Queen's professor slammed for alleging link between vaccines & autism

University District

Melody Torcolacci has been subject of student complaints since 2011

A slide from Melody Torcolacci's lecture on vaccines. The slide cites the National Vaccine Information Center, an American anti-vaccine advocacy group.
A slide from Melody Torcolacci's lecture on vaccines. The slide cites the National Vaccine Information Center, an American anti-vaccine advocacy group.
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A tweet criticizing Queen’s Health 102 professor Melody Torcolacci for teaching that vaccines cause autism went viral last night, but it’s only the most recent in a series of complaints about her teaching.

A current HLTH 102 student provided the Journal with slides from a lecture titled “Vaccines — Good or Bad?”, which compare a “mainstream” view of vaccination with an “alternative” one. In one slide, Torcolacci wrote, “No scientific evidence exists showing vaccines are NOT contributing to increased incidence of chronic illness and disability in children”.

In another — which led to the Twitter criticism — she wrote, “Autism has increased to 1 in 100 children, most were vaccinated; the unvaccinated group ~1 in 2,000; 20x lower than vaccinated group”.

The link between autism and the MMR vaccine, which is an immunization against measles, mumps and rubella, was initially alleged by Andrew Wakefield in a fraudulent 1998 paper for medical journal The Lancet. The paper was fully retracted in 2010 and Wakefield has since lost his license, but the debate over vaccines has continued, most recently during a resurgence of measles in the United States and Toronto.

Torcolacci, who didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, teaches several courses at Queen’s, including HLTH 102, or “Physical Determinants of Health”, and from 1988-2011 was the head track and field coach. She has been a continuing adjunct professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies since 1988, and became a full-time professor after stepping down as head coach.

AMS Academic Affairs Commissioner (AAC) Colin Zarzour said complaints about Torcolacci have been coming to the commission since at least 2011.

“Generally, the claims have been related to course content, a lack of scientific grounds and a lack of ability to respond to student questions in the course material,” said Zarzour, ArtSci ’15, adding that this is the first time the anti-vaccination issue has been brought up since a January 2012 comment on ratemyprofessors.com.

“I know that concerns have been raised with the department several times in the past surrounding this professor,” Zarzour added, including complaints filed through University Student Assessment of Teaching (USAT) forms. He said further discussions on the complaints were halted due to issues surrounding academic freedom.

But this year, Zarzour said, a complaint was filed to him on behalf of an entire class. Isabelle Duchaine, the 2012-13 AAC, also received complaints from three students. Mira Dineen, 2011-12 AAC, received an appeal, he added.

Zarzour said he thinks part of the reason the University hasn’t adequately responded to these complaints in the past is an attitude that student feedback on teaching isn’t valid.

“The USAT needs to be fixed — everybody knows that,” he said, “but to be quite frank, the problem is that if we have a better feedback mechanism, people will be concerned that they will have to be bound to the implications of the good feedback, right?”

Because of this, he said, the University and faculty members have delayed acting on improving evaluations.

“I think that this is an event that really shows when you do not value and you do not utilize student feedback, what you get is courses like HLTH 102.”

Zarzour said he appreciated the “data-driven and cautious approach” that Provost Alan Harrison and Principal Daniel Woolf are taking, but added that students want a quick response — and “rightly so”.

He said he’s received “dozens” of student testimonies over email and social media, and this — combined with having spoken to students who have taken the class, informal reviews such as Rate My Professors, the lecture slides, Academic Grievance Centre documents and statements from previous AACs — provides a “striking” context for the most recent complaints.

“If the University were to ignore it, I think that that would be in itself an isolated and one-sided approach to the situation,” he said.

Provost Alan Harrison said he’s working to see if he can substantiate any of the claims that have been made about Torcolacci’s material.

“What we’re doing here is we’re dealing with a Twitter-based account, which has, so far as I know, included some of the slides that this individual used in one of her lectures,” Harrison said.

“So first of all, slides aren’t the lecture — they are support for the lecture, and the lecture includes a lot of information that’s delivered verbally and pay attention to that. Context is everything, and that’s hugely important.”

Harrison said program reviews are cyclical; they occur every seven years and are assessed by the University, as well as external assessors.

“The expectation in a program like Kinesiology is that there will be certain development, and so there are some requirements that certain things are covered in a course, but beyond that, a faculty member — the content of the course would not [be] something that a department or a faculty or indeed a provost would approve, and we prefer to operate at a higher level,” he said.

Harrison added that there’s an expectation that faculty members present material objectively and declare their biases, if they have them — particularly when discussing issues “that are amenable to scientific evidence".

“Ultimately, though, the goal of everything we do at the University is to encourage students to think for themselves, so it’s not part of our role to tell them how to think — it’s to help them to think for themselves,” he said.

“They are better able to do that if they have all sides of a question. Then, they can make their own determination.”

Sarah Pekeles told the Journal via email that she took HLTH 102 in 2012, but dropped it after several classes because Torcolacci’s views were “all just too much to handle”.

“I sent a complaint to the [health] dept at queens u [but] never heard back,” said Pekeles, ArtSci ’12.

She dropped the class before a lecture on “how modern dentistry is killing us all with toxins”.

“When I asked her about her views she said she wanted to ‘teach the controversy’ which is ridiculous,” she said.

“She is a disgrace to the academic community and I refuse to give any money to my alma [mater] until she is removed as a professor.”

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