On teaching pseudoscientific controversies in universities...

About a month ago, a number of news stories were published reporting that the University of Toronto had offered a course in alternative medicine taught by a homeopath named Beth Laundau-Halpern that presented a segment that was clearly highly biased towards antivaccine pseudoscience. It was worse than that, though, because this homeopathy just happened to be married to a dean at the university named Rick Halpern. The whole thing blew up into an embarrassing fiasco that demanded a response from the University. Unfortunately, this came in the form of a weaselly report, in which Vivek Goel, Vice-President Research and Innovation, was charged with investigating. He actually looked at the course's syllabus, interviewed Landau-Halpern and various other people involved, and, incredibly, concluded that this alternative medicine course was "not unbalanced." Not surprisingly, those of us who devote significant proportions of our free time promoting science- and evidence-based medicine were—shall we say?—less than pleased. Blogospheric volleys against the University of Toronto's class and its attempt to claim it wasn't "unbalanced" started with Jen Gunter, who sarcastically noted that the University of Toronto apparently thought that Andrew Wakefield is a legitimate source of vaccine information, and then proceeded to the likes of Steve Novella, a heavy hitter in this area, and, of course, little ol' me, a somewhat less heavy hitter. As I noted at the time, the University of Toronto's course was yet another example of what I like to call quackademia or quackademic medicine; i.e., the infiltration of pseudoscience taught and even practiced uncritically in academic medical centers.

Of course, it was pointed out, even right here in the comment section of this very blog, that this was not a course offered by the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, and indeed this was true. The course was in fact offered as part of the Health Studies Program and fell under the auspices of the Department of Anthropology. As such, this course wasn't teaching medical students the quackery that is homeopathy, although, as I couldn't help but note at the time, the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto has on its faculty a true believer in homeopathy named Heather Boon, who's carrying out a clinical trial of homeopathy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, Heather Boon is more than just faculty; she's the dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy! (Also not surprisingly, she doesn't like Dr. Novella or myself.) So, naturally, it was hard for skeptics not to see Landau-Halpern's course, apparently offered more because her husband was a dean than because of any merit the course had, through the lense of other even more disturbing infiltrations of quackademic medicine at the University of Toronto.

In any case, it was ultimately reported that Landau-Halpern is no longer U. of T. faculty and the university will no longer offer the course, and, as I learned recently, Rick Halpern resigned as dean to return to teaching history. It's hard not to link the embarrassment his university suffered in the wake of the news reports about his wife's course to Halpern's rather sudden resignation as dean. Although it was messy, and the university's report made the risible statement that Landau-Halpern's course was "not unbalanced," all's corrected, right?

Sort of. At best.

The campus of the University of Toronto these days? The campus of the University of Toronto these days?

This ugly incident and the university's unsatisfactory response notwithstanding, the other day I was disappointed to see a senior faculty member at U. of T. not only defending the university but defending its having offered the course in the first place. Because it is someone who is usually soundly in the science-based camp, I had to take his viewpoint seriously. Unfortunately, I find his arguments unpersuasive. Equally unfortunately, this defense of the university included an unjustified swipe at medical skeptics like myself that I personally found downright insulting.

I'm referring to Larry Moran, a Professor of Biochemistry at U. of T., who wrote a post on his blog, On teaching alternative medicine at the University of Toronto. First, let me deal with the insulting part, so that I don't have to deal with it again and can proceed from areas where there is more common ground and hopefully finish on a high (or at least not on a nasty) note. Near the end of his post, Moran dismissively and condescendingly attacks a massive straw man, one so massive that, were it set on fire, it could probably be seen from space and I could probably see its glow in the east at night even though Toronto is well over 200 miles away from where I live:

From an academic pedagogical perspective, there's nothing wrong with a course that has a reading list emphasizing quack medicine. This is the view that people outside of the university don't understand. They appear to want to prevent students from ever learning about, or discussing, the anti-vax movement and how to deal with it.

They are wrong.2

Those of you who read the articles and have seen talks by supporters of science-based medicine like Steve Novella and myself will recognize this for the straw man that it is. We never say anything like this, that we want to prevent students from learning about or discussing the antivaccine movement. That is an assertion that is unsupported and, quite frankly, downright risible. So you should understand that I was more than a little pissed off when I read this part of Moran's post. We never say that we don't want alternative medicine to be taught or antivaccine views taught. (Indeed, I really wish that pediatrics residency programs, for instance, would do a better job of teaching antivaccine views, so that they don't catch pediatricians by surprise when parents start expressing them.) What we complain about is the uncritical teaching of these topics, the teaching, for example, of alternative medicine modalities as though they had scientific merit. This is a massive problem in medical academia. I've lost track of how many times I've reiterated this very point going back at least a decade.

Indeed, in the very post about Landau-Halpern's course, I wrote:

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t object in concept to a course that looks at the antivaccine movement and its arguments, but such a course must be rooted in science and critical thinking, so that it helps students understand why antivaccine misinformation is not supported by science. Ditto quantum quackery.

And in his post on the topic, Steve Novella wrote:

Optimally, courses promoting pseudoscience would not be taught at any university. If a university wants to teach about alternative medicine, or creationism, or astrology, they should teach it from a critical point of view. This should not be confused with promoting pseudoscientific propaganda, however.

And that is exactly the issue with Landau-Halpern's course, as I will discuss in a moment. Its syllabus reviewed it to be far more about propaganda for alternative medicine than a critical evaluation of various alternative medicine topics.

Now let's see what Moran also said after his footnote:

2. If any of these people respond to this post, you can be certain that they are going to move the goalposts. They are now going to say that they were never opposed to exposing students to anti-vaccine material but only opposed to the way it would have been taught in this particular course.

Bullshit, Professor Moran. Bullshit. I don't know what posts you've been reading, but I, at least, have been utterly consistent in this position since I was first shocked out of my shruggie complacency by learning of the existence of quackademic medicine, lo nearly a decade ago (for Steve Novella and other skeptics who were among my inspirations, even longer). I became involved with my not-so-super-secret other blog in order to combat the uncritical teaching of alternative medicine pseudoscience and quackery in medical schools and academia.

There, now that I've gotten that off my chest, I can calm down and discuss the rest of Profesor Moran's arguments a bit more dispassionately, albeit not much less snarkily. This is, after all, the Respectful Insolence blog, and what better form of Insolence is there than snark? But, first, because there is a fair amount of common ground between Prof. Moran an myself, an olive branch of sorts.

Moran writes:

From my perspective, the main problem was not the content of the course but the qualifications of the instructor and the reason she got her job. The instructor was not qualified to teach a university course, although I would have no problem with her giving some of the lectures in a course run by a qualified university instructor. I think the university has done a fine job of resolving that issue.

Oy, that last sentence. So close, and yet so far. I'll ignore it for the moment because I do, actually, agree with the bulk of this passage. Certainly, there was at least the the appearance of impropriety, if not actual impropriety, in way that a dean's wife got to teach this course even though, by virtue of being a homeopath, she was utterly unqualified to teach such a course. Why was she unqualified? For one thing, she is biased in favor of pseudoscience. Indeed, homeopathy as a "profession" (my fingers seized up as I typed that word and it took two or three attempts to get them to work) is generally very much antivaccine. But wait! you say. Just because Landau-Halpern is a homeopath doesn't necessarily mean she is antivaccine herself. True enough! I suppose it's possible that there are rare unicorns homeopaths who aren't antivaccine. However, if these unicorns homeopaths exist, they are so rare that I can't remember having encountered one in my 15+ years of examining pseudoscientific medical claims. Indeed, the closest thing I ever came to a homeopath who isn't antivaccine was a naturopath who claimed not to be antivaccine (remember, you can't have naturopathy without homeopathy), and it turns out that she spouted plenty of antivaccine pseudoscience.

So let's look at Landau-Halpern herself, whose history provides copious evidence that she is antivaccine. For instance, as I documented, Halpern was busted by CBC Marketplace advising a reporter posing as a young mother not to vaccinate and promoted the quackery of homeopathic nosodes as an alternative to vaccines. Not only that, but she treats ADHD (she ought to get along with Prof. Boon quite famously) and autism with homeopathy as well, which tells me her understanding of science is incredibly lacking. On her very own website, she writes:

My interest in autism was sparked by my experiences with the detoxification of children who were damaged by the administration of vaccines. Many behavioral problems soon disappeared when vaccines were detoxified, even when many of these children came to me for completely different reasons. In my practice it turned out that mood swings, aggression, restlessness, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and ADHD often are correlated to the many and early vaccinations in children. When some of my autistic patients greatly improved after the detoxification of their vaccines, my interest was aroused, and I became increasingly convinced that autism must at least partially tie in with the administration of vaccines. At the Chicago congress on autism in May of 2003 I presented 30 cases of behavioral disorders that had significantly improved with the detoxification of the vaccines (among these were three autistic children). Nowadays it has become clear that vaccines are not the only culprit, although the most important, other toxic substances can also play an important role.

So, yes, Halpern is antivaccine and was utterly unqualified to teach a course about alternative medicine. However, as a homeopath, she was very much qualified to teach an overview course in alternative medicine.

I note that there's a big difference between teaching a course about a subject like alternative medicine and teaching a course in such a subject. I like to make an analogy, albeit an imperfect one, to religion dating back to my days attending a Catholic school. Think of this difference as the difference between teaching a course about world religions and the courses offered on Catholic religion. In the former case, we were taught in an amazingly dispassionate fashion about the various world religions, their doctrines, and their histories. In our Catholic religion class, however, we were taught Catholic doctrine as Truth. In other words, I'm referring to the difference between education and indoctrination.

Of course, there is nothing in a world religion class to let students figure out which religions have more validity than others. An atheist might say they are all equally invalid while a believer would simply say that his religion is valid and all those others are not. In science, however, we can determine what is and isn't scientific, and in medicine we can determine what is and isn't quackery. Moran makes an analogy:

Lots of people are getting their knickers in a twist because the university offers a course on "Alternative Health." That's mostly because they don't understand how universities are supposed to work. As most Sandwalk readers know, I advocate dealing directly with controversies and, to that end, I think it's a good idea to teach a course where students can examine the main creationist arguments. It's a good way to practice critical thinking. For many years I taught a course where the main reading was Jonathan Wells' book Icons of Evolution.

It's not a bad analogy. But see where it falls down. Prof. Moran, not a creationist, taught the course and led the discussions. He is a biochemist and very much a defender of evolution. Depending on how good a teacher he is and what his style of teaching this particular course was, he could guide the students to see the flaws in creationist arguments or tweak them so that they found them on their own. That's not at all what was going on with the alternative medicine course that caused the controversy, as the course's syllabus (dissected in detail by Jen Gunter, Steve Novella, and myself) inarguably indicates, containing nothing but credulous takes on quantum quackery and antivaccine views, among others. Basically, U. of T. had a quack teaching a course in quackery in a manner that would be akin to having a creationist teach Prof. Moran's course in creationist arguments. You can bet that the students would likely come away from such a course with a different take on creationist arguments than they did from his version of the course! You can also bet that Prof. Moran wouldn't be happy to find out that a course about "controversies" in evolution was being taught by, say, Ken Ham or a flack from the Discovery Institute. So why doesn't he understand why we are unhappy about an antivaccinationist and quack teaching a course that included a module on "controversies in vaccination" and issues in alternative medicine?

A lot of his other objections seem to boil down to a rather condescending dismissal of concerns as being due to critics allegedly not understanding how universities work. I understand how universities, at least medical schools, work just fine, having spent my entire career in medical academia, and so does Steve Novella, having spent his entire career in medical academia. Now, to be fair, medical academia is a specialized beast and not run quite the way other schools in the university tend to be run. For one thing, medical schools have to produce a curriculum that is approved by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME); there is less freedom, at least in clinical departments, over what courses can be offered. The rest of medical school departments tend to train primarily graduate students, necessitating graduate-level classes. On the other hand, that very lack of freedom also causes one of our biggest headaches with respect to quackademic medicine, and that's the LCME's requirement that "complementary and alternative medicine" be taught in the curriculum. There are, of course, two ways of doing that: from a critical and science-based viewpoint, or from a more credulous viewpoint. Sadly, all too many medical schools choose the latter or methods that lean towards the latter, with actual alternative medicine practitioners teaching the courses, and that is what science-based medicine battles against.

Be that as it may, yes, it's a good thing that U. of T. apparently brought the offending program under tighter departmental control, apparently declined to re-sign the offending homeopath as adjunct faculty, and—this is just my guess but a plausible one, I think—probably encouraged Rick Halpern to resign as dean. It really is. In contrast, it's not a good thing that Vivek Goel, Vice-President Research and Innovation, could look at the curriculum for Halpern-Landau's course and conclude that it was "not unbalanced." I would have been far more impressed if U. of T. had simply said, "Hey, we screwed up. We somehow let a homeopath slip an unbalanced class past our usual checks and balances. We shouldn't be teaching quackery as though it were medicine any more than we should be teaching creationism as though it were evolution."

Moran also asks readers to put this course in context, to look at the rest of the curriculum. I argue that in this case that's a red herring. There's nothing wrong with offering a course that examines pseudoscience and even invites advocates of pseudoscience to give guest lectures, but when the person running the course is herself the practitioner of a pseudoscientific form of medicine, there's a real problem. I don't care what the prerequisites to the class were or what other courses are taught in the program. Moran goes on and on about a university's responsibility to expose students to controversies in a field of study. True enough. However, a university also has a responsibility to teach such controversies from the perspective of what can be demonstrated with evidence. Putting a purveyor of magic water in charge of a course on magic treatments fails that test.

Finally, Moran also goes wrong here:

It's important to understand that we are not dealing with children. These are mature university students taking a course in their final year of study. They do not need to be "protected" from the evil bogeyman of quack medicine. Most of the outsiders complaining about this course seem to think that these naive students are going to be swayed to the dark side by being exposed to the real world of quackery. If that were true (it is not true) then we would have a much more serious problem on our hands than just this course.

Here's where, I suspect, Moran's own background betrays him and he doesn't see the broader picture, at least not in medicine. Remember, he is a professor in a hard core basic science department (biochemistry) that accepts and teaches evolution. There is little or no danger that its students, by the time they reach upper levels, would not be well-equipped to deal with creationist fallacies, particularly with him on the faculty. His confidence in them is understandable. Contrast that to this program, the Health Studies Program at UTSC, which is a lot less hard core, combining "courses from a range of disciplines to examine this critical area from a biological, social and policy perspective." It's also an undergraduate program, which virtually by definition means that the students won't be receiving as deep a background in the issues relevant to alternative medicine as medical and graduate students do.

In the end, my little fit of pique over Prof. Moran's condescending and dismissive attitude towards those of us who were so outraged by this course being offered by U. of T. aside, we actually (mostly agree). Moran supports "teaching the controversy" with respect to evolution and with respect to alternative medicine. So do I. Where we disagree is over what "teaching the controversy" actually entails. Can Prof. Moran can honestly say that he wouldn't be the least bit upset if his own department were to offer an entire course on "controversies in evolution" taught by Ken Ham, Casey Luskin, and a Discovery Institute fellow to be named later? That he would approve of such a class as a great way to "teach the controversy"? If he can, I'd say there's a problem. If he can't say that, I congratulate him. That's the correct reaction. In that case, I also point out that he has no business being so contemptuous of our anger over a homeopath teaching a course in alternative medicine as a way of "teaching the controversy."


More like this

It's nice that Prof. Moran believes upper level students at his university are so steeped in logic and critical thinking that they will all see through "the dark side" with no trouble. Apart from this being a fallacy - then why should U. of Toronto bother with "teaching the controversy" in the first place? Sounds completely unnecessary.

I suspect Moran's pride is hurt at U. of Toronto having become a laughingstock over this issue, and he also sees an opportunity here to suck up to the administration by congratulating them for their, uh, superb handling of the affair.

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

"I don't understand the uproar. We've been teaching a class on Hitler's Mein Kampf for years. Just because we got David Duke to teach this semester to give a contemporary outlook shouldn't distract from the topic."

Does that mean the University of Toronto is going to get Lysenko in to teach genetics?

And Boon's ADHD paper proposal is really, really bad, speaking as a former child and adolescent MH bod.

These are mature university students taking a course in their final year of study.

I'm sorry, Pr Moran, but right now you are telling you expect your students coming to your own lectures to be thinking "Let's see what stupid things the old fool will say this time".

For one, I would have been thinking students are supposed to entertain the idea that the guy/lady they are listening to has some mastery of the lecture's topic. If not, what's the point of attending? There is so better use of one's time. Not to mention the entrance fee.

For two, if you believe that students are, on average, ready to parse your sayings and check for accuracy, you must suck as a teacher. I know we are supposed to use our brain, but from what I remember from my university years, it's easier to just go along with the teacher and regurgitate the lessons during the finals.

They are now going to say that they were never opposed to exposing students to anti-vaccine material but only opposed to the way it would have been taught in this particular course.

I am glad Pr Moran isn't teaching in nuclear physics*.
*talking about his project to walk with his students inside an uranium processing plant without hazmat suits*
"My critics are going to say that they were never opposed to exposing students to radioactive material but only opposed to the way it would have been done in this particular course."

*Or chemistry. Or microbiology. Let's throw some high explosives or a vial of Ebola virus to a bunch of unsuspecting students and see what they do with it.

By Helianthus (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Many behavioral problems soon disappeared when vaccines were detoxified,

What the h-e-double-hockeystick does that even mean?

By palindrom (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

“I don’t understand the uproar. We’ve been teaching a class on Hitler’s Mein Kampf for years. Just because we got David Duke to teach this semester to give a contemporary outlook shouldn’t distract from the topic.”

Or David Irving.

Heh. You are more evil than I. :-)

One quibble, of which I'm sure most readers are aware:

"Teaching the controversy" is fine in principle, but the phrase has been used by creationists to create a Trojan horse they can use to insert creationism into the public schools.

It's a classic case of false balance.

By palindrom (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

"What the h-e-double-hockeystick does that even mean?"

Um, you have to take the class to find out.

Oh, and, you'll have to buy the book written by the professor too.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

“Teaching the controversy” is fine in principle, but the phrase has been used by creationists to create a Trojan horse they can use to insert creationism into the public schools.

It’s a classic case of false balance.

Yes, but it's not the same thing. "Teach the controversy" is a rallying cry creationists use to insert creationism into public schools, true, but K-12 education is a very different beast than college education. In K-12 science education, you want to give children the basics, principles of how to do science and the knowledge of what is well-supported science. As such, teaching creationism, even as controversy, in public schools undermines what public schools are supposed to be doing.

Contrast this to college, a higher level of education. There, ostensibly, the goal is to produce a student who can evaluate claims and evidence by himself. In such an environment teaching a pseudocontroversy like creationism or alternative medicine, if done correctly and not from the point of view of the pseudoscience, can be a good exercise teaching critical thinking.

So, I see where you're coming from, but I don't think it applies as much to college, particularly upper level college, education the way it does to K-12.

DB@1: It is often useful, and in fact desirable, for a university course to teach not only what we know, but how we know it. In the context of Prof. Moran's course, this includes discussing what the proposed alternatives to evolution are and why they don't work. That's why having, e.g., Ken Ham teach such a course would lead to an epic fail: Ham would not teach such a course in that manner, because he already "knows" the answer and will not be persuaded by evidence to the contrary.

The latter scenario is a good analogy for Ms. Landau-Halpern's course. It would be reasonable for an anthropology department to offer a course in pre-scientific belief systems, complete with discussions of why people believed those systems at the time and why we now know them to be incorrect. Ms. Landau-Halpern was instead starting from the premise that her views were necessarily true, and that made her course worse than useless.

Of course it's a harder tightrope to walk in departments like anthropology, where often there are multiple equally valid ways of viewing the evidence, than in STEM departments, where experiments can be done and theoretical predictions falsified. But it's something that should and must be done.

As for whether upper division undergraduates can see whether creationist arguments are bogus: Most of them can, at least in STEM majors (this is Canada, not the US, we are talking about), but yes, there are a few outliers (probably not as many as there would be in a US program of similar size, but not always zero either--there are creationists who have gone to the trouble of getting Ph.D. degrees in biology).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

@ palindrom:

Many of the woo-entranced believe that one can remove the toxins that vaccines deposit into their pristine offspring/ patients through various whimsy-based procedures ( like chelation, green juices, supplements, energy healing) *et voila!* the signs and symptoms of ASDs will ameliorate or disappear.

I suppose it cleans out the clogged tubes in the CNS or suchlike.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Denice -- It's toxins all the way down!

Someone should sound the tocsin.

Orac @9 -- We are in perfect agreement. I just thought it worth pointing out how that particular phrase has been abused in another context.

By palindrom (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Just spent 10 minutes trying to comment on Moran's blog. What an annoying experience - whatever I tried it kept kicking me back to the "publish" button. Eventually it kicked me out and I lost the entire post.

Briefly - his post is a massive exercise in missing the point. The course was not "dealing directly with controversies," it was teaching pseudoscience as if it were science.

You know, I remember taking an upperclassman honors seminar on various issues in medicine. (It was sort of a grab bag: we could talk about the history of pharmacology, body modification and circumcision, and, yes, homeopathy/alt med.) Because science-themed honors seminars were short on the ground but needed to stay in the honors program, most of the students were science majors of one stripe or another.

When we discussed homeopathy, we had readings from both sides, and the professors were more trying to get us to think about why such things were practiced (or not) rather than our instance of 'what the flying fuck is this nonsense'. (We also had a guest naturopath visit, but given the tone of the discussion, the professors warned us that we had to be polite. Even then, I think our 'how the hell does this work' came through, while she seemed more in the 'this helped my kids, so I studied it'. It also was a useful lesson in the difference between what was written to convince the skeptical and the 'on the ground' practice.)

Which, as Orac said, asking why is useful to both anthropology and pre-med/medical students, but would look different than 'teach the controversy'.

By Becca Stareyes (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

I get what Moran is saying, though I'll tone troll HIM, and suggest he could have been more persuasive without the pique.

Landau-Halpern was unqualified to teach the class, which pretty clearly would not even have been offered (by anyone) had Rick Halpern not been seeking a perk for his wife. Reading between the lines, the Health Studies faculty was seriously POed at being forced into this. Goel probably took full measure of just what a mess Halpern created inside the U, amongst his own colleagues. When that results in bad pub, that's a major sin, while bad pub sans internal procedural turmoil not so much. Anyway, Goel's statement is ure CYA, as "Hey, we screwed up!" just isn't in the vocabulary of any university administrator anywhere.

But whether the course itself as actually taught was out-of-bounds can't be determined from the syllabus or Landau-Halpern's cv. You'd need 'objective' accounts from observers of how she conducted class sessions and especially how she graded an kind of essay assignments or tests. I've know mildly profs mildly 'partisan' on some academic divide who punish all dissenting students in grading, and profs who are themselves far more committed to position (X) but give the highest grade to students who mount good arguments in their dissent.

So, no, I wouldn't let David Duke teach Mein Kampf – he's a troll and has no academic credentials. But I have run into some intellectuals who are quite fond of fascist ideology, but don't run the classrooms or grade assignments fascistically, and they can actually do a good job... (Of course, i have no idea how Landau-Halpern actually ran her class.)

Mainly, I have to support Moran's point about putting the course in the context of the curricullum, and disagree with Orac that this is a red herring. This is not just (or even mainly) a question of the manifest content of prerequisites courses, but again of pedagogical method. Specifically, it's a question of whether reading assignments in other Health Studies courses are bracketed as Info Dumps of 'Truth', or as 'interesting ideas worth having an argument about.'

Goel's report (cited at length by Moran, check Orac's link above) emphasizes that Heath Studies majors DO have enough enough background on science, especially vaccines to already know the mainstream position and thus be critical of woo. But IMHO this misses the point. If they've been taught that stuff on a model of 'authoritative prof and text deliver the facts', getting a different instructor assigning ONLY material opposed to that could indeed mess with the kids heads.

On the other hand, proper pedagogy in the humanities expects/encourages/demands students do critical thinking about EVERYTHING. Again, I can't speak to UT's Health Studies program, but by the time the majors reach their senior year, they could be trained to treat every reading assignment as 'chew this over' not 'suck this in'. Goel wrote, "Students in their final year of study and are expected to approach controversial topics with a critical lens."

In fact, if you have a curriculum that's effective at inculcating a critical approach, it can be useful to toss the kids a live bozo, and see how well they do responding, and without putting an 'opposing authority' on the dais for them to lean on as a crutch. That should be able to do it themselves. Would I devote a WHOLE COURSE to one corner and voice of bozo? Hell, no. I've seen it done though, albeit not on anything as charged as medi-woo. The one time my own program wound up (mostly by accident) with an adjunct from an 'opposing paradigm' (though the question was more of interpretation than 'fact' and the facts weren't scientific at all) the guy got challenged by the students so much, he shuffled away with his tail between his legs at the end of the term.

In conclusion, for something like Health Studies, framed within a humanities department like Anthro, it's not about the 'balance' or 'accuracy' of any one specific course, or even the 'valid truth quotient' of the curriculum as a whole; it's about how the curriculum as a whole teaches students to process and evaluate any sort of truth claims.

P.S. to palindom:
'Teach the controversy' came out of 'Culture War' debates about the literary canon, it's primary advocate being respected literary critic Gerald Graff. The concept itself was controversial in those circles, but part of an overall respectable dialogue. The creationists, as is the won't of woo-ists, will appropriate and mangle any rhetoric they can to justify their BS.

This has the result (to my unending angst) of these terms first reaching a wider public consciousness in these disingenuous, Machiavellian, and Orwellian re-definitions – enslaved to bad ends – which leads folks to think that's what these concepts just ARE, which totally screws up the attempts of the legit scholars who framed them to go about their work and have it understood by anyone outside their field. (E.g. no one makes MY blood boil more than Lionel F***-S***-Asswipe Milgrom...)

So, no, I wouldn’t let David Duke teach Mein Kampf – he’s a troll and has no academic credentials.

I would point out that, as far as I can tell, Beth Landau-Halpern has no academic credentials to speak of, either, and she's clearly biased against vaccines. I can provide more evidence if you like.

@Palindrome #7 Despite Orac's more nuanced view I think you were right. Within the semantics of quackery, “controversy” is a hopelessly corrupted word from which false balance can’t be excised. An argument where one side is dependent upon prejudice, stupidity, dishonesty or mere contrarianism can not be elevated to a “controversy”. To have any useful meaning controversy must be defined by the involvement of two or more contending arguments of equal or close to equal validity, otherwise we make a ‘controversy’ out of every 8 year old’s argument to stay up late on a school night. The are of course genuine scientific controversies where evidence is unclear, lacking or contradictory and all sides of the argument may have claim to validity. There is no controversy involving homeopathy as a valid treatment because there is no valid argument for the positive case. Controversy is used by quacks in the same way that it is used by the tabloid media – to cast authenticity on the vapid, the irrelevant and the bankrupt in order to claim value where non exists.

By Orlac Not Orac (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink


Hit the nail on the head.

By jonnybdead (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Orlac, I agree with your view about naming it controversy, but unaddressed it will grow.

How would you approach tearing apart the arguments for homeopathy in a course?

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

I just feel that anything being taught has to have the burden of proof. I could see it being taught in a class on spotting pseudoscience.

By jonnybdead (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

2. If any of these people respond to this post, you can be certain that they are going to move the goalposts. They are now going to say that they were never opposed to exposing students to anti-vaccine material but only opposed to the way it would have been taught in this particular course.

This looks like the classic ploy of accusing your adversaries of doing exactly what you are guilty of. To overuse the goalposts analogy: Move the goalposts to mid field. Complain bitterly when your critics insist on returning them to the end zone.

By machintelligence (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

^ If taught as a medical treatment or placed into a medical debate or journal, I agree. If taught anthropologically, there are many things taught in the soft sciences are light on proof and heavy on theory. Comes with the territory, I think.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

What would this qualify as? It seems to me that the claims are all medical. Is that the wrong way to think about it?

By jonnybdead (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

I really, really thought these stupid, bloody stupid arguments had been dismissed five years ago.

Yet I read in our Blinky Box Host's post that they haven't, and then, closer to home, I discover that the wife of the owner of my newest, tiniest local pub has refused to have her children vaccinated. Against anything. I think she's the first genuine anti-vaxxer I've come across here in middle England. (I've come across a couple who didn't want the 'flu vaccine ("because of the mercury"), or the MMR ("it causes autism" - have you been reading the Daily Fascist? "Yes" - It's not true - "OK"), but the first real live anti-vaxxer.

My question is, should I carry on supporting the pub (which is BLOODY WONDERFUL), or should I boycott it due to the wife of the landlord's views? He doesn't agree, but has gone along with her for a quiet life.

Please be quick with answers as I'm on two weeks annual leave, and he's open at lunchtime tomorrow.

By Rich Scopie (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

jonnybdead - When taught as medicine or as the truth, I'm always against it but here I'm tending towards sadar's opinion because it was a Special Topics course in Anthropology.

I think the bigger crime was the nepotism for an unqualified professor, and I don't doubt that this course resurfaces in the curriculum in the future because POPULAR but I don't know if we'll see her as a professor again.

Rich Scopie - Beer solves everything. Doesn't matter where you get it, does it?

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

not a troll
oh ok, i see what your saying.

By jonnybdead (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Argh. How could I have forgotten this?



The EHC plan existing coverage for Chiropractor, Physiotherapist and Registered Massage Therapist treatment will now include coverage for naturopathy (ND designation), homeopathy, acupuncture (Acupuncturist of Ontario registration), osteopaths and Occupational Therapy, under the same maximum $700 combined coverage per person per plan year.

Yep, the U. of T. health plan now covers naturopaths, homeopaths, and acupuncturists.

@Rich Scopie - It all depends on your personal values. I would have issues with frequenting a pub owned by, say, a known child abuser or spouse killer. However, if she's merely misguided and misinformed, not actually evil, then I see no harm in judging the pub by its ale.

Remember that no known pathogens grow in beer. However, if they start allowing acetobacter to grow in their kegs that is beyond the pale.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Yeah, unless she is actually using proceeds from the pub to spread antivaccine misinformation or lobby against vaccine coverage, I don't see the point in not frequenting the pub as usual; that is, unless she insists on talking to customers about her antivaccine beliefs whenever they show up.

An undergraduate liberal arts course like "Survey of Art History" might cover shamanism relative to 15,000 year old cave paintings, and an instructor might ask student to construct a project in that style or with the same materials. Cave paintings are wonderful, but at most they'd take one lecture out of a semester for that lesson. They certainly aren't going to teach students how to be a shaman.
In a science course, I can't see why you'd spend more than 13 min. 3 to talk about homeopaths health assessment techniques, 5 to discuss its history and 19th century popularity, 2 minutes to demonstrate succession, and 3 minutes practicing laughter therapy.

edit: succ u s s ion.
!@#$ spell correction

A rogue group in a homeopathic association develops new methods of agitating the solutions upon dilution. After bitter arguments, they decide to withdraw and start their own organization.

If their new organization prospers, one could say that their secession over succussion was a success.

It may be dumb, but it's succinct!

By palindrom (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

palindrom -- you're going to make herr doctor bimler look to his laurels.

The downside of resting on one's laurels is the aphids up the bum.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Better resting on your laurels than on holly.

Unless Holly's OK with that, of course.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Let me think about the pub and the anti-vaxxer, Rich.

Well, I suppose it would be depend upon:
- whether there were other pubs nearby
- if the creature-in-question made her presence known
- if the proprietor or barkeeper ( whoever IS present) held the same views

vs how much I wanted a drink/ liked the ambience there

In other words, I would have to like the place/ need a drink a great deal in order to overcome three yes answers above.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

@Orlac Not Orac #:

Excellent point! Misappropriation of the term "controversy" is one that, IMO, should be included in any course on homeopathy given by an unbiased authority.

In Canada and any other country where the government has sanctioned homeopathic preparations and the practice of homeopathy, academic courses on the subject fill a legitimate need to educate students of medicine about the kinds of treatments patients are currently accessing in the marketplace. If nothing else, they would then be able to assert that, contrary to popular assertions, they understand homeopathy, warts and all.

By Lighthorse (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

hdb: "The downside of resting on one’s laurels is the aphids up the bum."

Looks at bay laurel outside window. No, not aphids but wooly scale, and the occasional snail. It is very annoying.

Plus it is hard to rest on a twenty five foot tall tree.

Color me gobsmacked.

Three decades ago I hung out on the fringes of talk.origins where Larry Moran and a gang merry scientists would cheerfully kidney punch any creationist dumb enough to blunder within arm's reach.

I simply can not understand his making such a naive public statement, under any circumstances nor for any reason. This is utterly contrary to what I remember of his usually thought writings.

By Robert L Bell (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

I think the obvious counter to Moran's "they're grownups" is: If being misinformed doesn't influence people. Then what actually does? If the input isn't part of the problem then isn't he arguing for some kind of weird determinism? i.e. "The people who become quacks would have become so anyway"

As an aside my wife did her MD at another Ontario university. They brought in exactly one speaker to talk about integrative medicine. The way she tells it the students were actually angry that the administration would waste their time with this. The speaker, to say the least did not get off easy that day.

By Jonathan Graham (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

I'll second Robert L Bell's thoughts. I kept thinking, "this can't be the Dr. Moran I'm familiar with from evolution-creation stuff". But it was. That'd he'd make such logical fallacies when he was pretty good at spotting them when they were used by creationists indicates Dr. Moran has developed a black hole-sized blind spot.

I do hope he'll take a second look at his arguments and reconsider. Maybe the example of having Ham teach his evolution class using Icons of Evolution will be the "ah-ha" moment. Still, as Robert said, "gobsmacked".

By Dan Andrews (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Sadmar - the true equivalent, I think, would not be a fascist teaching *Mein Kampf*, but a Holocaust denier teaching it.

By sfbooklady (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink

Hi all,

Thanks for the thoughts on the pub. Given that I've only seen Mrs Landlord in the pub once, it's not as though she's spreading anti-vax nonsense. I'll just keep on enjoying the beer and keep trying to chip away at Mr Landlord.



By Rich Scopie (not verified) on 05 Aug 2015 #permalink

Larry tends to view issues such as this as matters of "academic freedom". His definition of this is that pretty much anything and everything goes so far as curriculum and teaching is concerned, and that it is for internal faculty to sort out any nonsense. He doesn't seem to have figured out the implications of this when the faculty gene pool has been diluted by a flock of dingbats.


“there are many things taught in the soft sciences are light on proof and heavy on theory. "

Anthropology has four or five sub fields, Archaeology, Physical Anthropology, Linguistics, Cultural Anthropology and/or sometimes Social Anthropology. My university also did Museology (museum work, not music-lol). Even if you get a PhD and go on to solve a famous archaeology problem, you are still an anthropologist--in this country anyway. Physical Anthropology and Archaeology in particular are very hard science-based and rely heavily on utilizing other fields of study such as Geology, Biology (we study Human Biology including genetics, and do basic Primate Zoology, but it’s fairly intro level at the BA level). There is a Master’s level area called Medical Anthropology that USED TO BE taught as an adjunct to Cultural Anthropology and involved more or less a liason process to people adapting to rapid cultural change. These days a lot of that seems to have gone to woo (poo?), or so I’ve been told.

I learned almost everything I know about the history of science, the life of Darwin, critical thinking, and the evidence for evolution from Anthropology 101 and Physical Anthropology (third year course). I learned how to write a scientific paper and had to defend any position I took in an essay test or term paper with solid science.

Please don’t lump my beloved field of study in with sociology, some of psychology, and whatever else falls into “soft science”. Maybe I was just lucky to have excellent professors from Harvard, Cornell, Berkeley, and a noted State University, but in my chosen sub field of archaeology, there is a whole year of methodology that is pure scientific method. You have to prove things in archaeology and you will be held to account. We have our cranks (there was one tenured professor who wrote books about Bigfoot in my time at college), but we don’t coddle them or ask anyone to give them equal time.

By darwinslapdog (not verified) on 05 Aug 2015 #permalink


You have my apologies. I was wrong and I didn't mean to smear a whole field like that. The courses I am thinking of were all lower level ones at a SUNY college that is well known for their business degrees (and their level of partying).

You made me curious so I checked the current course descriptions. I don't recall it being even as rigorous as it is now but that was many years ago. If so inclined take a look and let me know what you think. http://www.oneonta.edu/academics/anthro/course.html

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 05 Aug 2015 #permalink

Sadmar has it right.

Neptoism/unqualified professor is unacceptable, but restricting academic freedom based on the individual's 'belief' is worse.

Does Orac suggest that Jesuits should be prohibited from teaching a course on RC theology to students of comparative religion?

Considering that vaccines do not immunize 100% of those vaccinated, you can justify not going to the pub because being there could be a health hazard .

By DanielWainfleet (not verified) on 06 Aug 2015 #permalink

This is what completely infuriates me about Bill Maher. He has no problems with the science for evolution and climate change, but when it comes to medicine he is pretty quacky. Larry Moran seems to show a similar approach. Do they just think medicine isn't backed by good science, or are they picking which sciences they like and ones they don't? Regardless, I think it's pretty obvious that Moran would never have someone like Ham as a guest speaker.

It occurs to me that the splinter homeopathic association hypothesized @34 might have advocated quick, efficient means of agitation on dilution, and suggested that the language used in homeopathic diagnoses had become too verbose as well. When their splinter association proved viable, the headlines of course read

"Succinct Succussionists Successfully Secede"

Try the veal, be sure to tip your sever. I'll be here until the manager fires me.

By palindrom (not verified) on 06 Aug 2015 #permalink

Moran supported the teaching of Intelligent Design by an ID advocate as part of a science degree at Ball State University.
The reading list was heavily biased towards ID as being science, not religion.

The course was closed because of the controversy when the news became public. Moran has a quixotic opinion when it comes to academic freedom. He believes that if you qualify to stand in front of a university class then you should be allowed to say anything without concern for the academic integrity of the institution in which they teach. Personal academic freedom is absolute for him. Which is ridiculous, IMO.

By Leigh Jackson (not verified) on 07 Aug 2015 #permalink