The Odd Blog

And when our cubs grow / We'll show you what war is good for


Posted by That Other Mike on 13/02/2011

Sometimes I get a little annoyed with PZ and the commentariat over at Pharyngula.

Backstory – PZ posted about the story of Alan, a man in the UK with learning disabilities; Alan has an IQ of 48. The median is 100. Rather than rehashing it, I’ll post a few paragraphs from the Telegraph article PZ linked to:

The 41 year-old had been in a relationship with a man whom he lived with and told officials “it would make me feel happy” for it to continue.

But his local council decided his “vigorous sex drive” was inappropriate and that with an IQ of 48 and a “moderate” learning disability, he did not understand what he was doing.

A psychiatrist involved in the case even tried to prevent the man being given sex education, on the grounds that it would leave him “confused”.

Mr Justice Mostyn said the case was “legally, intellectually and morally” complex as sex is “one of the most basic human functions” and the court must “tread especially carefully” when the state tries to curtail it.

But he agreed that the man, known only as Alan, should not be allowed to have sex with anyone on the grounds that he did not have the mental capacity to understand the health risks associated with his actions.

Final result of the case – the judge has essentially ordered a temporary stay of the man’s sexual activities while in sheltered housing because he is not at present able to demonstrate capacity to understand the consequences of his actions. This judgement is to be revisited after Alan is given some sex education.

Relatively simple, but it has unleashed something of a barrage of idiocy over at Pharyngula, with claims of ableism and homophobia, along with claims that Alan should just be left to make his own decisions on the matter.

While I respect PZ as a scientist and scientific populariser, and acknowledge freely that the Pharyngulites are a bunch of exceptionally intelligent people in many situations, in this respect they’re basically full of shit. Capacity is a complex and thorny issue in UK law, and is not ever treated lightly these days, at least not by any social work or legal professional who wants to remain licensed to practise.

By any standards, Alan is an individual whose capacity might be reasonably doubted: he has a very low IQ and learning disabilities, and has allegedly engaged in sexually-questionable behaviour (to wit, making lewd gestures at children in a dentists’ surgery and on a bus). In law, capacity is always assumed from the outset until something happens to put that assumption in doubt, and there is a rigorous structure of safeguards in place to protect vulnerable adults from being unduly deprived of liberties they ought to have, requiring medical and social work input in conjunction with the individual’s own input wherever possible. These are not decisions made lightly, and this kind of knee jerk reaction from otherwise intelligent people irks me; I can imagine it coming from Daily Mail readers, but from a group whose normal reaction to everything else in the world is to apply the scientific method, it rankles a little.

I’m also irked by it on a work level. I work with and observe social work professionals on a day-to-day basis. You wouldn’t believe how much abuse and crap gets flung at social work professionals daily which they absolutely don’t deserve – almost all of them are extremely hard-working, caring individuals who do their very utmost to ensure that our clients are given the very best service it’s possible to give them. This isn’t helped by people making ignorant judgements.

TL;DR: PZ was scandalised about something he knows next to nothing about, and his commenters went bugshit while maintaining the ignorance level at high red. This made me irked.


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