Running for President Isn’t Brain Surgery

Why Ben Carson’s success as a neurosurgeon doesn’t translate to politics

Charlie Neibergall / AP

How do we make sense of Ben Carson?

Ben Carson is undeniably an intellectual giant. The Carson canonization narrative is fairly well-known. He was beset by all the societal ills that conservatives attribute to poor family structure in black communities. His parents had little formal education. By the time he was a teenager, a single mother was raising him. In today’s parlance, Carson was “troubled”; he acted out, got bad grades and showed little interest in education. What saved the boy who would grow up to be a neurosurgeon of remarkable fame, respect, and glory? Books. He read his way into a life of self-discipline, Yale University, and one of the medical field’s most competitive specialties.

I’m not kidding; that’s the canon on Ben Carson. I know it because when I was growing up, we heard that story in various iterations from well-meaning adults who worried about our lack of good black role models. If you’re a black child in America, everyone is always very worried that you don’t have enough role models, which shouldn’t be confused for things like clean air, affordable housing, adequate schools, or civil liberties. Carson was one of my generation’s official black role models. Unlike athletes or musicians, Carson had not excelled by becoming popular, but by relying on his smarts. As far as black role models went, Carson was a double-whammy. He was apolitical, and his success refuted the well-worn, deeply held American conviction that African Americans are genetically hobbled intellectually.

Carson’s intellectual prowess became part of his political narrative. When he spoke at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast he was introduced as “a man who loves Jesus” who has “a compelling life story,” and as a “distinguished man of science and healing.” With Barack Obama and Joe Biden sitting stage-right as he spoke, Carson went on to deliver a classic conservative speech about moral decay, the dangers of a public health-care system, and the great scourge of political correctness. Almost immediately, the political right called on Carson to make a run for the White House.

And running for the White House is what Carson is doing. Along the way, he is employing the kind of rhetoric that astounds those who place their political faith in reason, science, and intellectualism. This piece was almost impossible to write because Carson seems to issue a new head-scratcher every day—and twice a day on Sundays. After a particularly deadly week of school shootings, including one at a community college in Oregon, Carson suggested he would have attacked a shooter. His “[the shooter] can’t get us all” comment comes off blasé, especially given the social dictate to respect the mourning periods for victims’ families.

Talking about faith, family, and values Carson recently argued that “most of the time [single mothers’] education ends with that first baby” and those children go on to welfare and prison. That isn’t a new position by any stretch of the imagination, but it strikes some people as odd coming from someone whose personal story is integral to his own single-mother upbringing. And, then, there is the “woopsie” about the debt ceiling, a fairly run-of-the-mill political function. In a recent interview, Carson seemed either confused about what the debt ceiling is or so committed to his standard political rhetoric that he couldn’t pivot to address the actual question.

Carson’s grasp of history, politics, emotional intelligence, social norms, government procedure, and even his own backstory seems variable and thin. That’s not new, either. This is the political process that previously produced Sarah Palin, to be fair. But Carson’s personal story is fundamentally the anti-Palin story. He is not just smart but brilliant; not only accomplished, but exceptionally so. How, as Paul Waldman recently wrote, could Ben Carson be both “so incredibly smart and so spectacularly stupid?” Waldman is not the only one to juxtapose Carson’s intellectual-greatness narrative with his arguably intellectually regressive political rhetoric. Rather than debate whether I believe Carson is stupid (I don’t) or if he is the savior of conservatives (he isn’t) or even if he is a good politician (nay, from the lady in the back), I prefer to marvel at the incredulity that a man of science could also be a bad politician.

Many Americans revere science and rationality even when they may personally reject its sway over their own decision-making. American culture, its system of values, and all its attendant rewards for reflecting those values—money, honor, social ties—skew heavily in favor rationality. Americans may like to think that when presented with “objective” facts and “hard data” they will make objectively correct choices. And, they may assume that rational decision-making is static and consistent across all of the choices they make, from which detergents they buy to whom they marry.

What they often don’t like are emotions. Emotions are variable. They are inconsistent. They are, in the language of markets, inefficient to scale and monetize. But, science (apologizing for the appeal to rationality to make a case about emotions) is fairly clear that people make decisions based on emotions all the time. And, often, how they feel about a choice can override any objective data at hand about the choice they’re making. Having mad feels is the human condition.

But that does not stop Americans from venerating scientific rationality as the great god among all ways of knowing. That is why they venerate someone like Ben Carson, who has literally touched the genesis of all human rationality, the human brain, with his bare hands. So strong is the rhetoric of rationality in American culture that even when those who are predisposed to thinking African American children of single mothers are abhorrent make exceptions for someone like Carson. He is an outlier who doesn’t disprove the rule of black inferiority; he is even more exceptional for existing despite the rule.

Smart people like to think that they are rational. They make rational decisions about what to think and believe and do so based on objective facts. Carson is trained in one of the most celebrated rational professions, but he believes some things that don’t seem very rational. He believes, for example, that the earth was created in six actual days.

Carson also says that the Affordable Care Act is the worst thing to happen to the U.S. since the slave trade. A rational person might agree that, between the Fourteenth Amendment and the ACA, there were some things—perhaps the Great Depression or Pearl Harbor or September 11th—that rank just ahead of a health-care insurance exchange on the list of objectively bad things to happen in the U.S.

Like many giants in a field that is highly valued in American culture, Carson has benefited from a type of halo effect. That is, if people like someone in one domain of life, they are inclined to like them across all domains of life. Mark Zuckerberg built a social-media platform that made a lot of money and shaped many of our social interactions in new, exciting ways. Ergo, Zuckerberg can “fix” failing urban schools. Bill Gates built an operating system that reorientated work and life—and forever blurred the lines between the two with the help of the home computer. So, of course, Gates can “save” Africa from whatever ailment is being ascribed to the dark continent today: water access, gender disparities, or educational divides.

Americans tend to think the best of their multi-millionaires (and billionaires) because maybe even more than touching the human brain, very wealthy people touch the soul of what we value: wealth and power. And so Americans entrust them with everything from their privacy to their politics.

The question isn’t how can Ben Carson be so smart and so stupid. Instead, the question is how can the public expect someone to be so smart at everything? By all accounts, Carson is a medical phenom who is not great at logical construction and isn’t particularly good at politics. Those things are not incompatible. In fact, they are likely as true of your dentist, your primary-care physician, your favorite scientist, and your favorite billionaire as they are to be true of him.

Nor is it rare to find religious beliefs coexisting with professional accomplishment. Despite rhetorical assaults upon heathen academics, the best available data has only ever suggested that academics (including all manner of scientists) are somewhat less religious than the general population—depending on how you measure belief. Scientists may be more likely to become scientists because of their religious views, but there is little evidence to support the assumption that adopting a “rational” occupation equates to a faith in rationality in all areas of life.

Carson may be an outlier in many ways—but being religious while being a physician isn’t one of them. Neither is he odd for being inconsistent in his selective application of rationality. That’s human.

What Carson lacks is the artifice necessary to elide those distinctions in ways that make the general public comfortable. From my own political perspective, he is also outright wrong on many things—but he isn’t an aberration. I think almost everyone running is outright wrong on many things. But as for being smart and stupid, the problem isn’t Carson but a public that thinks of those as discrete categories, without recognizing the ways in which they simply reflect back at what it values.