There seems to be an alarming trend in anti-vaccine information at some Canadian Universities. Here are the three that recently caught my eye:
University of British Columbia
A known anti-vaccine group, the Dwoskin Family Foundation, funds “research” at the University of British Columbia. I say they are anti-vaccine because they compare vaccination to the Holocaust. The Dean apparently has no issue taking their money for research (there is a hefty Dean’s tax on all research dollars) or doesn’t worry that the research was discredited by the World Health Organization (WHO)…
“UBC is a research institution with a faculty committed to asking questions — all types of questions, sometimes even unorthodox questions — and attempting to answer those questions in a rigorous, responsible manner. It’s also a place that accommodates a wide range of ideas and beliefs. Those are the bases of the academic freedom that we hold dear. It is incumbent on us to probe controversial areas through sound research.” – Helen Burt, UBC’s Associate Vice President, Research and International
All I know is if any paper I wrote grabbed the attention of the WHO in a negative way I’d be called on the carpet with some pretty big explaining to do. Then again I can’t think of any department Chair who would have let me take money from someone who compared vaccines to the Holocaust. But even if the money came from Bill Gates (a big financial supporter of vaccine research), if the WHO discredits your research shouldn’t you, I don’t know, take another look at what is being produced?
I guess if someone offered UBC money to develop a model of how the earth is the center of the universe they’d take it and their ethics board and animal research oversight committee would have no issue signing off on a rat model to compare magic with anesthesia for surgery.
Melody Torcolacci, an adjunct kinesiology professor at Queen’s (now on leave), taught HLTH 102, Physical Determinants of Health. Studying vaccines was part of the objectives to “help you appreciate that it is cumulative, long-term exposures to seemly [sic] harmless things that can ultimately affect your health.”
The material covered in the course was an egregious example of anti vaccine mumbo jumbo and truly a sad example of ignoring the scientific method. All the reading material was included in the lectures and consisted of anti-vaccine tropes (scientific papers apparently too old school for Torcolacci). There is an excellent storify from Isabelle Duchaine including many of the Powerpoint slides from the class. Here are a couple of doozies:
There was a huge social media backlash, which apparently led to Ms. Torcolacci taking leave from Queens, but the fault here is clearly with the University. They hired this woman to teach. Was no one in the Kinesiology Department required to review her material before she taught? If they did, who thought this was appropriate for anything but a lecture on how snake oil can contaminate academia? Honestly, there is no reassuring scenario. What is even more troubling is the CBC reported Dr. Ian Gemmill, Kingston’s medical officer of health, complained to Queen’s two years ago about this course and obviously nothing happened. It took the backlash on social media to get the University to actually look into it.
Given the scholastic oversight at Queens I am hoping to get a position in their Kinesiology department teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts next semester. Please sign up. (Although this could really be a legitimate course if you consider homeopathy dark arts, so perhaps I should suggest Transfiguration).
University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus
The class is Alternative Health: Practice and Theory HLTD04H3-S Special Topics in Health. It is taught by Beth Landau-
Halpern, a homeopath who advises patients about the dangers of vaccination. She also happens to be the wife of the Rick Halpern, the Dean of that campus.
The syllabus for her course is here and includes this gem “Homeopathy and Science get along just fine” (week 5) and the book Homeopathy: Good Science, by Peter Adams as required reading. Ms. Landau-Halpern’s reading list shows that she is a fan of Andrew Wakefield and Safeminds (and anti vaccine group). Her recommended reference material indicates she has no idea either how to find scientifically valid articles on vaccine safety or doesn’t care. Neither of which are ideal in my opinion in a university lecturer (never mind promoting someone who lost his medical license due to fraudulent research).
The syllabus from week 9 (where the anti-vaccine pseudoscience takes center stage):
Homeopathy is the antithesis of science and has no place in the school system, whether it’s kindergarten or post-graduate courses. If the U of T Scarborough health classes are focusing on magical beliefs I’d like to suggest “The Easter Bunny and Science get along just fine” as a course for fall of 2015 using the Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes as scientific “proof” of how the five Easter Bunnies (there are five, by the way) are able to visit each and every boy and girl on Easter to deliver eggs.
Academic freedom and asking hard questions does not give anyone the license to promote lies or ignore science. It’s fine to study the impact of pseudoscience or explore how cultures come to rely on magical health beliefs in anthropology, but not in courses designed to teach health. Any Dean or Provost or Chair or whoever thinks that it’s okay to peddle this garbage as education or doesn’t have sufficient oversight to know this is happening should be fired along with the people who promote it. Students go to University to learn, not be taught an anti vaccine scientifically baseless manifesto.
Is this part of the erosion of science at higher levels in these Universities, a complete lack of oversight, permeation of vaccine deniers into higher levels of academia, or the financial allure of anti-vaccine donors and classes that churn out “alternative” and dangerous health claims?
I don’t know the answer, but I don’t find any of the choices reassuring.