Quackademia at the University of Toronto: Antivaccine pseudoscience taught by a homeopath is “not unbalanced”

Aside from deconstructing the misinformation and pseudoscience of the antivaccine movement, another of the top three or so topics I routinely discuss here is the infiltration of pseudoscience into medicine. In particular, I’ve found and discussed more examples than I can possibly remember of what I like to call quackademic medicine, defined as the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. This quackery mainly insinuates its way into medical schools and academic medical centers through the emerging specialty known as “integrative medicine,” which used to be called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM). What “integrative medicine” involves is the integration of prescientific mystical beliefs about medicine rooted in vitalism and pseudoscientific quackery into science-based medicine (SBM). That’s how we find modalities like reiki (faith healing that substitutes Eastern mystical beliefs for Christian beliefs) and traditional Chinese medicine (which is based on concepts very much like the “Western” idea of the four humors) in many prestigious academic medical centers, such as the Cleveland Clinic, University of Arizona, UCSF, and even the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Meanwhile, medical schools like Georgetown and the University of Maryland (to name but a couple) rush to integrate quackery into their undergraduate medical curricula, while respectable professional societies like the American Society of Clinical Oncology feature “integrative medicine” sessions at their annual meetings. Years ago, I used to maintain a list that I called the Academic Woo Aggregator, but there was just so much quackademic medicine that I gave up updating it long ago.

When I noted that my very own alma mater, the University of Michigan, has a program in anthroposophic medicine, I despaired. I thought that that was as bad as it could get. Then I came across Jen Gunter’s blog posts and news stories about quackery at the University of Toronto, specifically a course being taught by Beth Landau-Halpern, a homeopath.

Let that sink in a minute. There is a course in medicine, specifically alternative medicine, being taught by a homeopath, and, worse than that, it’s featuring Joe Mercola interviewing Andrew Wakefield as a legitimate source of information on vaccines.

This particular homeopath happens to be the wife of Rick Halpern, the Dean of the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus, which is the campus where the course was offered this spring. The course was called Alternative Health: Practice and Theory HLTD04H3-S Special Topics in Health, and it is loaded with quackery, as you can tell just from the course description:

Alternative medicine (i.e. the wide range of modalities other than conventional western biomedicine), has gained unprecedented popularity among patients, and a nearly unprecedented backlash from the scientific and conventional medicine communities of late. Dissatisfaction with the results and quality of care patients get from mainstream medicine, how well they are (or aren’t) listened to, the astronomical cost of such medicine, increased suspicion of pharmaceutical safety, a generalized belief that natural is better, and, in some instances, a preference for culturally traditional medicinal practices, are some of the many factors that drive patients to seek alternative health care. At the same time, the “scientification” and “technicalization” of medicine seems to be widely accepted and is employed to assert the perceived fundamental superiority of a biomedical approach to disease; to further the financial incentive of the pharmaceutical industry which has an enormous stake in the scientific, drug-based approach to health; and to disparage “alternative” approaches as quackery and fraud.

Yes, there are the same old complaints from alternative medicine practitioners, such as that medicine is arrogant and asserts its superiority due to science (as if being science-based were a bad thing!) and invokes a bit of the old “pharma shill” gambit as a reason why alternative medicine hasn’t become more accepted. Then, there’s some serious woo-speak that regular readers of this blog will have seen in various forms before but that one doesn’t expect to find stated unironically in the course description of a class offered by a major university:

We will delve into a quantum physics’ understanding of disease and alternative medicine to provide a scientific hypothesis of how these modalities may work. Quantum physics is a branch of physics that understands the interrelationship between matter and energy. This science offers clear explanations as to why homeopathic remedies with seemingly no chemical trace of the original substance are able to resolve chronic diseases, why acupuncture can offer patients enough pain relief to undergo surgery without anesthesia, why meditation alone can, in some instances, reduce the size of cancerous tumors.

Yes, there’s quantum quackery in that there course description! Need it be repeated that homeopathy is The One Quackery To Rule Them All, and that quantum “explanations” offered by homeopaths for homeopathy can “work” invoking “energy” are abuses of physics of the worst sort, as are other scientific concepts co-opted to serve the quackery that is homeopathy, such as nanoparticles. Don’t believe me? Just check out Charlene Werner’s explanation of “energy” to get an idea of how bad it can be (NOTE: this is NOT Beth Landau-Halpern):

I’m not saying that’s what Landau-Halpern taught (that is, after all, not her), but it is the sort of nonsense you get when a homeopath invokes quantum mechanics, which is why, based on the syllabus, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the sort of thing Landau-Halpern taught. If that’s not enough for you, you should try to check out Lionel Milgrom’s epic quantum quackiness about homeopathy. But beware. If you’re an honest-to-goodness physicist, reading Milgrom’s stylings could melt your brain. If you’re a skeptic, they’ll evoke a combination of disgust and hilarity. It was so bad that physicists wrote to the university to complain.

It gets worse, though. The abuse of physics is nothing more than the standard quantum nonsense that quacks invoke the way shamans invoke magic and the gods. it’s bad, but it doesn’t directly degrade public health. (Indirectly is another matter.) One of the classes in the course, however, does just that. I’m referring to week 9, a class entitled Vaccination – the King of Controversy. First, before I show you the suggested reading, let me just say this. Vaccination is not controversial from a scientific standpoint. It’s really not. The “controversy” over vaccinations is what I like to call a pseudodebate, where science denialists use misinformation, cherry picked studies, and bad reasoning to attack established science. This course does nothing but feed that pseudodebate among its student,s as though it were legitimate. 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. Instead, we get this:

Required Readings/ Viewings for this week:

  • VIDEO: Interview with Andrew Wakefield: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/04/10/wakefield-interview.aspx
  • VIDEO: Shedding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKSeiAs_A4w (new addition to syllabus)
  • VIDEO: Vaccine’s Safety A Crime Against Humanity, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N3oHLe80O4
  • Dissolving Illusions, Disease, Vaccines, and the Forgotten History, pp vii-xvi, 445-479

Optional Reading:

  • Vaccination, Social Violence and Criminality; The Medical Assault on the American Brain, Harris Coulter – Ch. 7 (Medical Hubris and Its Consequences), Ch 3 (The Post-Encephalitic Syndrome)
  • ARTICLE: http://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/09/12/22-medical-studies-that-show-vaccines-can-cause-autism/
  • ARTICLE: http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/12/03/mit-scientist-shows-what-can-happen-to-children-who-receive-aluminum-containing-vaccines/
  • 96 Research Papers Autism/ Vaccination. http://www.scribd.com/doc/220807175/86-Research-Papers-Supporting-the-Vaccine-Autism-Link
  • This Physician’s Assessment of Flu Vaccines in Pregnancy http://www.safeminds.org/blog/2014/09/24/physicians-assessment-flu-vaccines-pregnancy/

Safeminds? Collective Evolution? Joe Mercola? Andrew Wakefield? These are not reliable sources on vaccines. They represent the underbelly of the antivaccine movement. Hell, why not include the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism as a legitimate source while you’re at it? Notice also how there isn’t the “other side” of this “controversy” offered, as in information on vaccines from the CDC, vaccine scientists, and legitimate sources. It’s all one-sided—the antivaccine side.

But wait, there’s more! Week 10 is all about “detoxification” in the context of naturopathy: CAM Modality: Naturopathic Medicine: Nutritional Deprivation and Environmental Toxins and Their Impact on Health and Brain Function. Naturopathy, of course, is pure quackery, as is the “detoxification” recommended by naturopaths, who, by the way, also are all trained in homeopathy and most of whom still use it.

Now here’s the incredible thing. Because of the complaints, the University of Toronto undertook a review of the course. According to the review, carried out by Vivek Goel, Vice-President, Research and Innovation, there wasn’t a problem! Seriously, after examining the curriculum of the 2015 course and the student evaluations from the 2014 course, Goel concluded that there wasn’t a problem! First off, he let Landau-Halpern off the hook for her antivaccine nonsense by noting that she changed the curriculum in 2015 in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak and had “voluntarily removed the section for which the greatest degree of concerns were subsequently raised.”

Incredibly, Goel then concluded:

I did explore with her how she approached this topic in 2014 and how she would have done so if it had remained on the curriculum this year. She reports that she approaches this issue from a nuanced perspective and encourages students to think critically about vaccine effectiveness and safety.

The syllabus for the course contains a reading list for the immunization class which gives emphasis to materials s that primarily focus on risks for vaccines. The instructor reports that she provides these readings as the students have already seen the other side in previous courses. In class they are then able to have a discussion from all perspectives.

As a result, 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. Thus, from an academic pedagogy perspective, I do not find that there has been sufficient deviation from the range of normal approaches to warrant concerns.

With a reading list like this, there’s no way what was being taught in any way resembled critical thinking, particularly taking into account that Landau-Halpern is a homeopath. More than that, she’s a homeopath who’s been busted by investigative journalists. A CBC Marketplace investigation filmed her advising a young mother against vaccines and promoting homeopathic nosodes as an alternative. Nosodes, of course, are pure quackery. Not surprisingly, Landau-Halpern cried “entrapment! She also offers homeopathy to treat ADHD and CEASE therapy (based in homeopathy) to treat autism.

Shockingly, all Goel could come up with was this:

On review of the process it does not appear that there was adequate consideration or comment by the department and colleagues on the proposed course outline developed in 2013 for the Spring 2014 session, nor for the Spring 2015 session. While I do not find that the course is unbalanced, in the sense of the term used above, I do believe it could be strengthened by greater engagement of academic colleagues through such a review process. The Department Chair and Program Director will continue to work closely with the instructor through the balance of the term. If the course is to be offered again in the future it should be developed as a regular course and taken through the usual governance reviews.

Oddly enough, the Department of Anthropology is the department responsible for the Health Studies Program, under which this course fell. Clearly, the department utterly failed, and U of T administration is basically shrugging its shoulders over it. Goel sees nothing, hears nothing, knows nothing, just like Sgt. Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes.

Unfortunately, this is not the only problem that U of T has had with quackademic medicine. U of T is, after all, the home of another homeopathy aficionado, namely Heather Boon, Dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and principal investigator of a clinical trial testing homeopathy for ADHD. The university has also hosted a quackfest known as the IN-CAM Symposium, where homeopathy, naturopathy, and chelation therapy featured prominently. This is consistent with its recent founding of a its new Centre for Integrative Medicine on—surprise! surprise!—the Scarborough Campus. This is a typical center dedicated to integrating quackery with medicine, in particular traditional Chinese medicine. When pseudoscience invades a campus that way, is it any surprise that a course taught by a homeopathy spouting antivaccine propaganda and quantum woo start popping up?

I feel sorry for my bud Scott Gavura and all the good pharmacists, nurses, and physicians who trained at U of T, because it’s clear that the university has gone all in for quackademic medicine. What’s next? Teaching young earth creationism in biology classes? Teaching astrology in astronomy class? If U of T doesn’t care whether its course offerings are scientifically valid any more, why not really go all in for pseudoscience? After all, Beth Landau-Halpern’s course is nothing more than the latest culmination of an infiltration of quackery that’s been going on for years now. The administration might as well found a naturopathy school at this point.

ADDENDUM: Apparently Beth Landau-Halpern’s class is gone and she is no longer on staff:

http://www.speakingupforscience.ca/news/2015/7/6/lecturer-who-taught-anti-vaxxer-propaganda-no-longer-at-u-of-t

Not much in the post in that link hopefully we’ll learn more.