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Vaccines or ivermectin?: Students navigate disinformation dialogues in Fiat Lux 19

(Yliah Stuart-Serrano/Daily Bruin)

By Yashila Suresh

May 27, 2024 9:53 p.m.

“Climate change is a hoax.” “The earth is flat.” “Vaccines have microchips in them.”

These beliefs persist despite having been widely rejected by scientists. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some conservative politicians promoted the use of the drug ivermectin, which is used to kill parasites, as a cure for the virus – even though the United States Food and Drug Administration did not authorize its use and the National Institutes of Health explicitly advised against it.

To address these scientific misconceptions, nursing professor Paul Macey decided to teach Fiat Lux 19: “Forget Vaccines, Give Me Ivermectin: Dialogue about Disinformation” to challenge students to talk with people who hold beliefs different from their own.

The class’ title reflects the prevalence of health disinformation and how individual opinions can be swayed by government, authority and trust, Macey said. He added that he wants students to learn how to engage in difficult dialogue through the course.

“I see people struggle to deal with (other) people with strongly held opinions that are different to their own,” Macey said. “We should be able to challenge authority and have a discussion with authority, as well as challenging and having a discussion with individuals.”

Each class focuses on a different scenario where misinformation is prevalent, Macey said. In some classes, students have looked at radical news reports and comments underneath YouTube videos, while other times they have practiced productive conversational skills, he added.

Alisha Bhat, a first-year bioengineering student, said the title of the class piqued her interest, as it approaches medicine through a more humorous take. While the class’ title includes the word “dialogue,” the class focuses more on teaching students how to listen to one another, she added.

“If you’re in an argument with someone and you’re basically trying to prove them wrong, then neither of you really wants to listen to the other person,” Bhat said.

Sujay Jain, a third-year computer engineering student, said during class that he realized that when speaking to people with opposing opinions, he would try to dismiss their perspectives rather than acknowledge them – turning conversations into arguments.

First-year pre-data theory student Ian Kim said when he tried to place himself in the minds of people on the opposing side during role-play activities in class, he realized how easy it was to disregard factual information while arguing.

The class was an opportunity to further communication skills, said Karissa Pertler, a first-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student. Being able to engage in civil discourse is an underrated skill, although it is often done incorrectly, she added.

Pertler said before taking the class, she was under the impression that science was strictly based on fact and supported by hard evidence. However, the class made her realize that personal bias can influence someone’s opinions on science, even if it directly contradicts the facts, she added.

Jain said he thought it was interesting that people think disagreement in science is nonexistent.

“Even world-renowned experts often disagree – and in fact, they disagree more often than they agree,” he said.

Pertler added that taking the class has taught her how to research more effectively and choose sources that rely less on opinion.

Bhat said Macey taught her to listen to others more rather than try to prove them wrong. Prior to taking the class, she would state what she knows rather than listening to other people, she added.

“It’s taught me how easy it is to become condescending or patronizing when you’re talking to someone whose views you disagree with,” Jain said.

Macey also reminded students during class that effective dialogue requires being genuine.

“I hope that they’ll gain the ability that when someone says something that they think is wrong or stupid, that they’ll know how they can go into it – this conversation – with them,” he said. “That has a chance of being constructive and actually having an exchange of ideas.”

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