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“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

“Knowingly Deceiving The Public”: Obamacare Truthers Get Caught In A Lie On Delinquency Rate

First, the Obamacare Truthers—the Republicans and conservatives who insist that every piece of remotely positive news about the health-care law’s impact has to be a filthy lie—lost the battle of the enrollment figures. The issue here isn’t whether the Obama administration is telling the complete truth when it says 8 million. The issue is that the Truthers predicted 3 million, 2 million, 1 million, 0 million, a death spiral. And whether the administration is gilding the lily and the real number is 8 or 7.7 or 7.4 million, the hard fact is the Truthers were just crazy wrong.

Having lost that battle, they’ve now opened fire on a second front. Maybe the enrollment numbers are wrong, maybe they’re right, the Truthers say, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the percentage of people who actually pay their premiums.

There is some truth (as opposed to Truth) to this. People can sign up with every intention of paying and then get hit with something—an unexpected car-repair bill—and they can’t pay. Or more likely, they’re young and healthy, and they decide “What was I thinking, I got all caught up in Zach Galifianakis fever?”—and they don’t pay. And if the young and healthy (who cost the insurance companies nothing) don’t pay, then the only people in the system are the old and sick, who cost the insurance companies a lot, and premiums skyrocket.

So in some ways the “percentage paying” number is even more important than the raw enrollment number. It is, after all, the real enrollment number, the number of people actually getting and keeping health coverage. And so the second the Truthers lost the enrollment fight, they moved to the percentage battle. This will prove that Obamacare can’t work.

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee put out a report looking at enrollment (“report” is overdoing it; it’s one page). It was methodologically pretty simple. They collected data from every insurer participating in what’s called the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM) and looked at who’d signed up for coverage and who’d paid a first premium by April 15. The House panel’s answer was 67 percent.

Now, 67 percent doesn’t sound half bad to me, but the GOP spun it as yet another Obamacare disaster—it would push the “real enrollment” number down near 5 million and mean that one in three people who’d signed up for health-care coverage was already delinquent. They didn’t quite say that, but it was obviously the whole point of the report. “Tired of receiving incomplete pictures of enrollment in the health-care law, we went right to the source and found that the administration’s recent declarations of success may be unfounded,” said committee chairman Fred Upton of Michigan.

The committee got what it wanted: Headlines saying only 67 percent of ACA enrollees were paying. I’m sure there was ample coverage on Fox News, and it blasted out across the talk-radio waves. They have a talking point now, and a number, and it’s low enough that they can spin it as a lousy number.

The only problem is it’s a wrong number.

The Democratic minority on the committee released a memorandum slicing the majority’s logic to pieces in a matter of three paragraphs. Actually, it can be done in one sentence: Lots of enrollees’ first premiums weren’t even due by April 15!

Here’s a little language from the Democratic memo that lays it out a bit more fully: “As of April 15, premiums had only come due for individuals who had signed up for coverage before March 15. Five million individuals had enrolled in coverage through the marketplaces as of March 17.  On April 17, the president announced that 8 million Americans had signed up for coverage through the marketplaces. That means that more than 3 million enrollees—or nearly 40 percent of all enrollees—did not have premiums due by April 15 and therefore were not required to have paid them by that point.”

In other words, people who didn’t even have premiums due yet, and who account for 37.5 percent of all enrollees, are counted in this GOP report as part of the delinquent third.

If you don’t want to take it from Democrats, take it from the insurance officials themselves. They dispute the GOP numbers. Karen Ignani of AHIP, a large group of providers, said the pay-up rate so far in her realm has been 85 percent. The Blue Cross-Blue Shield group says 80 to 85 percent of enrollees have been paying. And WellPoint announced, on the very day of the GOP report, that its figure was 90 percent.

In addition, Talking Points Memo’s Dylan Scott got hold of the questionnaire the committee sent to insurers, and it’s a joke. One industry source—not a Democratic operative—told Scott: “Everyone who saw it knew exactly what the goal was.”

I asked the GOP staff at the committee if they had a counter to the argument that their numbers were incomplete and in essence rigged. On background, one staffer there basically told me that they didn’t have a counter. The committee press release makes it clear, I was told, that these data represent payments only through April 15, and the committee will seek another report May 20.

In other words, this staffer is saying: Yep. Which makes it rather hard to avoid the conclusion that the committee knowingly put out a bad number. Why would a committee of the House of Representatives do something like that? Well, what am I saying? We know why.

The continuing truth about Obamacare is that it’s going pretty darn well so far. The other truth is that the Obamacare Truthers will forever be among us, saying, ah, but it’s the next step that’s crucial, and that’s where the death spiral will begin! That’s our Republican Party: Hoping that millions and millions of people don’t get health coverage, just to deny the president a political win. They don’t care how many people die, as long as they take Obamacare with them.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, May 2, 2014

May 3, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, GOP, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Leaning Towards Darkness”: The Mind Of A Terror Suspect

While the Boston area lay paralyzed by a lockdown, with one terror suspect dead and another on the loose as a massive manhunt filtered through the area’s arteries, we got a better sense of the second young man.

It’s complicated.

The suspects were brothers. The one who was on the loose was taken into custody on Friday evening. He was the younger of the two, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The elder, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a confrontation with authorities, but not before participating in the fatal shooting of an M.I.T. police officer, the carjacking of an S.U.V. and the shooting of a transit police officer, who was critically injured.

They were of Chechen heritage. Tamerlan was a boxer; Dzhokhar, a college student.

“A picture has begun to emerge of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an aggressive, possibly radicalized immigrant who may have ensnared his younger brother Dzhokhar — described almost universally as a smart and sweet kid — into an act of terror,” The Boston Globe reported Friday.

The Globe quoted a person named Zaur Tsarnaev, who the newspaper said identified himself as a 26-year-old cousin of the suspects, as saying, “I used to warn Dzhokhar that Tamerlan was up to no good.” Tamerlan “was always getting into trouble,” he added. “He was never happy, never cheering, never smiling. He used to strike his girlfriend. He hurt her a few times. He was not a nice man. I don’t like to speak about him. He caused problems for my family.”

But what about that image of Dzhokhar as sweet?

On Friday, BuzzFeed and CNN claimed to verify Dzhokhar’s Twitter account. The tweets posted on that account give a window into a bifurcated mind — on one level, a middle-of-the-road 19-year-old boy, but on another, a person with a mind leaning toward darkness.

Like many young people, the person tweeting from that account liked rap music, saying of himself, “#imamacbookrapper when I’m bored,” and quoting rap lyrics in his tweets.

He tweeted quite a bit about women, dating and relationships; many of his musings were misogynistic and profane. Still, he seemed to want to have it both ways, to be rude and respectful at once, tweeting on Dec. 24, 2012: “My last tweets felt too wrong. I don’t like to objectify women or judge anyone for their actions.”

He was a proud Muslim who tweeted about going to mosque and enjoying talking — and even arguing — about religion with others. But he seemed to believe that different faiths were in competition with one another. On Nov. 29, he tweeted: “I kind of like religious debates, just hearing what other people believe is interesting and then crushing their beliefs with facts is fun.”

His politics seemed jumbled. He was apparently a 9/11 Truther, posting a tweet on Sept. 1 that read in part, “Idk why it’s hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job.” On Election Day he retweeted a tweet from Barack Obama that read: “This happened because of you. Thank you.” But on March 20 he tweeted, “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.” This sounds like a take on a quote from Edmund Burke, who is viewed by many as the founder of modern Conservatism: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had strong views on the Middle East, tweeting on Nov. 28, “Free Palestine.” Later that day he tweeted, “I was going to make a joke about Hamas but it Israeli inappropriate.”

Toward the end of last year, the presence of dark tweets seemed to grow — tweets that in retrospect might have raised some concerns.

He tweeted about crime. On Dec. 28 he tweeted about what sounds like a hit-and-run: “Just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching my car into reverse and driving away from the accident.” And on Feb. 6 he tweeted, “Everything in life can be free if you run fast enough.”

He posted other tweets that could be taken as particularly ominous:

Oct. 22: “i won’t run i’ll just gun you all out #thugliving.”

Jan. 5: “I don’t like when people ask unnecessary questions like how are you? Why so sad? Why do you need cyanide pills?”

Jan. 16: “Breaking Bad taught me how to dispose of a corpse.”

Feb. 2: “Do I look like that much of a softy?” The tweet continued with “little do these dogs know they’re barking at a lion.”

Feb. 13: “I killed Abe Lincoln during my two hour nap #intensedream.”

The last tweet on the account reads: “I’m a stress free kind of guy.” The whole of the Twitter feed would argue against that assessment.

 

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 19, 2013

April 21, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Substance Over Style”: New Term, New Truthers, Same President Obama

If I had to pick my favorite political ad of the last few years, a strong contender would be the one from 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, in which she looked into the camera and said sweetly, “I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you.” The combination of a hilarious lack of subtlety with a kind of sad earnestness made it unforgettable. And it’s the message that almost every politician tries to offer at one point or another (the “I’m you” part, not the part about not being a witch). They all want us to think they’re us, or at least enough like us for us to trust them.

So when the White House released a photo over the weekend of President Obama shooting skeet, the smoke of freedom issuing forth from the barrel of his gun, you could almost hear him saying, “I’m not an effete socialist gun-hater. I’m you.” If “you” happen to be one of the minority of Americans who own guns, that is. Even at this late date, Obama and his aides can’t resist the urge, when confronted with a controversial policy debate, to send the message of cultural affinity to the people who—let’s be honest—he is most unlike.

We should give the White House some credit, though. This came about because in an interview with The New Republic, Obama was asked whether he had ever fired a gun, and he responded that he shoots skeet “all the time” at Camp David, prompting conservatives to begin demanding photographic evidence. His aides knew that a photo of Obama shooting skeet wasn’t going to convince anybody of anything, and in fact would just spur the President’s most deranged opponents to make fools of themselves. Which is why White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted the photo “For all the ‘skeeters,'” and senior advisor David Plouffe did the same, writing, “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day – let the photoshop conspiracies begin!” Lo and behold, a bevy of conservatives obliged with fine-grained analyses of why the photo was faked or staged, making it clear that their opposition to President Obama is rational and policy-based, and they are absolutely not a bunch of crazy people.

And to Obama’s credit, in the interview that started the discussion about skeet shooting, he displayed what we actually ought to seek from politicians: an effort to understand people’s differing perspectives and the things that are important to them. “Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas,” he said. “And if you grew up and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family’s traditions, you can see why you’d be pretty protective of that.”

That’s true, and the gun owners Obama is referring to are, according to opinion polls, supportive of the kinds of measures he’s proposing, like universal background checks and limits on certain military-style guns and large-capacity ammunition clips. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the controversy from the 2008 campaign, when Obama was recorded saying people in small towns “cling to guns or religion” (you may have forgotten it, but people on the right haven’t, I assure you). A supporter had asked him how to convince people in economically depressed small towns in places like Pennsylvania who are hostile toward Democrats to change their minds, and his answer was actually an attempt to explain to the questioner where those people might be coming from. What he was saying was that they felt let down by politicians who promised them again and again that they could improve their economic circumstances, and so they turned to cultural issues—and more particularly, resentments—to define their political identity and determine their votes. He ended by saying that even if you can’t convince very many of them, it’s important to try. It may have been phrased inartfully (to use Mitt Romney’s formulation), but it was an attempt to understand and bridge personal divides, even if it became exactly the opposite. He couldn’t say “I’m you” to those small-town white voters, but he was trying to say, “I get you.”

Let’s not forget too that part of what made Barack Obama so much more appealing than the average Democratic candidate to so many liberals in 2008 is that, in fact, he is them. Multi-racial, hailing from a big city, educated, sophisticated and urbane, Obama looked to many liberals like the kind of person they might encounter in their daily lives, maybe even the kind of person they imagine themselves to be. Much as liberals have derided the efforts of politicians from both parties to create cultural affinity—from George W. Bush, son of Kennebunkport, pretending to be a down-home reg’lar fella, to John Kerry, well, hunting—their cultural connection with Obama was thrilling to them. But liberals don’t get that same thrill from him anymore, for the simple reason that he’s been president for four years, and those feelings of affinity from 2008 have been overwhelmed by the feelings they have about everything that has happened since, both good and bad.

And that’s true of the rest of the country too. Americans may not follow politics very closely, and they may not know very much about policy, but in 2013, if there’s one thing they have a pretty good idea about, it’s their feelings on one Barack Hussein Obama. After a first term full of consequential policy changes and significant real-world developments, substance has inevitably become far more important than style. The ones who find him alien and threatening wouldn’t have their minds changed by a thousand photos, no matter what they seemed to communicate. Obama surely knows that. But maybe someday, a Republican candidate will stage a photo-op to convince voters that despite all appearances, he’s just like college professors or Brooklyn hipsters. Instead of the “heartland” voters being pandered to, it’ll be the coastal urban dwellers. “I’m you,” he’ll say. And just as they do now, voters will respond, “Yeah, right.”

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 4, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Evidence And Logic Are Beside The Point”: Newtown Truthers Follow The NRA’s Playbook

Conceived in a dream of reason, what the Internet too often reveals is mass credulousness and fathomless irrationality. According to Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald, a video depicting the Newtown, CT elementary school massacre as a government-sponsored hoax has drawn 8.5 million views on YouTube.

No doubt many viewers were drawn by idle curiosity or sheer incredulity. What would “evidence” for so transparently preposterous an allegation consist of? Nevertheless, there appear to be thousands of True Believers.

Try googling “Emilie Parker alive,” to sample the crazy.

Adepts claim that a photograph of a young girl sitting in President Obama’s lap reveals that six-year-old Emilie Parker was not murdered along with 19 classmates at Sandy Hook elementary as reported. Supposedly, the photo reveals a telltale blunder.

In reality, the child in the photograph is Emilie’s little sister, Madeline.

But why go on? There’s plenty more in the same dogged, delusional vein. Debunk one aspect of the conspiracy, and a dozen absurdities replace it. To anybody capable of imagining that staging the Sandy Hook tragedy would even be possible—requiring, as it would, the active cooperation of half the population of Connecticut—mere evidence and logic are beside the point.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Apart from religion, more Americans appear to be nuts on the subject of guns than all other topics. The National Rifle Association has raised and spent millions in recent years peddling scare stories about President Obama’s secret plan to abolish the Second Amendment, confiscate everybody’s deer rifles and set up a gun-free dictatorship.

Newtown conspiracy theories are only incrementally madder spinoffs of the NRA’s master narrative. Yet its leaders are treated as VIPs in newsrooms and TV studios. Why?

To Believers, guns have become fetish objects in American popular culture, having magical potency. Witness Bushmaster Firearms’ advertising its .223 caliber AR-15—Newtown killer Adam Lanza’s weapon—with the slogan: “Consider your Man Card reissued.”

Viagra ads are more subtle.

Hence conversations with gun cultists tend to be conducted in the dualistic, all-or-nothing terms of fundamentalist theology. Although polls have shown that large majorities of gun owners favor, for example, improved background checks to make it harder for criminals and severely mentally ill people to acquire deadly weapons, cultists see all such legislation in apocalyptic terms. All regulation amounts to total confiscation.

Hollywood’s equally to blame. About half the emails I get on this topic invoke the Red Dawn fantasy, although it’s not foreign communists people imagine taking to the hills to fight. It’s mainly tyrannical US government SWAT teams intent upon seizing their personal arsenals and making them eat arugula that they’re determined to repel by force of arms.

I’m always tempted to warn these jokers that I’ve forwarded their messages to the Obama White House for inclusion on Big Brother’s Hellfire drone strike list, but I’m afraid most wouldn’t get the joke. Tanks, helicopter gunships and drones have pretty much put an end to the adolescent fantasy of plucky survivalists taking on the U.S. Marines. Everywhere except in movies and at certain kinds of gun shows, that is.

Then there are the Lethal Weapon/Die Hard revenge comedies I’m partial to myself: the Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis vehicles where a wisecracking hero and his plucky sidekick shoot their way through legions of wicked, heavily armed villains with universally poor marksmanship.

Let’s put it this way: Ever seen a headline like this? “LAPD Detective Kills 17 Gangsters in Nightclub Shootout” (Lethal Weapon) Or this? “Vacationing Cop Foils Xmas Plot; 34 Terrorists Slain.” (Die Hard)

Of course not. Because the working part of your brain understands that these films bear approximately the same relationship to reality as a Roadrunner cartoon.

Sometimes I think it’s mainly about the wisecracks.

“Go ahead, make my day.” The average dweeb wishes he could say something so clever to a rude supermarket bag boy, much less to a lone demento with a .357 mag.

However, deep in many of our lizard brains the Dirty Harry fantasy lurks nevertheless. NRA president Wayne LaPierre invoked it during his notorious Newtown press conference. You know, the bit about a good guy with a gun shooting it out with a bad guy with a gun—inside a first-grade classroom.

That’s why the single most useful piece of journalism since Newtown may be Amanda Ripley’s “Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear and Flawed Instincts.” Writing for Time, Ripley interviewed highly trained, experienced cops and soldiers who talked to her bluntly about the crazy, jagged chaos of armed combat.

“[R]esearch on actual gunfights,” she writes “the kind that happen not in a politician’s head but in fluorescent-lit stairwells and strip-mall restaurants around America, reveals [that]…Winning a gunfight without shooting innocent people typically requires realistic, expensive training and a special kind of person.”

And normally not the kind of person, oddly enough, that makes an excellent kindergarten teacher.

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, January 22, 2013

January 24, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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