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.