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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

“It’s About His Vision For America’s Future”: Why Ben Carson’s Problem With The Truth Really Matters

Ben Carson’s campaign turned into a kaleidoscope of oddities last week: The retired neurosurgeon made fanciful claims about the purpose of Egyptian pyramids and the political experience of the Founding Fathers. He insisted that he was, in fact, a violent youth, but admitted that he wasn’t, in fact, offered admission to West Point—both key highlights of his autobiography. But amid all the attention being paid to his personal background, it’s easy to overlook what Carson is actually running on. Of all the GOP candidates, Carson has put forward the most radical ideas for overhauling country’s entitlement programs. And while he’s lately begun to clumsily retreat to more moderate alternatives, they don’t add up any more than his attempts to explain the factual holes in his autobiography. While his past will surely provide rich fodder for Tuesday night’s third GOP debate, it’s what Carson proposes for America’s future that truly needs more critical attention.

Carson originally proposed to scrap Medicare and Medicaid entirely—a genuinely radical idea, and one with massive policy and political risks. Under his plan, every American would receive a cradle-to-grave health savings account with an annual $2,000 government subsidy, which family members could share. But after the third debate two weeks ago, Carson began running away from that old idea, which had been coming under increasing attack by fellow Republicans, particularly Donald Trump. “Ben wants to get rid of Medicare, Trump said last week. “You can’t get rid of Medicare. It would be a horrible thing to get rid of.”

Carson has begun to roll out an alternative that avoids the political liabilities of blowing up the entire system. But his account of the changes he’s made has been as confusing as the West Point saga. A few days before the last debate, Carson was already claiming on Fox News Sunday that his original plan for entitlement reform had been “gone for several months now.” That confused host Chris Wallace, who—like most of those watching—had definitely not been under that impression. Though he remains hazy on the details, Carson’s new scheme could also be massively disruptive, not only undermining care but also running up costs for the government.

Under Carson’s new plan—at least, from what can be sussed out from his statements—the traditional government programs would stay in place, but people would have the alternative to opt out with private Health Savings Accounts they could use to purchase their own coverage. Unlike his original plan, however, not everyone would get a subsidy in this one. Many of the details remain murky, and Carson’s campaign says a full-blown proposal is forthcoming. But based on his remarks so far, Carson seems to be suggesting that if you qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, you could choose to have the government money that would have paid for your health care to go directly to a private savings account instead. “I would never get rid of the programs. I would provide people with an alternative,” Carson said on Fox News Sunday. “I think they will see that the alternative that we’re going to outline is so much better than anything else that they will flock to it.”

But Carson’s alternative could create a whole host of problems. Those who pick HSAs would likely face very high deductibles and co-pays, which could lead them to forgo necessary care. At the same time, the cost of government health programs could end up rising as well. Healthier people would likely opt out if they could receive cash in private accounts, while sicker people would probably stick with traditional Medicare and Medicaid. “The new plan runs the risk of costing the government more than the current system, since people could game a two-choice system, sticking with a savings account when their spending is low, and switching to a government program once their medical costs rise,” writes The New York Times’s Margot Sanger-Katz.

If Carson’s original plan took a sledgehammer to Medicare and Medicaid, his alternative risks seriously weakening the programs. Despite his medical credentials, Carson seems confused about the very basics of the health care system. In a recent interview, he said that Medicare and Medicaid fraud was costing taxpayers “half a trillion dollars,” a truly astonishing estimate given that the total cost of both programs is $980 billion, as Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum points out. (Experts estimate that the real cost of Medicare and Medicaid fraud could be about $98 billion.)

In previous Republican debates, candidates have treated questions about the factual reality of their policy ideas as an inconvenience to be brushed aside—or as evidence of a media conspiracy to smear conservatives. But it wouldn’t be surprising on Tuesday night, given Carson’s standing in the polls and the scent of his blood in the water, if other Republican candidates go after him on Medicare and Medicaid far more aggressively. Carson won’t be the only likely target: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio have both embraced House Speaker Paul Ryan’s contentious “premium support” proposal, which would give seniors a set amount of money to buy private insurance or traditional Medicare.

Carson’s original idea to overhaul Medicare was far more comprehensive, however, and his new idea is significantly more confusing than his rivals’. Though he’ll likely spend much of Tuesday night defending himself on other scores, his credibility is also on the line when it comes to his policy proposals. We had a preview of what’s to come in the last debate, when Carson was pressed to explain his wild-eyed idea to scrap the current tax code in favor of a ten-percent flat tax. He responded by denying that this was ever his position to begin with, then refused to accept the basic facts behind the idea.

He’s already started to use the same cop-outs when it comes to his health-care ideas, acting as if he had never proposed to get rid of Medicare. This, ultimately, is why Carson’s trouble with truth-telling really does matter: His fuzzy relationship with the facts doesn’t stop with his youth.

 

By: Suzy Khimm, Senior Editor at The New Republic; November 9, 2015

November 10, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, GOP Presidential Candidates, Medicare | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sarah Palin All Over Again”: Ben Carson’s Fall Is A Damning Indictment Of Conservative Politics

Ben Carson’s popularity among conservatives has been marked by their imperviousness to questions about his honesty and fitness. Carson has made dozens of statements about federal policy that have transcended garden-variety conservative over-promising and reached the realm of Chauncey Gardner-esque absurdity. He has also faced serious questions about the veracity of stories he tells about his youth and young manhood. Through it all, conservatives have not only stuck by his side, but actually become more taken with him. They’ve brushed off scrutiny with glib mockery, accusing white liberals of “othering” a black man for having the temerity to leave the “thought plantation.”

That all likely changes now that Carson has confessed to fabricating a seminal story about having declined admission to West Point in his youth. When you’ve lost Breitbart, it stands to reason that you will also lose talk-radio fawning, viral email forwards, and all the other mysterious sources of conservative cult status.

But there is room for genuine doubt here: Could Carson’s supporters prove so uninterested in his genuine merits and demerits that they might look past this transgression? The very fact that this doubt exists incriminates both the conservative-entertainment complex and the nature of the Republican electorate.

Carson has been famous for years, and a political celebrity since February 2013, when he issued a meandering indictment of President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast while Obama sat next to him, silent and captive. The whole time, Carson has boasted of rejecting a “full scholarship” to West Point, an academy that actually pays people for their attendance. He thrust his deception into the public eye over and over and over again, and nobody questioned it until he became a poll leader in the Republican presidential primary.

This is not a great reflection on the media, I suppose—but it’s a worse reflection on the people who vaulted Carson to the summa of the conservative movement without bothering to investigate him. The price of entry into this realm of politics is so low that many, many successful people (Carson, but also Herman Cain and others) believe that the way they are perceived will protect them from their skeletons.

In this way, Carson’s rise is reminiscent of the McCain campaign’s decision to elevate Sarah Palin to vice presidential nominee after the most cursory vetting. Carson and Palin both paired reactionary politics with identities more closely associated with liberalism. Palin’s value was in her potential to undermine the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy. Carson’s is in his willingness to validate and absolve conservative racial politics. Republicans have pointed to Carson’s popularity as evidence of conservative enlightenment on racial issues, taking the superficial argumentative power of “some of my best friends are black” and applying it to a national ideological movement.

These phenonema were driven, to a large extent, by the idea that branding can eclipse structural political realities. What’s amazing and distressing is that, for millions of American conservatives, it absolutely can.

 

By: Brian Beutler, Senior Editor, The New Republic; November 9, 2015

November 10, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Conservatives, Sarah Palin | , , , , , , | 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

“The Wars Not Fought”: The Doors Into Hell Are Many, The Exits However Are Fewer

We owe Mother Jones, the magazine, a public service nod for a graphic tour last year of all the countries that John McCain has wanted to attack. Spanning the globe, the fist-first senator has called for violent regime change in more than half a dozen nations, ranging from all-out ground invasions to airstrikes to arming sides in endless sectarian conflicts.

The map of McCain’s wars is worth considering as a what-if had the would-be vice president Sarah Palin and her running mate in 2008 prevailed. McCain continues to play quick-draw commander in chief to this day. He said he’d send troops into Nigeria “in a New York minute,” to rescue the girls kidnapped by Islamic terrorists, even without permission of the sovereign country. And just after President Obama’s speech Wednesday at West Point, McCain lamented that America’s young men and women were not still in the Iraqi city of Falluja.

Yes, Falluja — where tribal militias loyal to one warped religious tenet or another continue to slaughter each other with abandon. It’s a hard truth for a country as prideful as the United States to accept, but most Americans have now concluded that the Iraq War was a catastrophic mistake. Obama, at least, has tried to learn something from it.

Al Qaeda was never in Falluja before the American invasion. They have a stronghold in Falluja now, for which McCain blames the withdrawal of United States troops. Think about that: it’s not our fault because we opened the doors to the factions of hell; it’s our fault because we withdrew from hell.

As Obama tries to pivot from foreign policy by bumper sticker, McCain and an intellectually bankrupt clutch of neocons are trying to present themselves as the alternative. Dick Cheney, the warrior with five draft deferments, is in this diminishing camp, calling Obama “certainly the weakest” president in his lifetime. But both McCain and Cheney are outliers, blustery relics with little backing in either party. Only seven percent of Americans expressed support for even considering a military option after Russia forced Crimea into its fold. That’s a sea change in sentiment from 2001, or even 2008.

The nation’s future military leaders embody this shift. The biggest response from the cadets at West Point came when Obama said, “you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.” They cheered.

But all of that is not to let Obama off the hook. His big foreign policy speech was flat and passionless, with no central vision. The fault may lie with this particular moment in world history. The Cold War was easy to frame. The War on Terror was as well, at least at first. Now, things are more muddled. How do we help the newly elected government of Ukraine? If we aggressively arm one side in Syria, what happens if they turn out to be religious extremists who want to put women back in the 9th century?

Obama didn’t specifically say so, but the guiding principle for this era of nuance and shadows may be no more complex than this: Stay out of wars of unintended consequence.

“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint,” said Obama, “but from our willingness to rush into military adventure — without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”

Is that weakness, or wisdom? Well, neither. But it’s a realistic reaction to the hard fact that the last 50 years have produced the three longest wars in American history. And it’s a pitch-perfect reflection of where most Americans are today.

Afghanistan was supposed to be a swift move to crush a regime that allowed terrorists to flourish — not 13 years, and counting, of nation-building. Vietnam was billed as a blow for freedom against global communism — not a 10-year military muddle in a civil war posing no threat to the United States. Iraq was going to be clean and quick — we’ll be greeted as liberators! — not eight years in one of the most ghastly places on earth, at a cost of more than $2 trillion and a loss of at least 190,000 lives on all sides.

Obama’s foreign policy is a lot like his economic policy. Give him credit for preventing something awful from happening. The financial collapse could have been truly catastrophic, save for the action the president and the Federal Reserve took in the first year following the meltdown. For that, history will be kind. The wars not fought by Obama are the alternative to John McCain’s map. For that, the verdict of the ages is less certain. After 50 years, what a war-weary nation does know is this: the doors into hell are many; the exits, fewer.

 

By: Timothy Egan, Contributing Op-Ed Writer, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

May 30, 2014 Posted by | Afghanistan, Foreign Policy, Iraq War | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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