Both Sides Now

Higher education needs more diversity of thought. Bringing anti-vaccine paranoia into the classroom isn’t the way to achieve it.

Are there really two sides to this story?

Photo by Creatas Images/Thinkstock

Update, July 8, 2015, at 11:54 a.m.: A University of Toronto representative has confirmed that the “Alternative Health: Practice and Theory” class will not be taught this year.

Normally, when your anti-vaxxer Facebook friend sanctimoniously informs you that she’s made the “choice” to put her children (and yours) at risk for preventable diseases because she’s done extensive research, it means she’s read a bunch of crackpot nonsense on the Internet. But now, thanks to a new course at the University of Toronto (a real and legitimate institution of higher learning), your anti-vaxxer Facebook friend will be able to say she’s taken a college class on it, in which she read a bunch of crackpot nonsense on the Internet.

This new course in the U of T anthropology department, “Alternative Health: Practice and Theory,” is taught by homeopath Beth Landau-Halpern, who is apparently the wife of a dean at one of the branch campuses. Regarding the vaccine content specifically, OB-GYN Jen Gunter notes:

No medical, nursing, or basic biology/immunology textbooks or articles are referenced in the required reading nor is any information from Health Canada or the World Health Organization. Instead, the required reading/viewing and additional information for the students (meaning what they will learn and thus take away from the course) includes Andrew Wakefield (who lost his medical license for falsifying data in a now beyond infamous study) […] and anti-vaccine propaganda sites. 

Here’s an excerpt from the U of T president’s office (in response to vehement letters of concern from faculty) that defends the course as balanced, or at any rate, not unbalanced:

[Vice President of Research and Innovation Vivek] Goel […] concluded that the instructor’s approach in the class towards the issue of immunization in particular had not been unbalanced. It did not deviate from a presentation of material that, in context, would enable critical analysis and inquiry. From an academic pedagogy perspective, Professor Goel found that there had not been sufficient deviation from the range of scholarly approaches to immunization to warrant concerns.

Normally I love everything about Canada—Kids in the Hall! Universal health care! Poutine!—but this is ridiculous. The course’s content ranges from anti-vaccine material by noted lack-of-medical-license-haver Wakefield to some admirably bananas hoo-hoo about quantum mechanics. It does not present a legitimate “side” of jack-diddly-squat. Teaching such material in the university setting grants legitimacy to theories that have not earned it. This is not just annoying—it’s a dangerous precedent that could have wide-ranging ramifications for research and teaching.

Especially in the United States, plaintive demands for more diversity of thought in universities usually come from the right wing, whose intellectual class tends to get sad whenever the entire economics department isn’t just one giant walk-in copy of Atlas Shrugged. In addition, educational conservatives (such as Heather Mac Donald and Mark Bauerlein) bemoan the demise in English departments of what should be a one-note glorification of the Western Canon. I make fun, but when I watch things like this very interesting interview with New York University German professor Avital Ronell wherein she claims the term “meaning” has “very fascistoid nonprogressivist edges,” I understand that today’s university can sometimes be a lonely and confusing place for the conservative youngster.

I actually don’t think offering more conservative sources (i.e. “balanced” curricula) in the humanities would be the end of the world. But teaching the anti-theory theories of Against Deconstruction author John Ellis next to the pro-theory theories of Monsieur Deconstruction himself, Jacques Derrida, is one thing. It’s another thing altogether in the sciences, where the demands for “balance” come from the left (or however Jenny McCarthy identifies herself). There is no scientific proof that “meaning” is or is not fascistoid. But it’s a different story when unsuspecting students are presented with material in science or social science courses that is not evidence-based—or that, in the case of both anti-vaccination paranoia and quantum mechanics, has been debunked. The same would be true of any university that teaches literalist seven-day creationism in biology courses or denies human-made climate change in ecology courses. There aren’t “two sides” of any of these debates in the scientific milieu. There is science, and there is … not science.

There will always be people—mostly your old high school classmates on Facebook—who insist that since there is no one 100 percent definitive proof of what causes autism, that it’s important to explore all possibilities, especially those that aren’t part of a giant Big Pharma conspiracy to force-inject us all with scabies for fun. First of all, unfriend those people. But more importantly, that cannot be the standard by which content is or is not admitted into consideration for sincere university study.

After all, do you have 100 percent definitive proof that President Obama is not a secret Kenyan Muslim Socialist Black Panther using Jade Helm psy-ops techniques to seize Cliven Bundy’s cattle?!? No, you do not. Please look for “Special Topics in PoliSci: Famous Secret Kenyan Muslim Socialists and Their Threat to Us All” in a course catalog near you. Do you have 100 percent definitive proof that Jews such as myself are not actually 8-foot lizards? I mean, think about it: Have you ever seen an 8-foot lizard and me in the same place at the same time? You have not. Cogito ergo sum ipso facto post hoc ergo propter hoc, this requires further study!

I duly recognize the overrepresentation of one ideological perspective in today’s university. And if it were just about adding Ayn Rand to philosophy class, I’d grit my teeth and shrug and go, fine. But there is a point at which respecting a diversity of opinion becomes allowing utter ignorance to pervade the very institution whose only job is to combat ignorance. That point has been reached, and the University of Toronto administration needs to reconsider.