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Dissent at the School of Medicine

So we had a little get together at the School of Medicine Oct. 25, and things got testy. I’m happy to report that no one was injured, though free speech was given a smack across the face and a kick in the pants. You see, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine sponsored a luncheon, at which Dr. Susanna Walsh, professor at Boston University School of Medicine spoke about alternatives to animal use in medical school training. She is a practicing obstetrician, and she gave a 30-minute talk that cited a number of recent scientific studies that indicate using live animals is inferior to newly developed computer simulations in training medical students. Sounds pretty radical, huh?

First, I need to make clear what this column is not. It is not an indictment of the medical students and faculty who attended the lecture. I spoke with several students afterward, and from their comments as well as the questions of Deans Sebastian and Wigfall during the lecture, I have nothing but respect for the character of the faculty and students. I thank them for attending the lecture as well as for their comments. I did not find any who had been entirely convinced to switch their positions, but I am grateful that they could listen to a dissenting voice with respect.

I am left puzzled by the actions of one of the administrators who attended the lecture. First, because the School of Medicine was apparently caught off guard by the news of the luncheon, the administration felt that three armed police officers were needed to “observe” the lecture. They were very polite, I must say, but am I the only one who thinks police present at a doctor’s lecture is a little strange?

Second, this administrator felt that he had to intervene decisively on two occasions in the lecture. Before Walsh began to speak, he stepped to the floor of the auditorium, and explained that Walsh’s presence at Duke was obtained via subterfuge. This was an uncharitable interpretation, to say the least, but the main point is that it delegitimized Walsh before she even had a chance to open her mouth. What impression must the medical students have when their administration says that the speaker before them is there only by fraudulent means? Can they give her data a fair hearing after such an introduction?

The second intervention was on par with the first. Near the close of the Q&A session, he felt the need to read a prepared speech (or so it seemed), in which he called Walsh’s data one-sided and proclaimed that Duke’s policies are necessary to provide the highest quality medical education possible. Doubtless. Except that Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale and 90 percent of the other medical schools in the United Statse disagree. Perhaps they get to hear lectures without a police escort.

Before the administration responds, let me reiterate. Yes, Walsh was “allowed” to speak. However, I do not believe that armed police officers in the back of the room are conducive to free scientific inquiry. Perhaps in this I am wrong. Perhaps armed personnel are present at all medical school lectures, but I sincerely hope not. I also do not believe that guest speakers should be belittled by high-ranking administrators before and after their lecture. Criticized, yes. But condescension and dismissal were more the order of the day than criticism.

Given this administrator’s view of the “controversial” scientific studies presented by Walsh, I would have thought that the way to counter the dangerous opinions of Walsh was obvious. In the Q&A session after the talk, why not present contrary evidence that Walsh ignored? Why not present other scientific studies that contradicted hers? Oddly enough, this was not done.

I hope that I have misinterpreted these actions, and that dissent is welcome at the School of Medicine. Certainly the faculty members present did not seem threatened by the discussion, as indeed they should not be. Who indeed would be frightened by new data? Who’s afraid of Susanna Walsh?

 

 

Stefan Dolgert is a graduate student in Political Science.

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