Hard News by Russell Brown


So the games are over for another four years, and just one question remains: who was that bloke who apparently represents us on the IOC, and thus hung the medals on our champions? Has anyone ever seen him before? Was I the only one worried every time that he'd expire on the spot?

Now, of course, we can settle back and bask in the familiar conceit that we Kiwis punch above our weight. There have been various efforts at putting medal counts in context, the most visible being the Australian Bureau of Statistics count of Olympic Medals per capita, which after Friday's events had us third, behind the Bahamas and Australia.

Another tally, by Simon Forsyth, is more comprehensive. His final wash-up places us seventh for gold medals per capita, fifteenth for total medals per capita and seventh again on weighted medal score per capita. Interestingly, an almost identical medal haul at the 1996 Atlanta games was good enough to place us first in the world.

We didn't fare so well - but beat Australia - in rankings of medals per dollar of GDP.

Is Bill English the best-performing National MP in terms of conducting himself as what the British call a "shadow minister"? Quite clearly, it would seem. Without a lot of chest-beating and ballyhoo, he has mastered the education job quite well. His five ways to fix NCEA for The Listener seem sensible and constructive, he has played a useful role in chasing down ropey tertiary education courses (dutifully ignoring, of course, National's key role in creating the situation in the first place). I even partially agree with him in respect of the bizarre situation where the rape of a special-needs schoolgirl was not reported to her parents - to the extent that school counsellors must keep the discretion to maintain such a confidence, but that discretion was very poorly used in this case.

On the other hand, the PPTA was right to give English a bollocking on his claims about teacher salaries. But you don't have to agree with the man to regard him as competent and serious.

The Destiny Church stories are starting to emerge. The Star Times yesterday had the adulterous church officer and the mishandling of a loan, which remains outstanding, and the Sunday News had the born-out-of-wedlock daughter and grand-daughter. Presumably the excommunicated gay sibling story will be in the pipeline. Speaking of which, the Star Times has a potentially explosive "outing" story in its sights.

US VP Dick Cheney comes out swinging for his gay daughter - and for gay marriage!

Returning to Stephen Franks' odd behaviour last week, I was curious about exactly what Franks might have heard in the course of the Civil Union Bill select committee hearings to set him off ranting about homosexuals "choosing" to be second-class citizens, "left fascists" objecting to things said by opponents of the bill, etc.

Perhaps part of it was the response to the submission by Dr Neil Whitehead. Dr Whitehead claims to be an "authority" on the origins of sexual orientation, and has written a book called My Genes Made Me Do It! : A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation, which is very popular with hardline fundamentalist groups.

His contention is that there is no biological or genetic origin for homosexuality and in his "independently motivated submission" to the select committee, he claimed that the Civil Union Bill would increase the number of homosexuals in partnerships (well, yes, quite possibly - this is a bad thing?), that same-sex relationships are inherently unstable, that many male same-sex relationship are doomed to be short-lived due to deaths through AIDS, that homosexual individuals experience higher rates of mental instability and drug abuse that are a result of their own choices rather than social discrimination, that sexual orientation is a choice, and that because of all these issues, children will suffer if the Civil Union Bill becomes law. (Because the submissions were given orally, I understand I'm allowed to report all this to you.)

Uh-huh. But what happened next was that the Aids Foundation called his bluff and sought a response from the authors of some of the studies he quoted. Among them was Associate Professor Michael Dunne of the School of Public Health at the Queensland University of Technology. Dunne's response began thus:

Dr Whitehead's claims about the potential impact of the Civil Unions Bill can, quite fairly and with due respect for the passion of his convictions, be rejected. His argument is flawed. His "research method" seems little more sophisticated than joining dots on a two-dimensional plane. He superficially connects observations from some published studies of genetic and environmental factors in human sexuality and mental health. The pattern that emerges is a distorted caricature of existing knowledge that lacks depth and complexity. It adds nothing to serious, informed debate about the nature of homosexuality or the ways in which a civil society should formulate law.

The essential problem is that Dr Whitehead's research is quasi-science. He has strayed far beyond his field of expertise. His training and professional experience, and his publications in academic journals, are almost entirely in geological and nuclear science. I conducted an exhaustive search of his research papers listed by Thompson ISI Web of Science (the international standard search tool for scientific information). Although Dr Whitehead claims he has researched the field of sexuality for 13 years, this effort has been entirely unproductive. My search revealed no empirical study of human sexuality and indeed no systematic review on the topic that has been accepted by internationally recognised, peer-reviewed journals. His three books are populist and are not published by mainstream academic publishers that require scientific review. Thus, they are not regarded as serious works in the field of human sexuality.

And furthermore:

What does it mean to say that "chance is responsible"? We could only draw the conclusion that genetic influences may not be important for the expression of homosexuality in adults. This does not necessarily implicate "chance" (or the social environment, as implied by Whitehead). Innate tendencies can arise through a complex range of biological processes, including hormonal, immunological and neuro-developmental factors. However, a chief limitation of Whitehead's argument in his submission on the Civil Unions Bill is that he ignored a strong conclusion in our paper: That is, a personality trait (childhood gender atypicality) that has repeatedly been found to predict homosexual orientation is quite strongly heritable... (I note that Whitehead has argued elsewhere that the link between this childhood trait and adult homosexuality is weak. That is demonstrably not true, as has been revealed by systematic analysis of data from more than 40 studies of the topic ...)

Dr Whitehead has argued that it is the responsibility of society to limit the environment that may be conducive to people who have this predisposition to ultimately "become gay or lesbian". Thus, he postulates that homosexual civil unions would be conducive to such an environment. It is precisely here that his argument becomes devoid of any scientific basis, because of one key point. To date, there has never been a study that has convincingly demonstrated that any particular social or environmental influence (including social policy) "promotes" or is conducive to the development of homosexual orientation. Not one.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that Dr Whitehead should not have been given the chance to express his views to the select committee, or even to declare his tenuous "authority" on the topic. But it is simply fatuous to suggest that the provision of a robust scientific rebuttal is somehow evidence that his free speech has been hampered by the "homosexual lobby".

The only time I have spoken personally to Franks was when we both attended a Skeptics conference in Wellington. He would be well advised to consider the principles upon which that conference was staged.

Anyway, to end on a jolly note. When I Googled Whitehead's name to check his form, this was the sole Google sponsored link that came up on the right-hand side of the page:

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