Nov 05 2015

The Ben Carson Contradiction

By all accounts, Ben Carson is a brilliant pediatric neurosurgeon. He was the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital until he retired, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his surgical achievements.

Carson’s views have come under close scrutiny since he has become a presidential candidate and is closing in on the frontrunner position. Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist. He is a creationist who has stated that he believes Darwin came up with the idea of evolution because of Satan. He thinks the Big Bang is a “fairy tale.”

He famously suggested that those who believe in evolution have no basis for their morality, saying:

“Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires.”

This claim is transparently wrong, and discounts a vast and rich philosophical history of morality and ethics.

Apparently the well of anti-intellectual things that Ben Carson has said is very deep, and the media have no difficulty bringing up more examples. Most recently a video from a 1998 commencement speech has surfaced in which Carson states his belief that the Biblical Joseph built the pyramids of Egypt to store grain. He states directly that the world’s archaeologists are wrong, the pyramids were not built for the pharaohs, but Carson in his brilliance had divined their true history and purpose.

His brilliant insight is that something huge must have been built to store grain, and that structure would not just vanish, so perhaps it was the pyramids. Never mind all that archaeological evidence for how, when, and why the pyramids were built and the utter lack of evidence for the Joseph-grain storage hypothesis.

I bring all this up in order to address a question – how can one person be undeniably brilliant in one sphere of their intellectual life, and shockingly ignorant and anti-intellectual in other spheres? I have heard this question often in recent weeks, pretty much every time a new revelation about Carson’s beliefs comes out.

I don’t think this is as much of a contradiction as it may at first seem. Carson is evidence for something that I have tried to emphasize often here – all humans suffer from similar cognitive flaws and biases. We can all be brilliant and stupid at the same time, and apparently have no difficulty compartmentalizing our beliefs in order to minimize cognitive dissonance.

I write frequently about the neuroscience of belief, because I think there is no greater insight we can have than how our own brains function, because that is the tool we use to understand the rest of the universe. Invariably, however, when I discuss a specific cognitive flaw or bias, the common reaction is the equivalent of, “Yeah, other people are stupid.”

Take, for example, the Dunning-Kruger effect. I almost universally hear this principle described as, “dumb people are too dumb to realize how dumb they are.” The data, however, does not support this conclusion. It does not reveal something about “dumb people,” but rather something about all people. We are all on the Dunning-Kruger spectrum, and we can be on different places on the spectrum with regard to different areas of knowledge, at the same time.

It would be better to state the Dunning-Kruger effect as, “People have difficulty assessing their own level of knowledge or expertise with a tendency to be increasingly overconfident at decreasing levels of knowledge.” The Dunning-Kruger effect describes all people, not just dumb people.

Ben Carson is not an anomaly or contradiction. He is a perfect representation of humanity.

Carson is also evidence that people who hold extreme or anti-scientific beliefs are not necessarily stupid. Belief in pseudoscience and the paranormal is not about general intelligence. It is about the human tendency to form and maintain beliefs for a variety of social, cultural, and personal reasons.

Most people adopt the religion into which they were raised.  Retention rates for most major religions are above 60%. But there are also generational and cultural trends as well.

Conclusion

The existence of technical brilliance alongside extreme anti-science beliefs in Ben Carson is not an anomaly. It is the human condition. It means he has an extreme belief system that has a dominant effect on how he views the world.

Understanding common tendencies in human behavior, however, does not mean there aren’t important differences in how people form and maintain their beliefs. People have different habits and tendencies. Skepticism is about habitually challenging your own beliefs. Examining the logic and evidence, and using knowledge of human psychology and neuroscience to understand the biases that might be at work in your own thinking.

What we can conclude about Carson is that he is not systematically following a valid intellectual process in forming his beliefs. He has no problem dismissing the opinion of experts and scientists, and substituting his own poorly-informed hunches. Obviously this is a disturbing trait in someone running for high office.

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