The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.
What is it with brain surgeons? The strange ideas of leading GOP presidential candidate and retired brain surgeon Ben Carson have been making the headlines a lot lately. I have previously written about about brain surgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, who launched a new career on the lecture circuit after writing a bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, in which he claimed he visited heaven while in a coma, then come back to life. But as the detailed investigation showed, he made all sorts of statements that showed his “trip to heaven” was a hallucination. Even worse, he said things demonstrating that he doesn’t seem to know the first thing about neurophysiology; he appears to just know how to cut brains.
Then there are other weird beliefs by otherwise well educated doctors. Take, for example, Dr. Paul Broun of Georgia. He was elected to Congress, yet he said “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.” Unsurprisingly, Carson, Broun, and the other fundamentalist M.D.s in politics not only deny evolution and Big Bang cosmology, but also climate change and other aspects of science that doesn’t fit the party line.
The statements that Carson has made are staggeringly ignorant for a man with an advanced science education. They include such choice statements as this one, made to a group of Seventh Day Adventists in 2011:
I find the big bang, really quite fascinating. I mean, here you have all these highfalutin scientists and they’re saying it was this gigantic explosion and everything came into perfect order. Now these are the same scientists that go around touting the second law of thermodynamics, which is entropy, which says that things move toward a state of disorganization. So now you’re gonna have this big explosion and everything becomes perfectly organized and when you ask them about it they say, “Well we can explain this, based on probability theory because if there’s enough big explosions, over a long period of time, billions and billions of years, one of them will be the perfect explosion.” So I say what you’re telling me is if I blow a hurricane through a junkyard enough times over billions and billions of years, eventually after one of those hurricanes there will be a 747 fully loaded and ready to fly.
Carson added that he believed the big bang was “even more ridiculous” because there is order to the universe. “Well, I mean, it’s even more ridiculous than that because our solar system, not to mention the universe outside of that, is extraordinarily well organized, to the point where we can predict 70 years away when a comet is coming. He added, “Now that type of organization to just come out of an explosion? I mean, you want to talk about fairy tales, that is amazing.” Later, Carson said he personally believed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was encouraged by the devil.
Unsurprisingly, Carson also manages to be abysmally ignorant about climate change, and even gravity:
Is there climate change? Of course there’s climate change. Any point in time, temperatures are going up or temperatures are going down. Of course that’s happening. When that stops happening, that’s when we’re in big trouble… As far as evolution is concerned, you know, I do believe in micro-evolution, or natural selection, but I believe that God gave the creatures he made the ability to adapt to their environment. Because he’s very smart and he didn’t want to start over every 50 years… Just the way the Earth rotates on its axis, how far away it is from the sun. These are all very complex things. Gravity, where did it come from?
The media has been baffled by this amazing display of ignorance and superstition for a man who supposedly had a first-rate science education. On Real Time with Bill Maher on October 2, the panel (including Neil DeGrasse Tyson) was puzzled by Carson’s statements, and tried to figure out what made him tick. Maher called him an example of a “smart stupid person.” Over and over again, they speculated about how he could be so apparently intelligent and have taken classes in biology, chemistry, physics and the rest and yet come away with such primitive and erroneous notions of science. As columnist Paul Waldman put it:
There are a lot of scientific prerequisites if you want to go to medical school—not just biology, but also chemistry and physics, even some math. By the time you get there, and certainly by the time you leave, you’ll be long acquainted with the scientific method and the broad contours of scientific knowledge on those topics. So imagine it’s 1970 or so, and you’re young Ben Carson, sitting in a biology class at Yale University. With your sharp mind and strong study habits, you don’t have much problem understanding the material, grasping the copious evidence underlying the theory of evolution, all the fossils going back millions of years, how it all fits together in an endless process that affects everything from a towering redwood down to a microscopic virus. And yet, the whole thing sounds like an attack on the beliefs about the universe you were taught your whole life from your family and your church. How can you resolve this contradiction? The resolution came somewhere along the way for Carson: Satan. Evolution is Satan’s doing.
The fact that Carson believes this is a fine example of cognitive dissonance—reconciling dissonant ideas by modifying one of them. Carson is an undeniably smart man—you don’t get to be one of the world’s most renowned neurosurgeons without the ability to understand complex systems, evaluate evidence, sift the plausible from the implausible, and integrate disparate pieces of data into a coherent whole. And yet he thinks that the theory of evolution is not just a great big hoax, but a hoax literally delivered to us from Hell. Dissonance resolved.
Throughout the presidential debates and ensuing discussion, I’ve only heard a handful of media comments that get to the heart of the Carson Enigma. There are three important things to know to make sense of him: 1) Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist; 2) Medical education is not the same thing as research science; and 3) The power of cognitive dissonance.
1. Seventh Day Adventism. If the media mention Carson’s faith at all, they just casually toss in a mention of Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) as if it were just another branch of Christianity. But SDA are a strange cult-like fringe group (like the Mormons and Christian Scientists) who really don’t share much with mainstream Christianity. The SDA are a remnant of the old Millerite revival movement of the early 1840s. They followed preacher William Miller and expected the Advent (the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture) to happen in 1844. Millerites sold all their belongings and waited patiently, only to suffer what they themselves call “The Great Disappointment.” They didn’t all lose their faith, but instead most of the Millerites splintered into groups, one of which was led by Prophetess Ellen G. White and became the SDA church in 1863. The SDA church is very powerful and active, and is the 12th largest religious body in the world, with over 18 million members. SDAs are among the most virulent of all creationist groups, since the Prophetess herself was a rabid creationist (typical of her time).
But SDAs include George McReady Price, an early 20th century elementary school teacher with no formal education or real experience in geology, but concocted the “flood geology” model from which most modern creationists get their bizarre notions of geology. Much of the modern Young Earth Creationist literature is copied from Price, Harold Coffin, and other SDA creationists. (As the quotes above demonstrate, Carson knows all the Young Earth Creationist myths and lies about evolution and geology by heart). SDAs are also intolerant of any teaching of evolution in their schools, such as Loma Linda University and La Sierra University. I had some good friends who taught at La Sierra University and tried to give their students a modern education in biology. One of them, Lee Greer, was purged by the Church hierarchy for teaching evolution. SDAs are big on modern medicine and run several big medical centers, including Glendale Adventist (where I was born, even though my family was Presbyterian), and Loma Linda here in southern California.
They may practice modern medicine, but they also have had monstrous examples of malpractice. The best known case occurred when SDA surgeon Dr. Leonard Bailey transplanted a baboon heart rather than a chimp heart into the body of “Baby Fae” who had a heart defect. Naturally, the baby died of immune rejection, which might not have happened if Bailey had used a more closely related species, like a chimp. When questioned about it by an Australian radio crew, Bailey said, “Er, I find that difficult to answer. You see, I don’t believe in evolution.” Most medical people would regard this as medical malpractice and highly unethical, but Bailey was protected by the creationism of Loma Linda. He was never prosecuted and kept on practicing until he retired.
2. Medical Education vs. Scientific Research. It is one thing to hear a fundamentalist preacher like Mike Huckabee decry evolution, or the other presidential candidates without much understanding of science do so—but it takes special psychological mechanisms to go through years of science education and still doubt evolution, cosmology, and the like (as the quote from Waldman above suggests). The first thing to remember is that becoming a doctor is not like becoming a research scientist: doctors learn their craft, but most are not actively working on scientific research. They do not necessarily approach the world with the open-ended paradigm of science, but are doing their job based on their training. In addition, I’ve been in classes with pre-med students when I was a biology major, and I know many professors who teach med school anatomy or pre-med courses in college. They all tell me how appalled they are by med students who don’t want to know anything other than what will be on the test, and only want to learn about human biology, even though understanding comparative anatomy of other vertebrates helps you better understand how human bodies work. My good friend Dr. Melvin Moss, who was the Chair of Anatomy of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons when I took classes from him in the 1970s, used to tell us horror stories of the narrow focus of med students who had no interest or curiosity in anything they were learning. They were just suffering through anatomy to get through the ordeal of med school. It was for this reason that my good friend, classmate and co-author Neil Shubin wrote the best-selling book Your Inner Fish, which emerged from his own attempt to give med school anatomy an evolutionary context.
3. Cognitive Dissonance. The third angle that I’m surprised few in the media have explored is the psychological roots of science denial, especially in people with educations in science. As I discussed in my recent book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, the most important mechanism operating here is reduction of cognitive dissonance. We are all exposed to ideas that often contradict things that we already accept, but our brains are so compartmentalized (Michael Shermer describes it as “logic tight compartments”) that we can let these contradictory notions exist side-by-side even as we gloss over the conflict in our thought processes (as described in the Fitzgerald quote at the top of this post). In the case of science deniers (such as creationists), their extremely literalistic religious beliefs are central to their existence, and give their lives meaning. Any time they encounter facts about the world that threaten their core religious belief, they fall back on various ad hoc explanations (which is most of the contorted thinking you find in creationist apologetics), denying the facts themselves, or simply ignoring what doesn’t fit their worldview. Ben Carson was deeply indoctrinated at a young age, so when he entered science classes he simply shut out or ignored anything like evolution or cosmology that might threaten his viewpoint, and memorized what he needed to learn for the test, without letting any of its implications threaten his religious extremism.
So Dr. Ben Carson is not really so mysterious. He is typical of most modern Young Earth Creationists, who live a highly fractured life where they accept the Bronze-Age notions of primitive shepherds in one compartment of their brain, but enjoy the benefits of modern science and technology in another compartment. If the media and the public want to understand him and other science deniers, they need look no further than these psychological mechanisms.
About the Author
Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 37 years, at Caltech, Columbia, Cal Poly Pomona, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He is the author of over 37 books (including 7 leading geology textbooks, and several trade books), and over 300 scientific papers. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry, the Paleontological Society, and the Geological Society of America, and also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Science Foundation. In 1991, he received the Charles Schuchert Award for outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. In 2013, he received the James Shea Award of the National Association of Geology Teachers for outstanding writing and editing the geosciences. In 2015, he received the Joseph T. Gregory award for service to vertebrate paleontology. He has been featured on numerous TV documentaries, including Paleoworld, Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, Prehistoric Monsters Revealed, Monsterquest, Prehistoric Predators: Entelodon and Hyaenodon, Conspiracy Road Trip: Creationism, as well as Jeopardy! and Win Ben Stein’s Money.