Smart People Believing Stupid Things
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.
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