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Are Canadian universities fertile ground for anti vaccine pseudoscience?

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 HolocaustThe 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.

Queen’s University

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:

vaxqueens1

vaxqueens2

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):

UofT

 

 

UUofT2

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.

 

 

Discussion

19 thoughts on “Are Canadian universities fertile ground for anti vaccine pseudoscience?

  1. Great post, thanks for bringing these stories to light. I am dismayed by the increasing amount of “quackademic” research and teaching taking place at our universities. Maybe a social media uproar is the only way of getting the administration to pay attention. It worked with the Toronto Star (sort of….) so maybe it’ll work here too!

    Posted by Betty | March 1, 2015, 10:41 am
  2. These instances of 3 top tier Canadian universities appearing to condone such rubbish in their teaching is worrying but I think a little digging will find similar elsewhere. What it indicates is that there is increasing tolerance for such twaddle and the pedlars of this twaddle are using straw men such as academic freedom to justify this. There is also “pull” from students who question convention and distrust big pharma, etc. what these students don’t realise is that twaddle is a huge “industry”. Snake oil margins are unbeatable.

    We need to work harder to educate and to uncover scams. Financial schemes are well known but empowering people all the time. Health scams are even worse. They provide false hope, drain resources from other sources and foster mistrust of conventional medicine.

    Our universities should be teaching Ponzi schemes and how to identity theft if they truly believe their place is to allow freedom of expression no matter what the legitimacy of the topic.

    Posted by Jim Woodgett | March 1, 2015, 11:31 am
  3. OMFG! I WAS joking about society de-evolving back to the Dark Ages! This is ridiculous!!

    Posted by Erin | March 1, 2015, 12:03 pm
  4. Seems to me that since universities have become profit-driven, respect for knowledge has gone by the wayside. There’s money to be made in fake degrees of all kinds, so why not in quack medicine too seems to be the way they think. Very sad.

    Posted by lancelotgobbo | March 1, 2015, 1:08 pm
  5. Good post. Unsettling information. Anyone seen the movie “Idiocracy”? Seems that may be the way we are heading.

    Posted by sparkyplants | March 1, 2015, 2:31 pm
  6. The Scarborough Hospital, which itself is a U of T affiliated hospital, has just launched a “Centre for Integrative Medicine”. This during a time of unprecedented cut backs to nursing and allied services due to budgetary restraint. I think you are just uncovering the tip of the insidious iceberg.

    Posted by Lindsay Bisset | March 1, 2015, 6:44 pm
  7. Great article. I look forward to learning about more examples of pseudo-science. How do you suggest one might protest this bunk?

    Posted by SG | March 1, 2015, 7:04 pm
  8. I’d still like to see a detailed deconstruction of anti-vaxxer’s arguments. Not even a deconstruction, just answering the questions they throw out (like “How do we know Big Pharma isn’t lying about this? How can we trust any research from Big Pharma? Science was wrong about the Big Bang, apparently, so how do we know they’re not wrong about vaccines? And it goes on). Some are obviously silly; others, on the surface at least, seem to maybe be good questions. It’s possibly a superhuman feat, but I’d love to see it done without eye-rolling or condescension. Because fairly smart people seem really, really convinced about it.

    Although, maybe it’s more about psychology and ideology than it is about facts — maybe certain groups of people are prone to this sort of thinking. Facts be damned (because they think they’re not really facts because: conspiracy or because they only believe what their senses tell them). People still believe Iraq had ties to 9/11.

    I’m a journalist and not a doctor (Damn it, Jim), but I’d love to write on this. I’d love to accompany a doctor to Autism One and, not ridicule, but write about precisely what doesn’t make sense about it.

    Posted by Jack Dyer | March 2, 2015, 4:25 am
    • Jack – what we need is precisely what you can provide – an unbiased but eye-opening questioning of the logic (or lack thereof) of the anti-vaccination “movement”. It is incredulous that with millions of people vaccinated and diseases averted, that there is a significant number of people crying out about how vaccines are killing us all. There is an absolute avalanche of studies that show the safety, efficacy and science behind vaccines. There is nothing hidden. Of course there is always room for improvement but we are talking about increasing efficacy (e.g. the continuously mutating influenza vaccines) since safely is basically a done deal (asking about allergies, etc).

      In other words, the science is pretty much done and there is a ton of it. The arguments around safety and causes of other diseases areas hold up like snow flakes falling into lava. For example, check out the progress on genetics of autism and copy number variation and then ask an vaccines cause autism person how a vaccine is able to change the genetic structure of every cell in a child’s body. Parents of children with autism are looking for answers and associate events occurring in childhood (such as visits to their doctor) with the disorder. But, increasingly, once the natural emotional reaction wanes, credible autism societies are supporting research that is hammering away at understanding the true causes of autism spectrum disorders. This is progress.

      Posted by jimwoodgett | March 23, 2015, 7:40 am
      • Jim – You say “It is incredulous that with millions of people vaccinated and diseases averted, that there is a significant number of people crying out about how vaccines are killing us all.” That is a little over the top, but I get what you are saying.
        What I think about are the unintended and unrealized consequences of vaccinations that we do not know about. For instance with the Chicken Pox vaccine, we have chicken pox under control, but immunity to chicken pox is down because we are not exposed to it much anymore… and we are seeing an increase in shingles. So, we have almost rid ourselves of chicken pox, which from what I can tell caused 100 deaths per year, but seen an increase in shingles, which has a much higher morbidity and mortality rate. In other words it is very difficult to understand all of the risks of vaccines, because we understand so little of how the body works and interacts symbiotically with our environment. In my mind, we must be cautious about adding vaccines to a “must have” vaccinate list. Pharmaceutical companies would love to develop a new vaccine for anything and have it made mandatory.

        Health care for profit is a big problem.

        Posted by KJ Mac | April 9, 2015, 3:15 pm
  9. Dr Jen Gunter teaching “Defense Against the Dark Arts”???!!! I would sign up immediately. Although your blog is kinda the online version …

    Posted by michaelhoad1@gmail.com | March 2, 2015, 7:29 am
  10. my first comment on your blog…which is quite excellent BTW. I’ve enjoyed reading it so much I probably owe you some more wine! In any case, I think the problem here is with our definitions. Vaccines are not “safe” in that nothing is “safe”…when safe is said to mean “risk free”. All medical interventions carry risk and science is not perfect; when we say they are “safe” people hear us say risk free and do not believe us. With vaccines there are clearly risks (both local and systemic) but there is also absolutely no doubt that the benefits subtansially outweigh them. That being said, with vaccination programs being so successful, its hard to see the benefits and with Dr Google available to anyone …its easy to see the risk. This, and the fact that science is not always right, give the anti-vaxx pseudoscience great traction. This issue is compounded by the simple fact that if you are one of the 5% of people believe it…and the recent measles outbreak is a prime example of this). How do we fix this? I am not sure, but I have a few suggestions. First, you cannot fix stupidity and it is hard to make pseudoscience unappealing if it is being preached to the stupid. Thus, the only hope is formal manates for all level of public and private education outside of home schooling. Also, I think a movie starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts as 50’s era parents living thru a middle America polio outbreak where one of their children gets infected and ends up dying in an iron lung might help people understand why vaccines were invented in the first place

    Posted by Andy W | March 2, 2015, 1:35 pm
  11. just reading the coments here – wow. step aside and read them yourself without your desire for it to be true. a bunch of indocrinated overzealous people looking for ways to spoil other people’s lives. should slap yourselves with a dead fish for the hypocrisy if you even open your mouth about freedom and human rights. you are the fascists of the first order. you’d all settle very well in soviet union or noth korea with such attitudes.

    Posted by Al | March 23, 2015, 12:19 am
    • Your comment is garbled and unclear. It’s a human right to be free of disease. It is NOT a right to spread disease. Are the words “hypocrisy” and “fascism” just a trick to obscure and deny ethical behavior?

      Posted by SG | March 23, 2015, 8:01 am
  12. Though I see the dilemma here, it has to pointed out that academic freedom does in fact involve the allowance of as much rubbish as could potentially be peddled. Not so long ago (just over 200 years) you would have been considered a fool for thinking bloodletting was NOT the best way to release sickness from your body. Perhaps it is all pseudoscience, however, those who are intelligent enough to understand that should remain unperturbed by its belief by others, and should potentially question their own beliefs a bit more. Just about everyone in history (and today), admittedly with some exception, who has over-passionately indulged in the righteousness of their own beliefs has been either proven wrong, destroyed or has gone down in the history books as little more than a fool. I would advise that anyone who believes wholeheartedly in anything whatsoever, without question regardless of how valid it may currently seem, should re-evaluate how they perceive information. On another note, I do agree with most of this, especially with the way the situation seems to be being handled.

    Posted by Henry | July 14, 2015, 4:40 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: School of Doubt | Harmful teaching in Kansas and Canada, minority homeschoolers, academic closures, and more: Required Readings, 03.01.15 - March 1, 2015

  2. Pingback: Are Canadian universities fertile ground for anti vaccine pseudoscience? | No. Betteridge’s Law - March 10, 2015

  3. Pingback: Andrew Wakefield is apparently a legimite source of vaccine info at University of Toronto | Dr. Jen Gunter - July 6, 2015

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