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Medical students protest the University of Toronto's anti-vaccine course

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Medical students in Toronto are fighting back against quackery being taught at their prestigious university.

For two years, the University of Toronto had been offering an undergraduate course in the anthropology department called "Alternative Health: Practice and Theory."

The teacher, Beth Landau-Halpern, is a devotee of homeopathy, a practice that defies the basic laws of science and has no good evidence of efficacy. The readings in her course include anti-vaccine materials and an article glorifying Andrew Wakefield, the discredited physician-researcher who used fraudulent research to fabricate a link between measles vaccines and autism.

Landau-Halpern also promotes the views that quantum physics "offers clear explanations as to why homeopathic remedies with seemingly no chemical trace of the original substance are able to resolve chronic diseases" and that cancer is actually a "survival mechanism."

But even more incredible than the fact that such pseudoscience ramblings made it into the curriculum of one of the world's top research universities is the fact that a senior university official investigated the course and determined there was no cause for concern.

Last week, in a three-page review of the course, Dr. Vivek Goel, a vice president at the University of Toronto, argued that students would have already taken science-based courses by the time they were exposed to the alternative health class. He then offered this as part of his conclusion:

I do not find that the instructor’s approach in this class has been, or would have reasonably been perceived to be unbalanced, in the sense that it deviated from a presentation of material that, in context, would enable critical analysis, and inquiry.

This finding didn't satisfy the school's medical students. Yesterday, they sent a letter sent to University of Toronto president Meric Gertler calling for another independent investigation into the course. Here's an excerpt of their argument:

The very notion that anti-vaccination views could be considered a part of a ‘balanced approach’ to teaching about the science of vaccines is completely false. The overwhelming scientific consensus, supported by mountains of robust evidence, concludes that vaccines are safe, effective, and save lives.

Suggesting that anti-vaccine views are a part of a balanced approach to the science is to perpetuate a manufactured controversy; it serves to suggest to patients, and the public at large, that a scientific debate is ongoing, when in reality no such controversy actually exists within the institutions of science and medicine. By legitimizing the existence of this ‘false balance’, we do the public a great disservice by misrepresenting the established safety and efficacy of vaccines."

They also make an important point about the need for consistent standards in health education at the university, no matter what department is running the course:

In order to better inform the public about health topics, so that they can make well-informed choices, standards to ensure the validity of scientific claims made in all courses in the university – not just those within scientific faculties – should be developed.

Other critics have been equally puzzled by the class. Jen Gunter, an OB-GYN in San Francisco, offered this outraged take:

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 with falsified data) and anti-vaccine propaganda sites.

University officials have said that the course will no longer be taught, and that Landau-Halpern is no longer part of the staff. But how she made it into the U of T in the first place remains an open question, though Gunter pointed to one explanation: Landau-Halpern happens to be married to the dean of the university's campus that held the course.

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