Dr Hans-Christian Raabe of the ACMD: it doesn’t matter that you’re a Christian, you’re just no good with evidence

Dr Hans-Christian Raabe, we hardly knew ye.

After just two weeks in to his new job on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Dr Raabe, a devout Christian, has been fired for not revealing that he wrote a paper back in 2005 which linked homosexuality with paedophilia. Since Dr Raabe had been required to let the government know of anything in his past that might cause embarrassment to the council or the government, he has been relieved of his role.

Whatever the reason, it’s good that he’s gone. The ACMD is meant to assess evidence, and it seems that Dr Raabe’s relationship with evidence was tangential at best.

Take his stance on cannabis. He wrote in a BMJ article: “A person who uses cannabis by age 15 has more than a four-fold increased risk of developing schizophrenia symptoms over the next 11 years compared with a person starting to use cannabis by 18.”

Even if this statistic is correct, it doesn’t mean that cannabis use in adolescence causes increased risk of schizophrenia. Correlation is not causation. It is perfectly possible that, for example, adolescents with incipient mental health issues are more likely to take drugs, rather than taking drugs makes you more likely to have mental health issues.

As it happens, there is evidence that cannabis increases risk of psychosis. This 2004 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Psychology suggests that the average age of schizophrenia onset is younger in regular cannabis users; this 2005 one from Schizophrenia Bulletin suggests that cannabis users are at double the risk of developing the disease at all.

But, as I’ve written before, that’s not the whole story. This study suggests that you would need to convince between 2,800 and 10,870 cannabis users to quit in order to prevent a single case of schizophrenia. We need to judge whether taking a hard-line stance on the drug is worthwhile, given that even if it were implausibly successful and convinced hundreds of thousands of people to quit, it would only prevent a handful of schizophrenia cases, at a significant cost in police time, jailed users and, of course, civil liberties.

Which brings us to Dr Raabe’s next point. In the same BMJ article, he said: “The only way of stopping people from dying from drug-related deaths is to prevent drug use in the first place!”

Now. Strange language aside (people are dying from deaths? How unexpected!), this is straightforwardly untrue. It has been repeatedly shown that needle exchange programmes prevent deaths from HIV and infection. Users of prescribed, medical-grade heroin have no significant drop in life expectancy and will probably suffer nothing worse than unpleasant constipation: the gap between a therapeutic dose and an overdose is far less than that of, say, paracetamol. So studies like this one have found that providing heroin on prescription to addicts leads to longer lives, because they are not using street product cut with brick-dust or rat poison. So it is not the case that the only way of stopping people from dying drug-related deaths is to prevent drug use. Dr Raabe is either disingenuous or misinformed.

So on what we know of his stance on drugs, he doesn’t seem to be a good evaluator of evidence. And his stance on homosexuality is no better.

In the article he co-authored, “‘Gay marriage’ and homosexuality: Some medical comments” (note revealing scare-quotes around “gay marriage”), the evidence given for a link between homosexuality and paedophilia includes the fact that “Greek mythology is saturated with stories of pedophilia and ancient Greek literature praises pedophilia.” To which you can safely say “so what?”

The article also goes on about links between “the gay movement” and NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association (a real thing, weirdly), but only mentions one quote from the NAMBLA chief to support that claim – who, presumably, was trying to align his horrible group with gay-rights activism to give it an air of respectability. It also quotes a political scientist claiming that paedophile groups were once allied with the gay and lesbian movement. None of this supports in the slightest the claim that homosexuals are more likely to be paedophiles.

We get to the meat of his argument in the next paragraph: “The number of homosexuals in essentially all surveys is less than 3%. (Statistics Canada found only 1% of the population who described themselves as homosexual.) However, the percentage of homosexuals among pedophiles is 25%.” Worrying, if true. Unfortunately for Dr Raabe, it isn’t.

The Universityof California’s psychology department does a very good “facts about homosexuality and child molestation” section, and I’ve taken the following from there. First, the idea of “homosexual [or heterosexual] paedophiles” is not really an accepted one in psychological circles: “many child molesters cannot be meaningfully described as homosexuals, heterosexuals, or bisexuals (in the usual sense of those terms) because they are not really capable of a relationship with an adult man or woman. Instead of gender, their sexual attractions are based primarily on age. These individuals – who are often characterized as fixated – are attracted to children, not to men or women.”

Further, among those who are not solely attracted to children – those known as “regressed” child molesters – seem to be no more likely to be homosexual than the rest of the populace:

‘Groth and Birnbaum (1978) studied 175 adult males who were convicted in Massachusetts of sexual assault against a child. None of the men had an exclusively homosexual adult sexual orientation. 83 (47 per cent) were classified as “fixated;” 70 others (40%) were classified as regressed adult heterosexuals; the remaining 22 (13%) were classified as regressed adult bisexuals. Of the last group, Groth and Birnbaum observed that “in their adult relationships they engaged in sex on occasion with men as well as with women. However, in no case did this attraction to men exceed their preference for women….There were no men who were primarily sexually attracted to other adult males…”‘ There are several other examples in the University of California article, but this post is getting too long already, so I won’t include them here.

Dr Raabe says: “I have been discriminated against because of my opinions and beliefs which are in keeping with the teaching of the major churches. This sets a dangerous precedent: Are we saying that being a Christian is now a bar to public office?”

But he’s missing the point. What’s important here is not that he disapproves of homosexuals – it’s that he allows this disapproval to colour his approach to the evidence. He is welcome to believe that homosexuality is sinful, if that’s what turns him on, but when he starts making factually incorrect empirical claims about its links to paedophilia, then he is revealing himself to be unsuitable for the role.

The sceptical blogger Simon Perry said on Twitter that “They’re upset about him equating homosexuality with paedophilia because this view is offensive, not because the science is poor. Looked at like that, it’s the same reason they sacked [former ACMD advisor Professor David] Nutt [who was fired for saying ecstasy was less dangerous than horse-riding].”

If that’s true, that’s a shame. Because what’s really embarrassing for the government is that they appointed someone who simply isn’t appropriate for the role, and his article reveals that. So it’s good that they fired him. But they may have fired him for the wrong reason. They could easily have fired him for not being very good at his job.

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