Was the University of Toronto just feeling too venerable? Did a memo go out: "We're looking pretty august here, scholars, let's dial it down a bit. We don't want to seem stuffy."
Perhaps institutions selling diplomas on the backs of matchbooks are feeling the crunch these days, what with everyone vaping, and University of Toronto, the place where stem cells and insulin were discovered, is determined to level the playing field.
That's the most charitable spin I can put on the university's just released report – a document that gives an all-clear, or at least all-clear-enough, to an anti-vaccine course taught by homeopath Beth Landau-Halpern at U of T's Scarborough campus's department of anthropology, as part of the health studies program offered there.
"We will delve into quantum physics' understanding of disease and alternative medicine to provide a scientific hypothesis of how these modalities may work…" Ms. Landau-Halpern promised those considering registering for her course, Alternative Health: Practice and Theory.
That sentence, which has given actual quantum physicists the vapours, is the academic equivalent of reversing the polarity of the neutron flow to stabilize the fluctuations in the temporal rift. It's the kind of babble that saves fictional spacecraft and kills real babies.
Yet the review, conducted by U of T's vice-president of research and innovation, Vivek Goel, concluded that, despite the fact that "many of the readings in the course are from secondary sources on the internet," and while "the course could be enhanced by a greater reliance on the scholarly literature," it could not "have reasonably been perceived to be unbalanced…in context."
The "context" to which he refers is all the courses the students took that weren't chock full of pseudoscience. The students would, after all, have taken courses that didn't attempt to explain why "meditation alone can … reduce the size of cancerous tumors," and that vaccines are dangerous – in part, according to Ms. Landau-Halpern, because illnesses are what make children grow bigger.
"Normal childhood illnesses like measles and chicken pox are almost always followed by massive developmental spurts," she wrote on the website for her homeopathic practice.
(I can only say that if I'd taught a completely absurd university course while being married to the dean of Scarborough campus – as is Ms. Landau-Halpern – I'd go a bit easier on the correlation-implies-causation stuff.)
A "required viewing" for Alternative Health: Practice and Theory was a YouTube video by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopath whose credentials include – no, pretty much are – being "a member of the prestigious National Speakers Association."
In that video, the alarmist osteopath blithely claims that "There's a large body of evidence that [vaccination] really only causes harm and it does not make you immune…."
If such a "large body of evidence" actually existed, surely a university course taught at a prestigious institution would be just the place to present it – yet screamingly, tellingly, no such research appeared on Ms. Landau-Halpern's reading list.
Generally, if you have science in your corner, you don't resort to a YouTube video by an osteopath claiming vaccines cause autism, ADHD, "inflamed brains" and cancer.
Students were also required to watch a two-hour interview with the thoroughly discredited Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Citing the work of Dr. Wakefield – the data falsifier behind the entirely debunked autism/vaccination link – in a course that covers vaccine safety is like using Hitler's diaries as the primary text for World War II in East-Central Europe. But not to worry, says Mr. Goel, students taking the course were "in their final year of study." Offering that credit said, "You're about to graduate with a degree in physics, but before you do, here's a course on the invisible devils that pull us toward the earth."
Most students who took Alternative Health: Practice and Theory possessed a "strong biomedicine background," explains Mr. Goel. They would have taken a "statistics course and many take a course in health research methods," so they're perfectly capable of sussing out nonsense when they hear it, his reasoning seems to be.
Students who paid attention in the early years, the university apparently rationalizes, should be able to handle a curriculum that gives every appearance of being a heavily jargonized version of Jim Carrey's Twitter feed.
Mr. Carrey, if you missed it, took to Twitter a few weeks back to discuss fascism, autism, and vaccines — quickly proving to the world that when Jenny McCarthy and the comic split up, they got shared custody of the crazy.
"Look," U of T is all but saying with this report, "We reserve the right to throw the kids a curveball in their final year by having some daft bat tell them things that are just not true."
It's all about trying to "enable critical analysis, and inquiry," states Mr. Goel – asking us to believe that by fourth year U of T has the students so well primed to detect bull-false-balance that there's no cause for alarm.
It's an odd defence for a university to employ. Especially when the second part of their defence is that the students apparently come away enthusiastically endorsing the course – rather throwing a shadow on the school's illustrious science departments, perhaps throwing them under the bus.
"There were no complaints," the report concludes. "Many students commented that they felt that the topics covered in the course should be introduced into the curriculum in earlier years."
Look, U of T, you can't plausibly use both these defences. I'm no scientist, but I think this is how you get your polarity the wrong way 'round.