In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper purporting to demonstrate a link between vaccines and autism. Yet, the paper was eventually exposed as fraudulent — Wakefield had an undeclared conflict of interest, and had manipulated data to support his findings. The paper was retracted, Wakefield lost his medical license, and the ensuing scandal was one of the biggest in the history of science.
Unfortunately, however, Wakefield’s erroneous connection between vaccines and autism has stuck in the public mind. In fact, the anti-vaccine movement has since become an avatar of pseudoscience, and a testament to the ability of debunked claims to influence popular opinion.
Accordingly, when it came to light that a UTSC course — HLTD04H3: alternative health: practice and theory — was teaching anti-vaccine material, there was a strong backlash, and the course was eventually cancelled. One of the few voices of support for HLTD04 was Jeremy Li — a St. George physics student who published a thought-provoking article in The Varsity, defending the embattled course on the grounds of academic freedom.
For Li, the issue is not about the ideas expressed in the course, but rather the right to express them. “Muzzling an anthropology course on the basis that it is ‘bad science’ is absurd,” he writes, as “it sets a dangerous precedent that could place dangerous limitations on legitimate academic discussion and inquiry.”
Li’s dedication to academic freedom is admirable; however, his factual assumptions are incorrect, and his concerns are ultimately misplaced.
To begin with, a cursory glance at the HLTD04 syllabus shows that it is simply not a serious university course — which is fitting, as the instructor is not a professor, but rather a homeopath who is married to the dean. The reading list is comprised mostly of dubious online sources, including YouTube videos, while academic articles from peer-reviewed journals are conspicuously absent.
Moreover, contrary to the conclusion of the provosts’ report quoted in Li’s article, the section on vaccines is anything but balanced. Out of the nine readings on vaccination, all nine are critical of the practice, and seven suggest a link with autism — not a single contrary opinion is presented.
This not only paints a one-sided picture of the topic, but also inverts the scientific consensus, which is overwhelmingly pro-vaccine and dismissive of the autism link. One reading is simply a video of Wakefied shamelessly rehashing the hoax that cost him his career, unaccompanied by any materials about the fraud exposure and ensuing scandal.
Although the course is listed under Heath Studies, a sub-division of the Anthropology department, it is not anthropological in nature. Anthropologists investigate human practices out of interest in humanity, not the practices per se. They study folk-mythologies, for instance, to gain insight into the cultures that originated them, not to argue the merits of the belief-systems themselves.
HLDT04 is quite different — it does not attempt to situate anti-vax-ism in the history of medical science, but rather, actively plugs it. This is not how psychologists present Freudianism, or physicists Platonism (i.e. as formative phases in the history of their disciplines, from which modern practitioners have moved on). Instead, HLDT04 makes claims of scientific fact. Contrary to Li’s argument, then, the course is in fact obliged to meet scientific standards of reason and evidence. Needless to say, it does not.
Li is correct that freedom of expression, in particular academic freedom, is extraordinarily important. I, for one, am not of the opinion that professors should be fired for expressing controversial, or even offensive academic theses. This practice sets an ominous precedent for the stifling of dissent, and the suppression of heterodox ideas — which, as history shows, are often important. Controversial views should be combatted by counter-arguments, not censorship.
Yet, universities are not obliged to admit any and all ideas into their curricula. Putting a course on the timetable gives it the lofty status that goes along with being offered for credit by the University of Toronto, a well-known and prestigious institution.
This status, conferred upon dangerous quackery like ‘anti-vax-ism,’ can create the illusion of legitimate scientific debate on an issue with respect to which, in reality, there is none. This, in turn, leads very easily to public misperceptions, unfounded opposition to vaccination, and, along with it, avoidable deaths.
Accrediting a course like HLTD04 is not simply tolerating alternative views, but also a type of communication. It sends the message that the ideas expressed in the course are, at the very least, legitimate contributions to their field. When the course does not express supportable conclusions, but rather roundly debunked pseudoscience, this communication is misleading.
As certifiers of academic credibility, universities have a responsibility to make sure that their courses measure-up to disciplinary standards. In most cases, this responsibility is only to their students and reputations. When it comes to issues like vaccination, however, where lives literally hang in the balance, it takes on entirely new proportions.
Simon Capobianco is a third—year student at Woodsworth College studying math and philosophy.