NHTI professor Nathan Strong knew that inviting a prominent opponent of vaccination to speak to a class about the science of vaccines would be a little controversial.
That turned out to be a good prediction, as long as “a little” is translated as “very.” Maybe even “very, very.”
“I was not expecting the reaction,” admitted Strong, who has taught in the biology department at NHTI for 21 years, including a stint as department head.
The outcry occurred after Strong invited Laura Condon, New Hampshire director of advocacy for the National Vaccine Information Center, to speak to a class Nov. 16. Condon is probably the state’s most outspoken opponent of vaccination programs and vaccines in general.
The invitation was made, Strong wrote in a letter to critics, not because he wanted to present some sort of balance to the issue of vaccination – he realizes there’s no debate about the incredible value that society receives from inoculation programs – but “so the class had the opportunity to hear all the false arguments . . . and be able to recognize them as such.”
Critics responded that he was naive because no matter what happened in class, Condon and others would view the invitation as a stamp of validity.
Strong told me in interviews as the controversy raged that this issue had not occurred to him. “To some degree, I have to concede that point to them, and concede that Condon and her organization are making hay of this presentation opportunity,” he said Friday.
Still, Strong said, the entire debate has turned into a new learning opportunity. Which is sort of the idea of college, after all.
Strong is one of two teachers of a class known as STEM in the First Year, which he described as an orientation for freshmen that focuses on a science topic “in order to introduce students to the field of science and try to alleviate the fear of science that many develop.”
In past years, the class has been built around genetically modified organisms, but this year Strong thought vaccines would be a good topic.
“We have spent a lot of the semester talking about science in general, how it works and why so many current issues today which are scientific issues – like vaccines and climate change – but the science isn’t being listened to,” he said.
For years, Condon has put forth the position, in public talks and venues including the Monitor’s op-ed page, that vaccines are inherently dangerous, ineffective and unnecessary, and should be scaled back or eliminated.
In this position, incidentally, she is wrong. The historical and scientific evidence is clear that widespread vaccination programs are one of the great accomplishments of humanity, eliminating more suffering than almost anything we’ve ever done. Opposing vaccines and government inoculation mandates is like opposing societal programs to provide clean drinking water.
Condon, not surprisingly, isn’t swayed by my certainty. We had a very pleasant phone conversation; she said appreciated the way Strong was “polite and candid” over his disagreement with her position, but didn’t appreciate others’ attempts to have her un-invited.
“The effort to intimidate, ridicule and shut down any conversation, I don’t think that engenders any confidence,” she said, referring to discussion on Facebook. “If the (vaccine) program is not strong enough to address the public’s concerns, I think that’s a red flag. The program should be able to withstand public scrutiny.”
Condon’s invitation became public knowledge after she announced it on her Facebook page and it was noticed by members of a group called Granite State Skeptics. They are part of New Hampshire’s loose skeptic community, which tackles everything from horoscopes and UFOs to homeopathy and creationism. Many skeptics are particularly livid about “anti-vaxxers,” a disparaging term for opponents of vaccination, because their ideas can spread disease and do harm to innocent people.
The idea that Condon was being given an anti-vax platform in a college science class set them off. Protesting emails flew to officials at NHTI and some state agencies and debate grew on Facebook.
“(The students) were surprised, almost incredulous, at how incensed the people on Facebook were,” Strong said.
Students were also irritated by it, he said, because of the implication “that the students were going to be unable to resist the argument that Condon was giving. They said: ‘We’re adults, we can think by ourselves.’ ”
One student joined the Facebook fray to make this argument to skeptics.
“Our concern is not at all with you, your class, or Professor Strong,” wrote Steve Lundquist of Bow, in response. “Rather, the concern is with the unintended consequences of lending Ms Condon an air of legitimacy that she will then take to people less equipped to evaluate her misinformation. . . . While you and your fellow students were probably not swayed by her arguments, the general public on the other hand may be. Which is a real and present threat to public health.”
Therein lies a quandary for public debate about scientific issues. Science thrives on discussion and debate and the weighing of evidence, but the mere fact that a debate exists can give a false impression that all points of view have equal validity.
Imagine a public debate about whether the Earth is flat. That seems ridiculous, but if the discussion was held, no matter what was said, I guarantee some people would get the impression there is scientific support for the flat-planet hypothesis and start agitating for it to be taught in school.
On the other hand, as we’ve seen above, denying debate makes it seem like scientific consensus is hiding something or is scared of the truth.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Life sure can be complicated.
Having said that, I’m off to get my flu shot.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)