Ben Carson is having a very bad news day today. Politico is reporting that Carson has now admitted that a story he told in his autobiography “Gifted Hands” and again in his book “You Have a Brain” was false in one major detail. He wrote that as an excellent ROTC student in high school he met General William Westmoreland, and later, presumably because he had so impressed Westmoreland, “I was offered a full scholarship to West Point.”
After being confronted with the fact that no record exists of him applying to West Point, Carson’s campaign admitted that he made up that part of the story.
Before we proceed, I want to point out what someone should have told Carson about this a long time ago: There is no such thing as a “full scholarship” to West Point, because the young men and women who go to West Point pay no tuition, nor do they pay room and board. In any case, I’m going to argue that this particular fabrication isn’t all that important to assessing Carson’s fitness for the presidency.
The reason this is happening now is obvious: Carson is reaping the reward of his success, which is an uncomfortable trip to the campaign microscope, courtesy of both the press and his opponents. More reporters are coming to his events, the questions are getting tougher and more insistent, his past writings and statements are being carefully examined, everyone who knew him since he was a babe in arms is getting interviewed, and from where he sits the whole thing probably seems terribly unfair.
But it isn’t. Not only is it just what every seriously contending candidate gets, when it comes to Ben Carson we almost have no choice but to focus on his life story and the colorful things he says and believes. So even before the West Point story, coverage of Carson was already consumed with questions about whether he stabbed a guy when he was 14, his theory about the pyramids, and his wildly inaccurate beliefs about things like Medicare fraud.
I’m a longtime critic of the personality coverage that takes up so much of the campaign, not because we don’t want to know who the “real” person is behind the persona of a presidential candidate, but because we in the media so often ask the wrong questions when we take on this task. The problem is that the moment we set out on this voyage of discovery, we forget the whole point of the exercise, which is to get the best understanding we can of what this person would be like if they were to become president.
For instance, let’s take the stabbing story. Carson wrote in his autobiography that before he found God as a teenager he was an angry and violent teen, as evidenced by the fact that he once tried to stab someone, whom he now says was a relative. CNN did a story interviewing a number of people who knew him as a youth, and they say that he wasn’t the hellion he describes, but was actually a perfectly nice kid. Carson is angrily denying the allegation that he was not in fact a danger to those around him.
It should be noted that among the evangelical Christians who form the base of Carson’s support, redemption narratives are extremely powerful — the lower down you were the better, before God raised you up. The depth of the hole you had to climb out of is yet more evidence of God’s power. But the question about this is, who cares? Let’s imagine the worst, that Carson made this whole thing up. What exactly would that tell us about what sort of president he might be? The answer is, basically nothing.
Don’t tell me, “It matters because it speaks to his honesty.” Honesty does matter, but the way you figure out whether a president will be honest about the things he does as president is to see what he’s saying about the things he’d do as president. When he was a candidate, we learned that Bill Clinton had affairs and covered them up, and what did that teach us? That as president, he’d have an affair and cover it up — not that he’d lie about other things. George W. Bush presented himself as brimming with personal integrity, all while telling one lie after another about his record in Texas and the the policies he was proposing (while the press was poring over his opponent’s every word with Talmudic care to see if they could catch him in a misstatement). Lo and behold, as president he was faithful to his wife, but deceived the country about all kinds of important policy matters.
So yes, it now appears that Carson embellished his life story a bit to make his autobiography a more compelling read. Saying that he’s hardly the first prominent figure to have done that is not to forgive him, but there are more important things to consider.
Now stay with me while I argue that Ben Carson’s views on the provenance of the pyramids actually do matter. Carson maintains that unlike “all the archeologists” who say that the pyramids were built by the pharaohs to be their tombs, he believes that the biblical figure Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. There is precisely zero evidence for this belief.
This is hardly the only matter about which Carson says all the scientists are wrong. He thinks that the theory of evolution was born when Satan encouraged Charles Darwin to devise it; all the copious evidence for evolution is meaningless. Carson also says that he once stumped a “well-known physicist” by asking him how the organization of the solar system could be compatible with the second law of thermodynamics, which states that systems tend to move toward entropy. Carson is either lying about this or wildly misinterpreted the conversation he had, because there’s no contradiction between the two, and there isn’t a physicist on earth who would tell you that the solar system proves that God’s hand was at work. But people who learn only a tiny bit about certain scientific ideas often become convinced that they’ve happened upon a striking new revelation that all the so-called experts have never considered before.
So what does this have to do with what Carson might be like as president? When George W. Bush said he was “the decider,” he was describing accurately a large part of the job. Every day, the president’s aides bring him decisions he has to make, decisions that are often complex and uncertain. He has to weigh different kinds of evidence and make predictions about the future. People who know more than him about a particular topic — the economics of the labor market, the internal politics of Iran, the health effects of power-plant emissions — will offer him their advice based on their expertise, and he’ll have to integrate their perspective with other considerations that might come into play in a particular policy decision.
Ben Carson’s ideas about things like the pyramids, combined with what he has said about other more immediate topics, suggest not only that his beliefs are impervious to evidence but also an alarming lack of what we might call epistemological modesty. It isn’t what he doesn’t know that’s the problem, it’s what he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know. He thinks that all the archeologists who have examined the pyramids just don’t know what they’re talking about, because Joseph had to put all that grain somewhere. He thinks that after reading something about the second law of thermodynamics, he knows more about the solar system than the world’s physicists do. He thinks that after hearing a Glenn Beck rant about the evils of Islam, he knows as much about a 1,400-year-old religion as any theologian and can confidently say why no Muslim who doesn’t renounce his faith could be president.
So what happens when President Carson gets what he thinks is a great idea, and a bunch of “experts” tell him it would actually be a disaster? What’s he going to do?
This is a more acute question with Carson than with any other candidate, because he has no political record we can examine to see how he might perform. The policy ideas he has put forward range between the impossibly vague and the utterly outlandish. Even more so than Donald Trump, who has at least managed a large organization, Carson offers only himself — his heart, his spirit, his soul — as the reason why America should elect him president. In assessing him we have no choice but to look at the man, because there’s nothing else. Some parts of his personal story are irrelevant to that assessment, but some parts aren’t. And it’s those that should really give us pause.