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“Whither Goes The Holy Candidate?”: The Roots Of Carson’s Magical Thinking Evidently Lie Deep In His Past

At the expense of spoiling all the fun, let’s get real about Dr. Ben Carson’s presidential campaign. Every four years, rural Iowa Republicans fall raptly in love with a bible-brandishing savior who vows to purge the nation of sin. In 2008 it was Mike Huckabee, in 2012 Rick Santorum.

Mr. Establishment, Mitt Romney, finished second both times.

In the general election, Iowa voters supported President Obama.

Soon after the New Hampshire primary, the holy candidate fades fast. Huckabee finished a weak third in New Hampshire, Santorum fourth with 9.5 percent of the vote. And that was basically the end of God’s self-anointed candidates.

Particularly in view of increasing evidence that key elements of Dr. Carson’s inspiring personal biography are imaginary or worse, there’s no reason to think that he will fare any better than Huckabee or Santorum. A bit like Bernie Sanders supporters, Carson fans have been slow to grasp that their party’s presidential nominee will need the votes of millions of “blue state” Republicans historically resistant to religious zealotry.

Indeed, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait makes a persuasive case that, quite like Huckabee, Carson isn’t actually running for president. Rather, his campaign is a for-profit organization.

“Conservative politics are so closely intermingled with a lucrative entertainment complex,” Chait writes “that it is frequently impossible to distinguish between a political project…and a money-making venture. Declaring yourself a presidential candidate gives you access to millions of dollars’ worth of free media attention that can build a valuable brand.”

The fact that Carson’s campaign evidently plows a reported 69 percent of its donations into further fund-raising may be a clue. Real political campaigns spend the bulk of their cash building an organization and advertising. Carson invests his loot in pyramid-like direct-mail and phone-spamming operations.

Freed of the time-consuming necessity of being president, Carson will be able to hire more ghost-writers, give inspirational speeches and peddle fundamentalist Christian DVDs to a rapt audience of millions. With any luck, he can market himself as a martyr to liberal media bias.

Even the books currently being dissected by reporters at the Wall Street Journal and Politico aren’t standard campaign biographies. They’re basically miracle fables, contemporary versions of John Bunyan’s 17th century classic Pilgrim’s Progress, mingling an allegory of divine salvation with the material rewards of the “American Dream.”

Now you’d think that Carson’s actual life story, rising from the Detroit streets to become a world-renowned pediatric brain surgeon, would be enough to warrant admiration. Mere reality, however, won’t suffice to cover the miraculous narrative of sin and salvation evangelical Christians have come to expect. Thus, Carson can’t simply have been raised a poor kid in a rundown ghetto, he has to have been a violent thug touched by God.

Similarly, Carson can’t just be a bright, hard-working scholarship student. He has to have been victimized by a professorial hoax and rewarded as the most honest student at Yale. That this screwball tale from his 1990 book Gifted Hands appears to have been inspired by a prank pulled by the college humor magazine makes it no more believable. Only that the roots of Carson’s magical thinking evidently lie deep in his past.

It would be interesting to know if friends and professional associates ever heard these whoppers previous to his book’s publication. Because brain scientists tend to be a skeptical lot. He did leave medicine somewhat early.

That said, it’s hardly unknown to encounter a physician, much less a neurosurgeon, with a God complex. The experience of holding life and death in one’s hands may have something to do with it. The Guardian newspaper has published a photo layout of Carson’s home — essentially a museum exhibit celebrating his greatness — that suggests an ego gone mad.

The man may actually believe, as he said recently on Meet the Press, that his candidacy represents a big threat to “the secular progressive movement in this country…because they can look at the polling data and they can see that I’m the candidate who’s most likely to be able to beat Hillary Clinton.”

Call me Mr. Worldly Wiseman, after the character in Pilgrim’s Progress who tries to steer Christian down the wrong road, but it says here that Democrats could never get so lucky.

The negative TV ads practically write themselves. Imagine a clip of Carson during a GOP debate indignantly denying a business relationship with Mannatech, the hinky diet supplement company, followed by another of him bragging that the company basically bought him an endowed chair at Johns Hopkins.

Actually, it’s mildly alarming living in a country where a crank like Carson commands any attention at all. Now me, I’d no more visit a physician who claimed that Satan inspired Darwin’s Theory of Evolution than I’d climb into an airline piloted by somebody who denied Newton’s Theory of Gravity.

But President of the United States?

Not a chance.

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, November 11, 2015

November 12, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Evangelicals, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Domain Specific Intelligence”: The Truth About Ben Carson; Smart People Can Believe Crazy Things

The mystery of Ben Carson is that he’s a startlingly intelligent man with an inspiring life story who repeatedly makes unhinged assertions that are divorced from reality—and who, as we now know, unnecessarily embellishes his life story. About Carson’s braininess there can be no doubt: He’s not just a doctor, nor is he just a brain surgeon, he’s also performed astonishing medical breakthroughs. In 1987, he was the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head, not a feat that you can do unless you are extraordinarily talented. Yet Carson’s impressive medical accomplishments are puzzling in light of the many absurd things he’s said, notably that Charles Darwin was inspired by Satan and that the pyramids were created by the Hebrew slave Joseph to store grain (as against what Carson thinks is the belief of many “scientists” that they were created by space aliens).

There’s no gainsaying the undisputed facts of Carson’s life, which are genuinely elevating. He really did go from a ghetto childhood to Yale to medical school to being a world-class surgeon. Why then has Carson felt the need to gild the lily with apparently tall tales of being a violence-prone kid who nearly murdered a friend, and being offered a scholarship to West Point? Reporting by CNN and Politico has made it clear that these central claims in his autobiographical account of himself are almost surely false.

To solve the mystery of Ben Carson, it’s important to realize two facts: First, great intelligence doesn’t immunize a person from indulging in magical thinking or pseudo-science. Second, even very smart and accomplished people can be fantasists.

A key text for understanding the Carson phenomenon is science journalist Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Times (originally published in 1997 and revised in 2002). In a chapter titled “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things,” Shermer notes that “intelligence is … orthogonal to the variables that go into shaping beliefs.” What this means is that the factors that make someone believe unusual and non-scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas—everything ranging from ESP to myths about Atlantis to oddball Shakespearean authorship theories to outright holocaust denial—are independent of intelligence. These are beliefs that very smart people as well as the far less intellectually gifted are prone to.

“Another problem is that smart people might be smart in only one field,” Shermer notes. “We say that their intelligence is domain specific.” Carson clearly has a “domain-specific” intelligence—which he freely applies to fields outside his ken (not just Egyptian Archaeology but also American politics, foreign policy, economics, evolutionary biology, and many others).

But there’s a further factor at work: In our educational meritocracy, smart people like Carson are likely to have high social status, which makes them more self-assured and willing to think they are smarter than the experts in other fields. Or smart enough, in Carson’s case, to believe they’re qualified for the presidency.

In some respects, being as intelligent and well-educated as Carson makes you more vulnerable to what Shermer calls weird beliefs. The smarter and better-educated you are, the more powerful you are at coming up with arguments to justify your positions. In effect, intelligence and education give you the skills at becoming entrenched in motivated reasonings. In Shermer’s words, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending belief they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” This explains the engineers who become 9/11 truthers, the Supreme Court justices who think the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays, the distinguished mathematicians who think HIV is not the cause of AIDS. It also explains Ben Carson.

But aside from his proclivity toward weird ideas (often connected to his right-wing ideology), we now know that Carson is also a fantasist. His inspirational tales about his life seem to be filled with fibs, moments where he takes perhaps a kernel of truth and turns it into an outright untruth.

Here again, we have to recognize that intelligence and accomplishment are no guard against moral failings. Whatever qualities make someone into a fabulist—perhaps a love of powerful stories, perhaps an inability to distinguish between fact and fiction—can be found in the gifted as well as the ordinary. Two distinguished historical figures prefigure Carson in this regard: the novelist Ford Madox Ford and the political theorist Harold Laski. Ford wrote wonderful novels like The Good Soldier (1915), and Laski was a seminal figure in the Fabian movement, yet both inexplicably felt the need to spruce up their life stories. Ford was genuinely friends with figures like Joseph Conrad and Henry James, but made up stories about them in his autobiographical books. Laski was active in the heart of British politics, yet his letters and private conversations were filled with untrue stories about meeting famous people and doing extraordinary things.

Ben Carson is fast becoming a tragic figure. He’s a man of genuine merit, yet he’s tarnished his reputation through his inability to resist fantastic ideas—and to make up fantasies about his own life. He stands as proof of the fact that intelligence is unconnected to morality.

 

By: Jeet Heer, Senior Editor at The New Republic; November9, 2015

November 11, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, GOP Presidential Candidates, GOP Primary Debates | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“He Doesn’t Realize What He Doesn’t Know”: Ben Carson Has Weird Ideas And Makes Stuff Up. What Kind Of President Would He Be?

Ben Carson is having a very bad news day today. Politico is reporting that Carson has now admitted that a story he told in his autobiography “Gifted Hands” and again in his book “You Have a Brain” was false in one major detail. He wrote that as an excellent ROTC student in high school he met General William Westmoreland, and later, presumably because he had so impressed Westmoreland, “I was offered a full scholarship to West Point.”

After being confronted with the fact that no record exists of him applying to West Point, Carson’s campaign admitted that he made up that part of the story.

Before we proceed, I want to point out what someone should have told Carson about this a long time ago: There is no such thing as a “full scholarship” to West Point, because the young men and women who go to West Point pay no tuition, nor do they pay room and board. In any case, I’m going to argue that this particular fabrication isn’t all that important to assessing Carson’s fitness for the presidency.

The reason this is happening now is obvious: Carson is reaping the reward of his success, which is an uncomfortable trip to the campaign microscope, courtesy of both the press and his opponents. More reporters are coming to his events, the questions are getting tougher and more insistent, his past writings and statements are being carefully examined, everyone who knew him since he was a babe in arms is getting interviewed, and from where he sits the whole thing probably seems terribly unfair.

But it isn’t. Not only is it just what every seriously contending candidate gets, when it comes to Ben Carson we almost have no choice but to focus on his life story and the colorful things he says and believes. So even before the West Point story, coverage of Carson was already consumed with questions about whether he stabbed a guy when he was 14, his theory about the pyramids, and his wildly inaccurate beliefs about things like Medicare fraud.

I’m a longtime critic of the personality coverage that takes up so much of the campaign, not because we don’t want to know who the “real” person is behind the persona of a presidential candidate, but because we in the media so often ask the wrong questions when we take on this task. The problem is that the moment we set out on this voyage of discovery, we forget the whole point of the exercise, which is to get the best understanding we can of what this person would be like if they were to become president.

For instance, let’s take the stabbing story. Carson wrote in his autobiography that before he found God as a teenager he was an angry and violent teen, as evidenced by the fact that he once tried to stab someone, whom he now says was a relative. CNN did a story interviewing a number of people who knew him as a youth, and they say that he wasn’t the hellion he describes, but was actually a perfectly nice kid. Carson is angrily denying the allegation that he was not in fact a danger to those around him.

It should be noted that among the evangelical Christians who form the base of Carson’s support, redemption narratives are extremely powerful — the lower down you were the better, before God raised you up. The depth of the hole you had to climb out of is yet more evidence of God’s power. But the question about this is, who cares? Let’s imagine the worst, that Carson made this whole thing up. What exactly would that tell us about what sort of president he might be? The answer is, basically nothing.

Don’t tell me, “It matters because it speaks to his honesty.” Honesty does matter, but the way you figure out whether a president will be honest about the things he does as president is to see what he’s saying about the things he’d do as president. When he was a candidate, we learned that Bill Clinton had affairs and covered them up, and what did that teach us? That as president, he’d have an affair and cover it up — not that he’d lie about other things. George W. Bush presented himself as brimming with personal integrity, all while telling one lie after another about his record in Texas and the policies he was proposing (while the press was poring over his opponent’s every word with Talmudic care to see if they could catch him in a misstatement). Lo and behold, as president he was faithful to his wife, but deceived the country about all kinds of important policy matters.

So yes, it now appears that Carson embellished his life story a bit to make his autobiography a more compelling read. Saying that he’s hardly the first prominent figure to have done that is not to forgive him, but there are more important things to consider.

Now stay with me while I argue that Ben Carson’s views on the provenance of the pyramids actually do matter. Carson maintains that unlike “all the archeologists” who say that the pyramids were built by the pharaohs to be their tombs, he believes that the biblical figure Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. There is precisely zero evidence for this belief.

This is hardly the only matter about which Carson says all the scientists are wrong. He thinks that the theory of evolution was born when Satan encouraged Charles Darwin to devise it; all the copious evidence for evolution is meaningless. Carson also says that he once stumped a “well-known physicist” by asking him how the organization of the solar system could be compatible with the second law of thermodynamics, which states that systems tend to move toward entropy. Carson is either lying about this or wildly misinterpreted the conversation he had, because there’s no contradiction between the two, and there isn’t a physicist on earth who would tell you that the solar system proves that God’s hand was at work. But people who learn only a tiny bit about certain scientific ideas often become convinced that they’ve happened upon a striking new revelation that all the so-called experts have never considered before.

So what does this have to do with what Carson might be like as president? When George W. Bush said he was “the decider,” he was describing accurately a large part of the job. Every day, the president’s aides bring him decisions he has to make, decisions that are often complex and uncertain. He has to weigh different kinds of evidence and make predictions about the future. People who know more than him about a particular topic — the economics of the labor market, the internal politics of Iran, the health effects of power-plant emissions — will offer him their advice based on their expertise, and he’ll have to integrate their perspective with other considerations that might come into play in a particular policy decision.

Ben Carson’s ideas about things like the pyramids, combined with what he has said about other more immediate topics, suggest not only that his beliefs are impervious to evidence but also an alarming lack of what we might call epistemological modesty. It isn’t what he doesn’t know that’s the problem, it’s what he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know. He thinks that all the archeologists who have examined the pyramids just don’t know what they’re talking about, because Joseph had to put all that grain somewhere. He thinks that after reading something about the second law of thermodynamics, he knows more about the solar system than the world’s physicists do. He thinks that after hearing a Glenn Beck rant about the evils of Islam, he knows as much about a 1,400-year-old religion as any theologian and can confidently say why no Muslim who doesn’t renounce his faith could be president.

So what happens when President Carson gets what he thinks is a great idea, and a bunch of “experts” tell him it would actually be a disaster? What’s he going to do?

This is a more acute question with Carson than with any other candidate, because he has no political record we can examine to see how he might perform. The policy ideas he has put forward range between the impossibly vague and the utterly outlandish. Even more so than Donald Trump, who has at least managed a large organization, Carson offers only himself — his heart, his spirit, his soul — as the reason why America should elect him president. In assessing him we have no choice but to look at the man, because there’s nothing else. Some parts of his personal story are irrelevant to that assessment, but some parts aren’t. And it’s those that should really give us pause.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, November 6, 2015

November 8, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Evangelicals, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“How Can You Resolve This Contradiction?”: How Is Ben Carson Both So Incredibly Smart And So Spectacularly Stupid?

There are a lot of scientific prerequisites if you want to go to medical school — not just biology, but also chemistry and physics, even some math. By the time you get there, and certainly by the time you leave, you’ll be long acquainted with the scientific method and the broad contours of scientific knowledge on those topics.

So imagine it’s 1970 or so, and you’re young Ben Carson, sitting in a biology class at Yale University. With your sharp mind and strong study habits, you don’t have much problem understanding the material, grasping the copious evidence underlying the theory of evolution, all the fossils going back millions of years, how it all fits together in an endless process that affects everything from a towering redwood down to a microscopic virus. And yet, the whole thing sounds like an attack on the beliefs about the universe you were taught your whole life from your family and your church. How can you resolve this contradiction?

The resolution came somewhere along the way for Carson: Satan. Evolution is Satan’s doing.

The fact that Carson believes this is a true puzzlement. Because Carson is an undeniably smart man. You don’t get to be one of the world’s most renowned neurosurgeons without the ability to understand complex systems, evaluate evidence, sift the plausible from the implausible, and integrate disparate pieces of data into a coherent whole. And yet he thinks that the theory of evolution is not just a great big hoax, but a hoax literally delivered to us from Hell.

Forgive me for my contemptuous tone, but that is what Carson actually believes. In a 2012 speech put up this week by Buzzfeed‘s Andrew Kaczynski, Carson says, “I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary,” and reveals that he plans to write a book explaining how the organs of the human body refute evolutionary theory. He also says the Big Bang is bunk, because the second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases, and there’s too much order in the universe, what with things like galaxies and solar systems and planets. “Now that type of organization to just come out of an explosion? I mean, you want to talk about fairy tales, that is amazing.” Someone should explain to him that order didn’t arrive right out of the explosion, but over billions of years. You see, because of gravity…oh, never mind.

Carson’s ideas about the Big Bang are quite similar to his beliefs about Islam, in that he picked up a snippet of information somewhere — there’s a passage in the Koran that says this or that, there’s a thing called entropy — and that snippet seemed to take hold of his rational faculties and beat them to a pulp.

To be clear, this isn’t just about religious faith. There are millions upon millions of people in the world who believe fervently in a divine power, but who also acknowledge the truth of evolution. The Catholic Church, for instance, is quite clear that there’s nothing incompatible between its theology and evolution. You can believe God set the process in motion or that God guides it down to the smallest detail; nothing about a belief in God prevents you from understanding and accepting what generations of scientists have discovered about the history of life on Earth.

So how do we explain this contradiction? All of us have some things we know a lot about and some things of which we’re ignorant. Some of us are extraordinarily good at reading people and understanding social relations, but are helpless when it comes to math; others are just the opposite. Some of us pick up languages easily, others don’t. Intelligence is complex and varied.

But what’s so odd about Carson is that science is the very thing he was trained in, and the thing at which he excelled. Yet his religious beliefs are apparently so powerful that they completely overwhelm his ability to look objectively at any scientific area that might give some answers to what people once thought were purely metaphysical questions.

Training in science is also training in how to think — what sorts of questions can be answered in what sorts of ways, and how you know what you know and what you don’t. That’s why it’s nearly as surprising to hear Carson offer as justification for his belief that no Muslim should be president, “Taqiyya is a component of Shia that allows, and even encourages you to lie to achieve your goals,” as it is to hear him dismiss the Big Bang with a line about entropy. It isn’t surprising that Ben Carson knows next to nothing about Islam; what is surprising is that, despite a career immersed in a very specialized field, he would think that he could listen to a couple of Glenn Beck rants and come to a deep understanding of a 1,400-year-old religion.

That’s not to mention the fact that Carson’s entire campaign for president is built on the rejection of knowledge and experience, in that he argues that all you need to succeed as president is common sense, even if you’ve never spent a day in government. That opinion, unfortunately, is widely held. As is, we should mention, belief in Satan — according to polls, a majority of Americans believe in the devil, so Carson is hardly alone.

If the Father of Lies is amongst us, I’m sure he’ll take a keen interest in the presidential campaign. And when Carson’s candidacy immolates, as it certainly will, he’ll have someone to blame it on.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, September 23, 2015

September 24, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Bigotry, Science | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Ben Carson Is In Danger Of Losing All Respect”: He Can Only Lose In This Campaign, And More Than Just The Republican Primary

Over decades of a brilliant career as a brain surgeon, Dr. Ben Carson attracted legions of admirers — black, white and brown; liberal, moderate and conservative; fundamentalist Christian and agnostic. His story is the stuff of legend, the awe-inspiring tale of a poor black boy in Detroit who overcame daunting obstacles and vaulted to the very top of his profession.

Given that his profession was pediatric neurosurgery, black Americans were particularly proud. Carson, who was the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins attached at the head, stood as stark repudiation of invidious stereotypes about black intellectual capacity. His memoir, Gifted Hands, has been passed through countless black households.

But the good doctor’s foray into Republican presidential politics threatens to become his epitaph, to overshadow — perhaps even to overwhelm — his academic and surgical accomplishments. He will likely be remembered as the GOP’s latest black mascot, a court jester, a minstrel show. He’ll be the Herman Cain of 2016.

Clearly, Carson’s chances of winning the Republican nomination for president stand at less than zero. No matter how many cheers he attracts at conservative gabfests, no matter how many of his bumperstickers appear on the vehicles of true believers, no matter how many Fox News pundits suggest he’s a viable candidate, he won’t come close to becoming the GOP standard bearer.

Nor should he. He is dangerously unqualified for the presidency — a political novice who is happily ignorant of policy, both foreign and domestic, and contemptuous of religious pluralism and personal liberties.

Carson catapulted to stardom in the ultraconservative firmament in 2013, when he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast with a speech in which he lashed out at the Affordable Care Act as President Obama sat nearby. Though the breakfast has a long history of nonpartisanship, Carson chose to criticize many of the policies that the president supports, including progressive taxation.

That was enough to cause conservatives to swoon. Since Obama’s election, Republicans have been sensitive to charges that their small tent of aging voters has become a bastion of white resentment, a cauldron of bigotry, nativism and fear of the other. They want to show that their fierce resistance to all things Obama has nothing to do with race.

That promotes a special affection for black conservatives who are willing to viciously criticize the president. As with Cain before him, Carson garners the most enthusiastic cheers from conservative audiences when he’s excoriating Obama, the most rapturous applause when he seems to absolve them of charges of bigotry. Why would Carson trade on his reputation to become their token?

I’ve little doubt that his conservative impulses are genuine. He grew up Seventh-Day Adventist, a conservative religious tradition. Moreover, he has adopted a view popular among white conservatives: that black Democrats give short shrift to traditional values such as thrift, hard work and sacrifice. (Hasn’t Carson ever heard any of Obama’s riffs excoriating deadbeat dads and promoting discipline, scholarship and parental involvement in their children’s lives?)

But Carson hardly represents the long and honorable tradition of black conservatism in America. Starting with the father of that movement, Booker T. Washington, its adherents have had a healthy appreciation for the reality of racism in America. Carson, however, thinks Obamacare “really (is) the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And … it is slavery in a way.” Washington and his peers, who knew better, would never have countenanced such nonsense.

Moreover, black conservatism has promoted self-reliance, but it hasn’t been a font of right-wing intolerance and know-nothingism. Carson, for his part, has dismissed evolution (giving his former colleagues at Johns Hopkins heartburn); he has compared homosexuality to bestiality; and he has spurned the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

Given the ultraconservative politics of GOP primary voters, those extreme positions may help Carson in the early campaign season. But those views also guarantee that mainstream Republican leaders and their donors will flock elsewhere, seeking to find an experienced, broadly appealing and electable candidate.

Carson can only lose in this campaign — and more than just the Republican primary. He also stands to lose his place as one of the nation’s most admired men.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, May 9, 2015

May 10, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Conservatives, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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