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David Sheffield '11: Inviting ignorance

Brown hosts many talks throughout the year. The lecture board brings in well-known speakers, departments hold colloquia and numerous groups and organizations get interesting people to talk about various subjects. This makes the University a livelier place — one with an exchange of ideas and discussion.

While Brown should welcome a broad range of viewpoints, we should not allow ourselves to be used as a soapbox for whomever would like to come speak. There is a point at which the damage done by hosting a speaker outweighs the benefits.

Last Friday, the Brown Bookstore hosted Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill, the authors of "The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic," for "a reading and [discussion] of their research." Research is a highly generous word to use to describe what the authors have done. Essentially, they repackaged the last decade's worth of claims that mercury causes autism, disregarding the actual research that shows those claims to be utterly false. Study after study has shown that autism is not caused by mercury in vaccines.

To state it briefly, the authors of "The Age of Autism" make demonstrably false claims that lead to parents refusing to vaccinate their children. Falling vaccination rates lead in turn to the reemergence of diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough. The bookstore should not have hosted the Olmsted and Blaxill.

What do we as a university have to gain by hosting people promoting obviously false ideas? The anti-vaccination crowd will continue to give talks around the country and appear in credulous media outfits. The greatest benefit is that it could have allowed doctors and scientists to see the vogue anti-vaccination claims. It is very useful for interested doctors and scientists to know what is being said.

Otherwise, they could not check the claims against actual research and try to correct false statements. However, the bookstore had this as a normal book reading targeted at the public.

The detrimental effects of this event overshadow the positive ones. When Brown hosts a speaker, it provides a certain level of endorsement. Essentially, the University is saying, "this person is worth listening to." We do not just pick speakers up off the street. No one would go up to one of Lyndon LaRouche's acolytes on Thayer Street and ask him or her to come give a talk about how the British Empire is currently the biggest world threat and how that relates to Obama being a Nazi. We expect people to be coherent, thoughtful and not live in a fantasy world.

By giving the authors a prestigious soapbox, the bookstore is lending them credibility that they otherwise would not have. People are liable to give the medical claims in "The Age of Autism" more sway than they otherwise would because they expect Brown to not host people giving bad medical advice.

These haven't been the only unsavory characters that have appeared at Brown. Pervez Musharraf and Rick Santorum, among many others, have given talks here. The same thing happens at Brown's peer institutions. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited New York City to speak at the United Nations last week. During his 2007 UN visit he controversially appeared at a Columbia event.

These talks should undergo the same ethical calculus as the "Age of Autism" reading. Is it a net benefit or detriment to bring in these speakers?

On the whole, it is beneficial to have them speak. Unlike the authors of "The Age of Autism," these speakers are not giving bad medical advice. Santorum would not have had much of an effect by using unsound science to try to justify why embryos should be considered humans or why queer people effectively should not be. Ahmadinejad would not have had much success from a Columbia stage convincing people that the Holocaust did not happen. But the anti-vaccination crowd does rely on these sorts of talks to spread their personal dislike for vaccines and whatever rationalization they currently use to justify it; in Olmsted and Blaxill's case, it is mercury and autism.

They do have plenty of media at their disposal. Oprah, Larry King and the Huffington Post are all too happy to promote these beliefs. Luckily, those people and organizations do not have any academic heft. People may trust them, but they are not doctors.

We need to be mindful of the consequences of choosing speakers. Just as the biology department would need to think carefully about the consequences if they wanted to have some fun by bringing in a creationist or the same with the physics department having a colloquium speaker advocate for geocentrism, all organizations at Brown should be conscious of whether a speaker will make Brown a better or worse place.

David Sheffield '11 is a math-physics concentrator, who actually does enjoy listening to pseudoscientists. He can be contacted at david_sheffield@brown.edu.




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