Friday, June 29, 2012

Civility and the Vaccine Discussion: Found!

UPDATE: Well, unfortunately, I may have spoken too soon. The course's discussion board has been infiltrated by anti-vaccine folks and followers of Age of Autism and I'm now totally depressed because the open discussion about science and vaccinology has become dominated by dialogue reminiscent of Bigfoot hunters arguing with Loch Ness Monster proponents. Sigh.

I just started taking a free online course on vaccines taught by Paul Offit, through an outfit called Coursera. The site offers a number of free online courses on a large number of topics, all taught by some of the top academics of the world, from Princeton to Stanford to Harvard, and beyond.

The course material for Offit's course is basic, which is great for folks wanting to learn a little about the history of vaccines, how they work, how they are made, and so on (though some people may be put off by Offit's straight-talk--I, of course, am enamored). But what I've found most exhilarating is the depth and breadth--and civility--on the discussion boards. A large percentage of the students come from outside the United States, interested in understanding the efficacy of vaccines so they can pass that information along to communities within their home country. Others are vaccine-hesitant parents, as I once was, who want to know more about vaccines. And there are several parents who have described themselves as living in communities with high vaccine-exemption rates and feeling like "fish out of water."

Of course I waited to post about this until after the course had started and enrollment was closed so we don't get an influx of anti-vaxxers--we have a handful of them in the course already but even they seem muted. The point is, in this vaccines course, even when we disagree, the dialogue is civil and open-minded. The students in the course are honestly curious about vaccines, and questions have been raised about why the pertussis vaccines seems to lose effectiveness so quickly, which is not interpreted as an anti-vax comment; why chiropractors seem, as a group, to be anti-vaccine, which is an honest question not an indictment; whether directly confronting anti-vaccine parents works best or if a softer approach is better, and so on. There are no agendas. I could turn cartwheels right now. Paul Offit's Vaccines Course, where have you been all my life?

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