A junk-science Surgeon General?

President Bush's recent nomination of Dr. James Holsinger for Surgeon General has drawn a lot of criticism. In 1991, Holsinger wrote a paper for a committee of the United Methodist Church studying homosexuality entitled "Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality." Holsinger cited and quoted from a few studies and concluded thus:

When the complementarity of the sexes is breached, injuries and diseases may occur as noted above. Therefore, based on the simplest known anatomy and physiology, when dealing with the complementarity of the human sexes, one can simply say, Res ipsa loquitur - the thing speaks for itself!

Holsinger compares human sexuality to pipe fittings; some pipes fit right and some don't. Res ipsa loquitur!

The idea of a "natural complementarity" of the sexes has been a recurrent theme in anti-gay discourse for decades. The point of the idea is to suggest that, in addition to moral and religious objections to homosexual acts, nature itself condemns them. "Anatomy" and "physiology" tell us, on this view, that there's something objectively wrong with homosexuality. Holsinger's paper was thus an attempt to give some patina of scientific legitimacy to long-standing, essentially religious condemnations.

Besides the highly problematic idea of appeals to some conception of "nature," "anatomy," or "physiology" as a basis for normative conclusions, it turns out that Holsinger's paper shares another problem common to much anti-gay literature: it's junk science. Jim Burroway has checked Holsinger's sources and found lots of problems with the paper. He concludes:

The whole point of Holsinger’s paper is to draw a sharp contrast between gay relationships and heterosexual relationships. But to do so, he culls his evidence largely from papers which describe injuries from nonconsensual intercourse to denigrate consensual relationships, he describes odd sexual practices that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples to denigrate the minority of gay couples who indulge in those same practices, and he misleads his readers by padding his bibliography with more references to papers explicitly describing injuries experienced by heterosexual men and women to imply that they describe gay men instead. . . .

What he wrote was no error, nor is it a simple misreading of the medical literature. In fact, it is simply impossible to write what he wrote by accident or in error.

Holsinger wrote this paper as part of a church inquiry where the greater considerations for Truth ought to hold sway. This makes Holsinger’s actions all the more disquieting. If he’s willing to commit an act of false witness on behalf of the church — in the service of his God — what assurances can we have that he will act differently on behalf of the nation?

Read the entire detailed analysis of Holsinger's paper.

If Burroway is right, Holsinger's paper is not just wrong. It is embarrassingly incompetent. And it is dishonest. All of us make mistakes and occasionally allow our ideological pre-commitments to cloud our better judgment. But when a man wants to be the next chief medical officer of the United States, we should hold him to a high standard of ethical and rigorous medical judgment. Holsinger deserves very close scrutiny from the Senate during his confirmation hearing, and Burroway's critique will be a good starting point.