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“Smart People Believing Stupid Things”: When Irrational Right Wing Thinking Trumps Science

So after a brief moment in the spotlight, it appears that Ben Carson will not be this week’s Savior of the Republican Party after all. But his quick rise and fall raise an interesting question: Why are some people incredibly smart when it comes to some topics, and incredibly stupid when it comes to others?

To bring you up to speed, Carson is a noted neurosurgeon who, among other things, was the first to successfully separate conjoined twins joined at the head. He’s also extremely politically conservative (and African-American), which made him a popular, though by no means nationally famous, figure in some conservative circles. Then in February, he gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, in which he took the occasion to sharply criticize President Obama (who was sitting right there) and advocate for a flat tax, which as everyone knows is pleasing unto the Lord. The Wall Street Journal then ran an editorial titled “Ben Carson for President,” and he was off to the races, making media appearances, appearing at CPAC, and obviously seriously considering a run for the White House. Until he went on Hannity and said no one should undermine traditional marriage, “be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality,” a comment that the PC police took issue with. And now it turns out that in addition to his anti-gay views, Carson also believes that the world is 6,000 years old, and evolution is just some crazy idea for which there’s no more evidence than there is for the biblical story of creation.

It’s this last part that I find particularly interesting. Elitist that I am, I tend to think of young-earth creationists as poorly educated, backwoods folk. This isn’t a matter of religious belief versus lack of belief, either. The Catholic Church, which is run by some fellows who are pretty serious about their religion, says that evolution is perfectly compatible with the biblical creation story, properly understood. I really don’t understand how one could make it through college and med school (with all those science prerequisites!) and sustain those beliefs. After exposure to not just the discoveries of science but to scientific thinking and methods themselves, you have to go through some incredible mental gymnastics to believe that it’s all just a lie. There have been other prominent Republican politicians who have advocated intelligent design (Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum did last year), but if you’re going for the top job, young-earth creationism is an entirely different level.

And that’s not all. Carson also seems to be something of a biblical literalist, also a belief system no person with an IQ higher than that of a turnip could reasonably hold to, unless he were also willing to advocate the stoning of rebellious children, the death penalty for working on the sabbath, and all the juicy polygamy, genocide, slavery, and rape that make the Old Testament such a page-turner. But maybe his views on those things are more nuanced than they appear.

We all have subjects we know nothing about, and things we struggle to understand. For instance, I’m pretty handy around the house when it comes to mechanical systems or anything that is made of wood, but I find electricity baffling. Circuits, ohms, volts, watts— for some reason I find it kind of confusing, as evidenced by that time I shorted out half the house trying to install a simple light switch. That being said, I wouldn’t assert that it’s all phony mumbo-jumbo, and trained electricians are nothing but a bunch of con artists. There are people who are insightful at understanding literature but terrible at understanding physics, or vice-versa. What’s so jarring about Carson is that his area of accomplishment is a scientific one, yet he seems incapable of thinking rationally when his religious beliefs touch on areas his scientific mind ought to help him understand.

It’s Carson’s venomous views on gay people, and not his crazy views about geology and biology, that will keep him from becoming the mainstream figure some had hoped. But I suspect he’ll do just fine, finding a Palin-esque niche on the right to occupy. It may not be the White House, but it’s a pretty good gig.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 1, 2013

April 3, 2013 Posted by | Republicans, Science | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Nasty, Petty, And Ill-Informed”: Ben Carson’s Johns Hopkins Colleague Responds To His Marriage Equality Attack

The co-director of Johns Hopkins University’s sexuality studies program is speaking out against his colleague Dr. Ben Carson’s recent comments comparing supporters of marriage equality to members of NAMBLA and practitioners of bestiality.

“I don’t think most people at Hopkins think what he says on this subject matter,” Professor Todd Shepard, co-director of the university’s Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, said in a statement to Media Matters. “They make him look nasty, petty, and ill-informed. It doesn’t tell us anything about his amazing abilities as a surgeon. It does remind us, however, that those abilities do not mean we should listen to what he says in any other domain.”

During a March 26 appearance on Fox News, Carson said, “Marriage is between a man and a woman. No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn’t matter what they are. They don’t get to change the definition.”

“So, it’s not something against gays,” added the Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgery professor, who has recently become a sensation among the conservative media. “It’s against anybody who wants to come along and change the fundamental definitions of pillars of society. It has significant ramifications.”

Business Insider described Carson’s appearance as a “trainwreck of an interview,” while Slate’s David Weigel wrote that the professor, who has been heavily promoted by Fox News in recent months and is reportedly seeking to host a television show after he retires from Johns Hopkins later this year, “took a sharp turn into Gaffe City.” Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik wrote that Fox had “created a climate” for Carson’s “partisan, polarizing and possibly hurtful language.”

Shepard, who teaches French history as well as gender and sexuality studies, compared Carson to the French intellectuals who supported the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus at the turn of the 20th century.

“I admire Dr. Carson as a neurosurgeon, but his intervention into this debate proves that, like those who defended the Army and the Church against Dreyfus, he prefers to defend the ways things have been rather than individual rights and to deny that informed and rational debate is a better basis for making decisions than received wisdom,” said Shepard. “I doubt that he would apply these lessons to his professional life. In this case, where he knows nothing more than hearsay, the good doctor is wrong about the history.”

Shepard concluded that these “reactionary and rancid claims do remind us of how far the general discussion has advanced beyond Dr. Carson and his far-right audience.”

The full statement from Shepard:

The term intellectual emerged around the late-19th-century Dreyfus Affair, when writers, artists, and academics spoke out in the name of impartial justice and individual rights in defense of a man unjustly condemned because he was a Jew, while others insisted that a defense of the established order (notably the Church) required supporting the conviction. Intellectuals, then, are individuals who use their expertise in one esteemed area of human endeavor, science, for example, to intervene in the public debate on topics outside of their specific expertise.

I admire Dr. Carson as a neurosurgeon, but his intervention into this debate proves that, like those who defended the Army and the Church against Dreyfus, he prefers to defend the ways things have been rather than individual rights and to deny that informed and rational debate is a better basis for making decisions than received wisdom. I doubt that he would apply these lessons to his professional life. In this case, where he knows nothing more than hearsay, the good doctor is wrong about the history.

Legal marriage is defined by laws made by human beings, not by his definition of what his god decreed. He should check out the Constitution on this matter. Who can get married has been widely debated across different cultures and time periods. It’s always been open to discussion and redefinition. That’s how law-making works.  Age of consent laws in this country, for example, are much more restrictive now than they were in the 19th century. Rape and sexual abuse were far more widely accepted. Feminists, gay rights groups, and others all helped make that change (ask the Catholic Church). He also is insulting, offhand, and ill-informed in the comparison he makes to bestiality, Nambla, etc. Half-baked history and insults, then, are where he wants to stake his tent.

I don’t think most people at Hopkins think what he says on this subject matter. They make him look nasty, petty, and ill-informed. It doesn’t tell us anything about his amazing abilities as a surgeon. It does remind us, however, that those abilities do not mean we should listen to what he says in any other domain. One of the nice things about the current debate is that it’s not just LGBT people who are concerned. Americans are involved in this discussion. The vast majority of Americans are open to judging this question of equal rights to marry on the basis of the evidence, in a process of open discussion. As they’ve seen the evidence, most have moved away from the hysterical and de-humanizing arguments to which Dr. Carson still clings. He is welcome to put them out there. I and others can now judge him on those statements. It makes him look bad. But such reactionary and rancid claims do remind us of how far the general discussion has advanced beyond Dr. Carson and his far-right audience.

 

By: Matt Gertz, Media Matters, March 28, 2013

March 29, 2013 Posted by | Marriage Equality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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