Students Criticize HDEV Professor for Assigning Anti-Vax Readings

Ariana Jaramillo and Isaac Coleman

CSUEB Professor Spreads Anti-Vaccination Misinformation to Students

Lynn Comerford, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Women’s Studies and the director of Women’s Studies at CSU East Bay, is sharing discredited information about COVID-19, vaccines and masks, among other debunked theories in her course materials, three of her students told The Pioneer.

Comerford taught three courses in the Fall 2021 semester: Theories of Human Development, Gender, Race, and Class in Human Development, and Children in Families and Communities. Comerford has sent out numerous articles to all three classes. In the latter course, the required reading list includes the title Plague of Corruption by discredited research scientist Judy Mikovits, who has become an advocate for anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

Additionally, some other material in Commerford’s classes has no relation to evidence-based science but is based on conspiracy theories. For example, the comparison between mask-wearing and slavery leans on the conspiratory thinking surrounding a “plandemic” and videos that argue the government is complicit in sex crimes and trafficking.

Comerford shared one article from Brownstone, an organization that has been categorized as exhibiting a right-leaning bias and mixed factual reporting based on multiple media bias and fact-checking services, that compares mask mandates to enslavement by using the story of the Brazilian folk saint, Escrava Anastacia, an enslaved woman who was forced to wear an iron mask.

“The entire class feels like a conspiracy theory, and all we have read has to do with conspiracies… I think the material she presents is spreading fear among the students,” said one student who asked to remain anonymous.

Another student shared one of the optional articles she sent out, titled “Planned Surveillance and Control by Global Technocrats: A Big-Picture Look at the Current Pandemic Beneficiaries,” claims that the “Trojan horse coronavirus vaccines may challenge bodily integrity and informed consent in entirely new ways, transporting invasive technologies into people’s brains and bodies.” This is “one of the many” articles sent by Comerford, the student said. “I have no idea why” they are receiving this inundation of information, the student said when asked if there was any context for them in the course.

Other reading materials provide information debunked by the greater medical community, such as Robert F Kennedy Jr.’s article, which argues that vaccines as a whole are likely responsible for rising rates of autism among African-Americans. This “link” has been disproved time and time again.

Some articles and information sent to students by Comerford rely on utilizing half-truths that incorrectly collect and analyze data, such as an article that attempts to link the COVID-19 vaccine and heart problems in adolescents.

The students said Comerford requires her HDEV 413 class, Children in Families and Communities, to sign up for the Children’s Health Defense organization’s media outlet: The Defender. The organization, founded by Kennedy Jr., is not considered a reputable source based on the number of articles that espouse half-truths and that misquote or misrepresent sources. The Children’s Health Defense organization was often the target of fact-checking by Facebook, to the point of suing the company and their fact-checking organizations.

Their publication, The Defender, consists of articles written by non-medical experts and people who are not infectious disease experts. The articles shared also include writings of Dr. Joseph Mercola, an anti-vaccine activist who is the most prolific of twelve individuals who have contributed to 65% of anti-vaccine rhetoric on social media, according to The New York Times.

Second, on the “Disinformation Dozen” list is Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense. Kennedy is also responsible for publishing the film “Medical Racism: The New Apartheid,” intended to dissuade racial minorities from getting vaccinated. Comerford assigned the film as an extra-credit assignment for HDEV 413, Children in Families and Community.

Apart from its intention, the film’s medical experts had their words taken out of context, used only to cement the anti-vaccination narrative, as reported by NPR. Co-producer of the film, Curtis Cost, claimed, “viruses do not cause anything, it’s a hoax, it’s a myth … whether you are talking about HIV, the flu virus or any other virus.”

Plague of Corruption, written by Mikovits, was endorsed by Kennedy Jr. Mikovits is the central figure of a well-known and debunked video called “Plandemic.” The book, which HDEV 413 students are required to read, uses the same rhetoric seen by many anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. According to Rolling Stone, Mikovits and her book are “precisely what makes [her anti-vaccine commentary] so slippery.”

The sources and articles that Comerford provided are causing concern and discomfort among her students.

“I find the anti-vax materials a complete disconnect from the curriculum that we should be learning and the complete opposite from the public health information coming from the college,” said one student in her classes who asked not to be identified. “This is dangerous misinformation, and I feel people outside of her classes should know this is happening.”

Dr. Rachael Stryker, the California Faculty Association’s East Bay chapter president, explained academic freedom as “a faculty member’s right to express themselves in and outside of the classroom, as well as in campus community spaces free of retaliation or discipline.”

Scholarly freedom is a cornerstone of academia based on the view that researchers need the freedom to speak and write about controversial topics without retaliation.

Stryker, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Women’s Studies, would not comment specifically on Comerford’s teaching.

“I think that academic freedom is foundational to work in the academy,” she said in an interview. “With it, we are able to create and disseminate knowledge, teach difficult and controversial subject matter, and have the voice to explore world knowledge from many perspectives.”

While sharing multiple perspectives and ideas is essential to learning, students claim Comerford has only shared views tailored to her personal beliefs. At least three students reported that they had not received articles showing the benefits of wearing masks or vaccinations to balance the conspiracy materials they were asked to read.

The students also said the articles Comerford assigns are out of context regarding what they expect to learn in the courses. One optional reading, an article authored by Dr. Joseph Mercola, a vehement anti-vaccine activist, argues that certain chemicals are causing mass sterilization in men. Mercola’s article utilizes a study from Dr. Shanna Swan. These links have yet to be proved by the scientific community as a whole, “mass sterility was not something I thought I would read about in a Theories on Human Development class,” a student shared.

These articles do not appear to relate to the course descriptions as listed on CSUEB’s academic catalog of Comerford’s courses, and she did not contextualize them for the class.

HDEV 301, a “critical review of major theoretical approaches to human development from an interdisciplinary perspective,” mentions nothing about conspiracy theories.

HDEV 321, the “interdisciplinary examination of the effects of race, class, and gender constructions on individuals’ lifespan development. Theoretical and empirical information related to social policies, interpersonal relationships, and individual experiences” does not discuss using debunked theories.

Finally, HDEV 413, “contemporary families presented from a socio-psychological viewpoint with a focus on the sociology of the family, family policy, and the impact of stress on children. Topics include family formation and dissolution, interpersonal communication, personal awareness, and power.” It also does not mention or contextualize the reason that students examine conspiracy theories.

In an email interview, Dr. Patricia Drew, department chair of Human Development, would not comment on concerns the department or the university have about Commerford’s dissemination of debunked materials.

“Given that Covid and vaccines are sensitive issues for many students, we have discussed this matter with Comerford,” Drew said.

Wendy Ng, the Dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences, declined an interview regarding the topic.

When asked over email on Nov. 29, Comerford said she believes none of her coursework is biased. She referenced the harms caused by cigarettes and Thalidomide, a drug given to pregnant women in the early 1960s that caused congenital disabilities, arguing that this provides context to mistrust of the current vaccine. She also mentioned Kennedy Jr.’s book “The Real Anthony Fauci” as a credible source surrounding the vaccination discussion.

In her email, Comerford listed 21 individuals who have argued for lack of trust in the vaccine. Like Dr. Vladimir Zelenko argued for using hydroxychloroquine to cure COVID, while others, such as Dr. Tess Lawrie, argue the use of ivermectin for treatment. Ivermectin is used to treat some parasitic infections in animals and humans and is not recommended by the FDA for COVID-19 treatment.

Dr. Harvey Risch, the only epidemiologist on her list, was also an advocate for hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, along with Dr. Peter McCullough.

Former Dr. Christiane Northrup, another member of the Disinformation Dozen who let her medical license expire in 2015, also made Commerford’s list as a serious and legitimate source.

Other sources on Commerford’s list claim the vaccine can cause sterilization in women. While many individuals on her list are medical doctors, few are virologists or epidemiologists. One of the individuals mentioned who is not a medical doctor, Dr. Claire Craig, does possess a Ph.D. in geophysics.

As it stands, Comerford continues to teach her classes and sits as the director of Women’s Studies at CSUEB. In Spring 2022, she will continue teaching HDEV 301 and HDEV 413 as the only professor to teach these courses. HDEV 301 is a required course for students seeking a BA in Human Development, while HDEV 413 is required for any within their concentrations in Early Childhood Development or those seeking CTC’s Child Development Permits.