This week I posted concerns regarding the University of Toronto‘s response to complaints from scientists and faculty regarding the course Alternative Health at the Scarborough Campus. To summarize, the course was taught by a homeopath and the associated required reading/videos for the class on vaccines was comprised entirely of anti-vaccine propaganda. The syllabus also advised students the course would help them understand how quantum mechanics could explain homeopathy.
What the Vice-President and Provost had to say
The anti vaccine concerns were addressed by the Provost’s office, but the faculty who wrote about the abuse of physics are still hitting refresh on their e-mail. Here’s a quote from the Vice-President’s review:
I do not find the instructor’s approach in this class has been, or would have reasonably been perceived to be unbalanced, in the sense that it deviated from a presentation of material that, in context, would enable critical analysis, and inquiry. Thus, from an academic pedagogy perspective, I do not find that there has been sufficient deviation from the range of normal approaches to warrant concerns.
Thinking critically of vaccines is not engaging in critical analysis
The Vice-President met with the instructor, Ms. Landau-Halpern who also happens to be the wife of the Dean of the Scarborough campus, and she assured him that “she approaches this issue from a nuanced perspective and encourages students to think critically about vaccine effectiveness and safety.” However, she does in her own practice prescribe nosodes and has previously written on her website this somewhat less than nuanced sentiment that vaccines should be avoided because there efficacy is in question and:
full of ingredients that definitely should not be in the blood stream, and may compromise your general immunity irreparably.
It also appears to me (if I’m reading it correctly) that the Vice-President is of the opinion that the review should have been more internal:
I must be clear that evaluations of content and pedagogical approach ought to be done at the level of the program and department.
The department in question is Anthropology not medicine, immunology, or physics so I don’t think they could evaluate the course. This also begs the question, why on earth was a course on health care taught in the Department of Anthropology in the first place?
There was a significant backlash against the University on Monday. The story was picked up by The Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post and CBC Radio As It Happens. I spoke with three reporters. The main concern shared by everyone had evolved beyond the actual course material itself to the University finding the portrayal of vaccines not “unbalanced.”
The University doubles down
Yesterday (July 7) the office of the Vice President and Provost issued another statement restating the opinion that the course was not “unbalanced” and still ignoring the concerns of the faculty over the quantum mechanics:
Noting that other courses in the program offer extensive scientific information regarding immunization, Vice-President Goel concluded that the sessional instructor’s approach in the class towards the issue of immunization in particular had not been unbalanced; it presented material that, in context, would enable critical analysis and inquiry.
Good information doesn’t immunize people against bad
This idea that other classes will sort of balance things out is absurd. If people knew what was scientifically sounds when presented with both good and bad information there would be no anti-vaccine propaganda to begin with!
How do students decide which instructor is correct? How do they determine bias? What if they like one instructor more than the other? What if one instructor brings donuts? Using student evaluations (as mentioned in the full reply) is not a valid method of determining if a syllabus or course are scientifically rigorous because students don’t know, that’s why they are in school! But you know who is in the position to decide what is science and what is rot? The faculty and they complained!
Balance in education doesn’t mean everyone gets a turn at the lectern
A balanced approach to education doesn’t include viewing material from a doctor who had his paper retracted and subsequently lost his license for falsifying data or a doctor who equates vaccines with rape. If these references are felt to be intellectually rigorous and will enable critical analysis then what would stop a faculty member at the University of Toronto from using propaganda from other conspiracy theorists as valid educational material? It is perversion of academia to call this drivel balanced in anyway.
Balance is important when there are unknowns despite studies, scientifically valid or hisorically supported alternate theories, or novel ideas. Maybe Richard III was a lovely man and maybe someone will determine that ovarian cancer is due to a virus, but 2 + 2 will always be 4, the earth will always be round, vaccines will always have eradicated small pox, and homeopathy will always be inconsistent with the laws of chemistry and physics. If Ms. Landau-Halpern had provided academic articles to support her beliefs that would be balance and important information and I wouldn’t be writing this and no one would have complained. But then again those articles don’t exist.
This isn’t a case of academic freedom
Academic freedom is essential. It allows new ideas to evolve and to challenge old ones. Tenure protects faculty looking into ideas that could be controversial or unpopular. We might not know about prions without academic freedom. In Ontario a homeopath diploma apparently means a college degree (not university) and requires about 2100 hours of study. If I read the website correctly classes are two weekends a month, so somewhat less than the undergraduate training to get a basic science degree never mind a medical degree or masters in immunology or physics. So a new instructor whose qualification is a diploma in homeopathy who is recycling anti-vaccine propaganda and teaching incorrect ideas about quantum mechanics doesn’t fall under “academic freedom” it falls under “unqualified to teach at the university level.” There’s a difference and it matters.
The University of Toronto statement indicates they will have a different process for hiring sessional instructors for these courses in the future, but here’s a big tip for the University – you already have people on faculty who can teach about vaccines and quantum physics. You don’t need sessional instructors. And I might add is the amount of training required to get a diploma in homeopathy really sufficient to be an instructor at the University of Toronto? If it is I feel very sorry for all those post-docs slaving away.
If the University if committed to exploring alternative health they should provide internal grants for faculty with the correct background and interest to conduct studies. Classes on “alternative health” should be as evidence and scientifically based as every other science course. Having a homeopath on faculty legitimizes a “field” that has yet to provide supporting basic science.
The University is now watching the Anthropology department’s foray into health care, so that’s a good outcome. However, why they are refusing to admit this course is unbalanced regarding vaccines is unknown. I’m not the only one who wants to know, by the way. Public funds are involved, so the taxpayers certainly deserve to know why an unqualified instructor was allowed to teach a university level course on health in the Department of Anthropology using anti-vaccine propaganda and unsupported claims about quantum mechanics.
The reply from the Vice-President and Provost should have been, “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This course will no longer be offered. Courses in Anthropology that address the practice of medicine and healthcare in a prescriptive way will now require oversight from the appropriate school (e.g. medicine, immunology, physics etc.). A diploma in homeopathy will not be considered sufficient qualification for lecturing on health in any department.”
Crickets on the Physics
Oh, and the faculty in quantum mechanics are still eager for a reply. If the University finds the use of quantum mechanics to support homeopathy not unbalanced then I eagerly await their theorem and research proving such.