Dr Peter Moore: Science has the ability to be wrong

Joseph Bulmer

One of the strengths of medicine and perhaps all science is the ability to be wrong.

As a student in the 1970s, I was taught medical 'received wisdom', some of which we now know to be misguided.

No-one was 'lying'. Doctors genuinely believed the current teaching.

One of the most obvious teachings which was, in hindsight, profoundly wrong was the idea that homosexuality was a form of mental illness.

It had only recently been legalised and was still illegal for anyone under 21.

Even I thought it was illogical to make a mental illness illegal.

No-one suggested that schizophrenia or bipolar disorder could be helped by making them illegal, so why the 'illness' of homosexuality?

As with any illness, a doctor should listen and show empathy and so we treated anyone with this 'illness' with compassion but still believed that they could be 'treated'.

When Alan Turing, the brilliant scientist behind the World War Two Bletchley Park monitoring station, was given hormone treatment for his homosexuality, the doctors were not evil. They believed, wrongly, that he had an illness which needed treating.

Although no longer illegal, anyone who was gay initially denied it to themselves and then to everyone else.

Prominent gay people could be blackmailed to prevent a scandal.

My road to Damascus moment came in the early 1980s. I was on a forensic course when I went to a lecture from a forensic psychiatrist on sexual 'paraphilias', problems which some of the popular press might call 'perversions'.

When he started discussing homosexuality he showed us very clear evidence that some people are gay.

It is not a choice and not a disease, just a variation of normal. It was not a 'paraphilia'.

It struck me as being similar to my 'problem', which is not a problem at all. I am left-handed. I did not choose to be left-handed, in fact it is quite irritating. It would be easier if I joined 85 per cent of the population and became right-handed.

When I was born no-one could look at me and predict how I would develop.

Gradually, I found it easier to use my left hand. When I learnt to write I naturally picked up a pencil in my left hand. Luckily, I was born at a time when this was acceptable.

In the same way that homosexuality was condemned by religions as a 'sin', so left handedness was once considered a sign of the devil.

And this is not ancient history. My brother-in-law was told by his grandmother that his left-handedness was the devil at work. He must resist and use his right hand.

Even today the Bible suggests that Jesus 'sitteth on the right hand of God'. Who’s to say that God is right-handed?

If people are to use the quote in the Biblical book Leviticus to justify the argument that homosexuality is a sin, the same book suggests that you must not lend money or sell food for a profit.

This would make every bank and supermarket evil sinners.

I am not qualified to discuss complicated theological issues but there is debate over whether all the nuances in the original texts have been correctly interpreted in the English translations.

Even the word 'homosexuality' was not coined until the 19th century.

We now live in more enlightened times where being gay is seen as a variation of normal.

We see caring gay relationships on TV and gay marriage is accepted.

Today, if a celebrity 'comes out' as being gay I yawn. I really don’t care.

I would not condemn my profession for wrongly categorising homosexuality as an illness in the past.

I am proud that doctors looked carefully at the evidence and realised that they were wrong.

It did not take a rally, demonstration or gay rights march to help me understand that being gay was just a variation of normal. It was in an academic lecture where I was shown the evidence.