judge, received a Death Recorded statement and subsequently served a two-and-a-half year prison sentence for his assault of a six year old boy

Sweet told the Cherwell that when he pointed this out to Wolf during their interview, “she immediately saw that there was something wrong and it clearly came as a great surprise to her.” 

Wolf published a new edition of Outrages in 2021 but Sweet believes that it “is in many ways much more problematic than the first.” Wolf “conceded that she made two mistakes, one in the case of Thomas Silver, and one in the case of the school teacher who abused the boys, Richard Spencer,” says Sweet but in her 2021 version, Wolf tries to “bolster arguments by concealing things that she knows about them by not acknowledging that the cases she uses, where you can say something about them, are not examples of any kind of consensual interaction between people.”

“Where there is evidence that they’re not consensual cases, they’re assaults and they’re men physically attacking boys, the cases that she refers to simply don’t do the work that’s required of them. None of them are evidence of anything involving love, I suppose. And she knows that, and she must know that. The second edition just sort of fantasizes that away,” says Sweet. 

We can thank Sweet’s investigative journalism and public critique of factually incorrect scholarship, however, it appears that Wolf’s mistakes were present in her 2015 Oxford DPhil dissertation written on the topic. After six years of being held under embargo, a process which hides a dissertation from Oxford affiliates as well as from the wider publicEcstasy or justice? The sexual author and the law was finally released by the Oxford University Research Archive (ORA) this April.

In Ecstasy or justice?, Wolf wrote “the same year twenty-year-old Robert Enstone was executed: “indicted for b—st—l—y.” He was found “GUILTY .— Death Recorded.” 

Alongside her thesis, Wolf filed nine pages of corrections under the name NR_Wolf_D_Phil_Corrections_ORA_1. There is no date on them but Sweet says they appeared in December 2020, after their fateful interview. 

In an article published in Higher Ed, Tim Hitchcock, professor of digital history at the University of Sussex, commented “if your major data source is ill used in this way, the whole argument needs to be rethought.” Hitchcock said Wolf’s DPhil represented a “failure of supervision and examining” and was “surprised to see the mistakes framed as minor corrections.”

Historian Barbara Keys tweeted in response to a first version of this article “What *is* interesting is why @UniofOxford, in addn. to giving Wolf her degree even though the thesis was not deposited as required and then withholding public access for years, also allowed her to include an undated, unexplained, confusingly written addendum written 5+ yrs later.” 

According to ORA guidance, DPhil students can decide to send out their dissertation for immediate release, or place it under embargo for one to three years. Beyond three years, students need to apply for an embargo extension, which can granted if the dissertation contains copyrighted third-party material that is not permitted to be released online, if it contains confidential material such as patient records, if making it available would invalidate a patent application, if restricting access is required by an outside sponsor, or if the student has “another good reason,” as judged by the appropriate department and the Graduate Studies Committee. 

Six years of embargo is far beyond the normal embargo timeframe, and it is especially odd given that Outrages was published four years in. Embargo “isn’t totally a weird practice if you’re planning to publish your thesis commercially,” says Sweet. “But she then had tried to get the embargo extended when all this trouble broke and the University refused to do that, which is why it suddenly popped up in April.”  

DPhil dissertations at the University of Oxford can pass, go through a minor or major correction stage before being passed, or they can fail. A spokesperson from the University’s administration services told Cherwell that “The categories of minor and major are indicative; minor corrections might be given where typographical or presentational errors need to be made, whereas major corrections might be given where the examiners judge that more time is needed to correct the thesis or conduct some additional, limited, research.” 

However, as Sweet says, “when it comes to a thesis, once it’s passed, it’s passed.” 

“Proctors have no process to investigate anybody for malpractice of any kind apart from plagiarism,” says Sweet. According to an Oxford University spokesperson, “The University does not have a procedure for editing a thesis once it has been independently examined and deposited with the Bodleian Libraries, unless there is a finding of academic misconduct. Errors of fact do not in themselves amount to academic misconduct.”

When Wolf came to Oxford for her Dphil, she was already a celebrated author, but this was not her first time in the city. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Yale University in 1984, she was a Rhodes scholar at New College. Her 1991 title, The Beauty Myth, which argues that beauty culture is the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact,” was seminal for the third wave feminist movement, with Gloria Steinem saying that it was “‘a smart, angry, insightful book, and a clarion call to freedom. Every woman should read it.” 

However, despite public acclaim, Wolf’s previous books had been faulted for their accuracy. In a 1994 paper titled Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers said that Wolf’s statistic in The Beauty Myth – that 150,000 women die from anorexia in the USA each year – was grossly exaggerated and that the actual figure for fatalities was around 100 to 400.Wolf accepted the error and changed the statistic in later editions. In a 1995 article in the Independent, journalist Joan Smith said that when she asked Wolf where she got her data, Wolf said “she’d worked it out herself, she said, after checking the percentage of patients with eating disorders at one clinic.” In a 2004 paper published in the academic journal Eating Disorders, Caspar Schoemaker compared multiple peer-reviewed epidemiological studies to conclude that 18 out of 23 statistics in The Beauty Myth were wrong, and that “on average, an anorexia statistic in any edition of The Beauty Myth should be divided by eight to get near the real statistic.” 

When talking about controversial issues, Wolf is not helping feminism, LGBTQ+ or eating disorder awareness by “fudging facts,” said one post on the blog Science of ED. In fact, sharing incorrect claims about groups that already face discrimination causes active harm by reducing trust in further scholarship. Without being backed up by proper evidence, Wolf’s claims in Outrages that recorded crimes of bestial or underage sex were consensual only spread yet more misinformation about the already misunderstood topic of gay love.

At the end of the day, Wolf’s thesis passed and Wolf herself gained a valuable Oxford degree. “It seems that nobody, neither her supervisor nor her examiners, spotted these, to my mind, very simple errors, and obvious errors in it,” says Sweet. “The people who need to talk about this who are remaining, I think, painfully silent on it are Lennie Goodings, her editor at Virago, who’s watched a rather venerable publishing firm produce this, I think, absolutely disgraceful and wretched book, and her supervisor, Stefano Evangelista, who hasn’t said a word about all of this.” Evangelista declined to comment. 

In terms of a wider world of online discourse, a DPhil from Oxford University gives you a leg up. Until she was suspended from Twitter last month, Wolf had a growing platform of 140K followers where she posted primarily anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine tweets over 200 times a day. 

“I can confirm that my entire family got sick, after not being sick for a year (!!!), after being in close proximity to a couple that had recently been vax’d.” Retweeted Naomi Wolf.

“I’ve experianced this, my female family members and friends after being around others who have been vd. Its not coincidence, women shouldn’t  just start having a period every time around the same people. One 11 year old got her first p and hadn’t stopped in nearly a month.” Retweeted Naomi Wolf.

“I just interviewed a citizen leader, Luna Singer, in OR who helped lobby for Five Freedoms. She described a 60 year old woman she knows who started uterine bleeding post vaccination — and to date has not stopped. How do so many reports of untimely bleeding not warn re fertility?” Tweeted Naomi Wolf.

“I had a gyno appointment yesterday in NYC and decided to ask about the vaccine and fertility. A flip literally switched within my Dr. who then proceeded to tell me my life would be safer with the vaccine. She said there are no known issues for women’s health.” Naomi Wolf retweeted, adding “I think physicians are afraid of losing their licenses.”

“What’s terrifying about people having the choice to take an experimental gene therapy that they are censoring all information about? How is she “stupid” when she actually knows what’s in this poison and why it’s not fda approved and speaking out about it?” Retweeted Naomi Wolf

“Millions of people are dead because of these ‘researchers’. Bring on the Nuremberg trials.” Retweeted Naomi Wolf

“I blame every parent who does it. If I can get by this entire time not even masking my kids once, you can too. It just takes actual effort and sacrifice. It disgusts me how parents won’t even fight for their kids.” Retweeted Naomi Wolf.

“My heart is breaking from hearing stories from moms who don’t know what to say to 12 to 16 year old girls horrified by endless or aberrant menses post vaccination.” Tweeted Naomi Wolf

“I can’t believe I’m asking @tedcruz to save us from this with his new vaccine passport ban bill, but I am.” Tweeted Naomi Wolf

The effect of Wolf’s former Twitter page was a litany of fear. Over the last 30 days of her account being open, Wolf cited concerns about masking children, vaccinating children, infertility caused by vaccination, death caused by vaccination, reproductive or respiratory illness from being in close proximity to a vaccinated person, restriction of personal freedoms, governments using COVID lockdown measures as an excuse for a power grab, tracking through the collation of medical data, inequality based on vaccination status, and the United States being controlled by China. 

In the site’s ongoing struggle to balance social responsibility with freedom of speech rights, Twitter took the decision into their own hands that it was simply too harmful to allow Wolf’s fearmongering in the context of the ongoing global pandemic. In doing so, Twitter has shown themselves to be better arbiters of truth than Oxford University. 

Despite an abundance of vaccines available, the US fell short of its July 4th goal of 70% of the adult population having at least one vaccine dose and it is unclear, without vaccine mandates, if the percentage of vaccinated adults will get much higher. Analysis from the Associated Press showed that 98% of American covid deaths this May were among unvaccinated people. There is also the worry that unvaccinated people increase the risk of variant mutation, which could result in more dangerous variants or variants that reduce existing vaccine efficacy.

Wolf’s status as a Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford is especially responsible for giving her Twitter conspiracy theories wings. Wolf’s Twitter account, under the handle “Dr Naomi Wolf,” directly benefitted from her Oxford DPhil. “Naomi, you are the Rhodes Scholar, that’s good enough for me … people mock what they don’t understand … thx for your courage to speak out & ask the questions! It’s ridiculous that we live in a world where that is frowned upon. We should all want truth & facts!” Retweeted Naomi Wolf.

Wolf also used her position as a feminist scholar to illicit a particularly vicious fear about the vaccine’s risk to female fertility by retweeting anecdotes about menstrual irregularity post vaccination, specifically in teens, and alleging that even being in a room with a vaccinated person could put a woman at risk of infertility. Wolf did not tweet about the potential risk of a covid vaccine to male fertility, nor did she emphasise on any other secondary health issues that vaccines could allegedly cause. Given the previous wealth of feminist scholarship about how women have historically been valued for their reproductive abilities alone, Wolf should have been aware of the heightened emotive power of female infertility fears. Instead, she focused vaccine hesitancy on already hot button issues such as reproduction, body autonomy, public liberty concerns or anti-autism sentiment.

Twitter is a place of opinions. You don’t need a reading list, a lab experiment or even a spellcheck to send your thoughts out into the universe. At Oxford however, you do. At every step of admission, pedagogy and examination, universities seek to equip their students with the best possible tools to understand truth. Academics disagree, but they do this by sharing a common respect for the truth and using appropriate methods to show why their research is the closest to it.

If every scholar’s work that had a mistake was removed from the shelves, there would be very few books in the Bodleian, however, Wolf’s repeat mass spreading of misinformation demonstrates a systematic failure to follow current adequate academic standards of proof and is ultimately, bad faith. We could chalk it up to the old adage, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” but in an age of alternative facts, knowing what counts as sufficient evidence and checking your sources should be a requirement of getting an Oxford DPhil. 

“The fact that that thesis was examined and passed, seemingly with no questions, would lead me to believe that a DPhil from the English Faculty of Oxford University is not really a particularly valuable qualification, and that’s unfortunate, because I’ve got one,” says Sweet.  

The University must bulk up their graduate student teaching around standards of proof, question unnecessarily long embargos and create procedures for considering a researcher’s poor methodology as evidence of academic misconduct. Otherwise, we will only see more Oxford-sanctioned inaccuracies sent out into the world. 

This article has been updated to correct a claim that Wolf’s dissertation corrections were written in 2015. Oxford University has been contacted for clarification. This updated version of the article also features a Cherwell interview with Dr Matthew Sweet. 

Oxford University and the English Department have been approached for comment.

Image Credit: sunset parkerpix/CC BY-SA 2.0

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