By now, most of you are likely aware of the scandal surrounding a course at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus that contained pseudoscientific material. For those not familiar with the situation, here is a quick review of the facts: The UTSC Health Studies program hosted by the Department of Anthropology was running a fourth year seminar course taught by Beth Landau-Halpern, a homeopathic practitioner and wife to the Dean, Rick Halpern. Earlier this year, the University administration received formal letters of complaint from several scientific organizations, which detailed their concerns that the course was providing students with incorrect and uncritical information on quantum mechanics and vaccines. In response, the University of Toronto ordered a review of the course, which was conducted by U of T’s Vice-President of Research and Innovation, Dr. Vivek Goel. The review found that while some of the procedures during the vetting process could have been more stringent, the course itself was not “unbalanced”, especially not for senior students who would presumably have a solid base in biology, allowing for “critical thinking”. At the present time, the course has been removed from the calendar for the 2015-2016 academic term, Ms. Landau-Halpern is no longer teaching at U of T, and Rick Halpern has resigned his post as the Dean of the Scarborough Campus.
As a magazine affiliated with the Department of Immunology, there was never any question as to whether IMMpress would address this issue; our mandate has always been to discuss current events in science and education. However, this magazine was also intended to be a mouthpiece for student perspectives, especially those that might run counter to the status quo. As such, I would like to discuss a less popular (or at least less voiced) opinion on the public response to this course and I hope that you will continue the discussion outside of these pages.
The university is facing intense criticism from public health experts who question why it is aligning itself with an anti-vaccine advocate….” – The Globe and Mail
It should not come as a surprise to anyone that this course struck a chord with a large number of individuals who fall into what we would describe as the “anti-vaccine movement”. These sympathetic responses, which can be found buried in the comments section of Globe and Mail articles or more openly displayed on the equivalent Facebook pages, range from a defence of academic freedom to righteous jubilation that a prestigious university has “demonstrated its openmindedness”, “validated the study of alternative medicine” and taken steps to break free from “Big Brother” and “Big Pharma.”
It is largely the anticipation of and objection to this latter interpretation that has had supporters of science education up in arms. Some groups, including the Canadian Alliance to Support Immunization (CASI) and the University of Toronto Medical Students, have presented their criticism in a professional manner, communicating directly with the university’s executives to express their dissatisfaction with the institution’s tepid response to the situation. Others have been much less forgiving, excoriating the University of Toronto on personal blogs and in the major Canadian media outlets. Several prominent scientists have even suggested that the university is no longer fit to teach and have accused it of being paid off by rich supporters of pseudoscience — “anti-vaccine shills”, if you like. What I find even more unsettling though is the number of times I have seen this sentiment echoed online by alumni of the university itself, accompanied by admissions of shame and threats to pull their financial support.
At this juncture, I would like to point out that I do not support either the course or the assertions put forward by the university defending its creation. I agree with the critics mentioned above that academic freedom should not be promoted at the expense of academic integrity, that “balance” does not include instruction in discredited theories, and that it is unreasonable to expect students, even senior ones, to provide the necessary level of critical thought required in such a course when it directly contradicts the philosophy and likely the grading criteria of the “expert authority.” I also agree that a strong response to these internal challenges to academic integrity is required given the prevailing social climate.
[W]ithdrawing financial support from the university in the face of declining government funding only serves to punish current and future students, who end up bearing the cost….”
What I wholeheartedly disagree with, however, is the notion that this mistake renders the University of Toronto obsolete as an academic institution and that slandering its reputation is the right way to rectify the situation. This immutable attitude is not only unnervingly similar to the hardline stances taken by many anti-vaccine proponents, but it also contributes to the very atmosphere of “perfection at all costs” that stifles innovation, facilitates fraud, and feeds into the growing public doubt. More importantly, withdrawing financial support from the university in the face of declining government funding only serves to punish current and future students, who end up bearing the cost both through increased tuition and through the inevitable cuts to their programs that make these administrative lapses in judgment more likely, not less. While the University of Toronto has not verbally addressed its errors with sufficient gravity throughout this ordeal, it has nonetheless taken the appropriate actions (discontinuing the course for the coming term and reviewing the course oversight process) to address the problem, demonstrating that it is open to discussion and willing to change.
It is evident from the response of concerned citizens and the media that the scientifically-minded, pro-vaccine community in Canada is proud and strong. Members of this community (which includes many of the faculty and students at the University of Toronto) are absolutely right to speak out against pseudoscience, poor administrative practice, and the undermining of our standards of education. However, when we call out academic failings, the next step should be to fix them not tear down the infrastructure that supports higher learning. If scientists and educators truly want to get at the root of anti-science sentiment and ensure that future generations are well-versed in critical thought, we need to foster an atmosphere where mistakes are used to teach and improve, not to punish.
Acknowledgment: Thank you to Dr. Tania Watts for insights into the actions and opinions of the Canadian Alliance to Support Immunization.
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