Last week, the University of Toronto publicly doubled down, issuing a statement supporting the continuation of a health studies course teaching anti-vaccination theory. The administration’s reasoning: It’s important to present all sides of an argument in order to teach students to think critically.
What’s the difference between presenting an alternative argument and teaching that argument? When does this emphasis on critical thinking among students become an excuse for academics to not exercise those same muscles?
When I graduated from U of T in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in human biology, I was confident in the skills I’d learned and the value of my degree. The school was, after all, one of the leading science research institutions in the world (seriously, Americans, look it up). Now, I’m not so sure.
The course currently in question, entitled “Alternative Health: Practice and Theory,” was reviewed by the school’s Vice President of Research and Innovation Vivek Goel after complaints that a session on anti-vaccination was part of the syllabus. The required reading apparently included articles from secondary sources and a two-hour-long interview with Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former doctor who started this whole vaccines-lead-to-autism mess. Goel concluded that the course’s approach to teaching was normal and acceptable. Wakefield was, in his opinion, worthy of the students’ time.
The course is taught by a homeopath, Beth Landau-Halpern, who not only supports an unscientific view of vaccines but also has written that, “normal childhood illnesses like measles and chicken pox are almost always followed by massive developmental spurts,” and that vaccinations are “of questionable efficacy, full of ingredients that definitely should not be in the blood stream, and may compromise your general immunity irreparably.” The CBC has also filmed her supplying a young mother with nosodes, “alternative vaccines” made from human fluids, while advising her against vaccination. There has never been — for those keeping track — a scientific study proving that nosodes work on humans (though they can produce some mild effects on mice). Landau-Halpern, who is almost certainly well intentioned, has a history of operating outside the scientific method.
Never mind that her syllabus got through U of T’s Health Studies department in the first place and that Landau-Halpern is married to the Dean of U of T’s Scarborough campus, where the course is taught. The real scandal here is the outcome of U of T’s review. The school continues to support the course on the grounds that it’s consistent with teaching techniques that present “material that, in context, would enable critical analysis, and inquiry.” Presenting unscientific material is one thing. Devoting a course to it is another.
Goel’s review states that the aim of this course was to “present alternative medicine and to explore the controversies around these modalities.” This approach is perfectly acceptable. The world’s future scientists need to know about these issues so they can be addressed. But here’s where U of T gets it completely wrong: Landau-Halpern doesn’t just “present” or “explore” alternative medicine — as an active homeopath, she’s definitely teaching it.
My introduction to the problem of critical thinking came by way of a high school class called “Theory of Knowledge.” We were taught to constantly ask questions: How do you know that? What’s your source? What’s the evidence, and how was it evaluated? They’re the questions that inform the scientific method. They’re the questions that every university-level science program should be built on.
When Landau-Halpern was asked these same questions, she explained that her students had already taken at least three years of courses rooted in the biomedical sciences and were thus equipped to approach controversial issues critically. There is some truth here: By the time science students are offered her course in their final year, they should know the right questions to ask. But what they might not fully understand is what the answers to those questions should look like. It’s the university’s job to not just create inquisitive students, but actually supply meaningful answers to their queries.
“[Homeopathy] works, even if we don’t know how,” Landau-Halpern wrote in a personal blog post in June. This is not an acceptable answer. In a scientific context, it’s not an answer at all.
There’s a place for homeopathy and people like Landau-Halpern, but that place is not at a research institution. Especially not one that prides itself on its scientific excellence and promises to equip its graduates with the skills they need to succeed in the science world. If the University of Toronto wants to embrace homeopathy as science, that’s fine too, but I want a refund.